Place Attachment In Adolescence



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Place Attachment In Adolescence


Lorenza Dallago*, Michela Lenzi*, Douglas D. Perkins**, Massimo Santinello*

In Roger J.R. Levesque (Ed.)(2012), Encyclopedia of Adolescence, New Dehli: Springer.

*Department of Social and Developmental Psychology – University of Padova

Padova – Italy lorenza.dallago@alice.it

** Center for Community Studies, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA

Key words

Place attachment, adolescents, definition and measurement problems, physical space/environmental cognitions, person-place emotional bonds, intervention to increase place attachment and opportunities



Overview (an overview paragraph of the topic)

The concept of attachment in psychology, particularly in child and adolescent development, usually refers to theories and studies by Bowlby (1969) and others on emotional attachments to parents in early childhood and to peers and other relevant people in later childhood and adolescence. This essay will present a different form of attachment: attachment to places. Focusing on non-social and non-mutual attachments may seem to contrast with Bowlby’s concept, but it can be considered an extension of it: although no one can deny the importance of the bond with a primary caregiver, one develops different forms of attachments during ones’ lifetime-- with people, groups, places, objects-- which are also important. The importance of place attachment, especially during adolescence, a key developmental period for formation of both identity and attachments beyond the immediate family, is in line with the new frontiers of developmental psychology, which aim to understand the ecological impact of different contexts, not only proximal and dyadic, but also distal and at higher levels of analysis, on youth’s development and wellbeing. After introducing the main definitions and some controversial measurement issues, the essay will present key findings in adolescent research and some ideas for intervention.



Main essay text

When adolescents are asked to speak about their neighborhood, they name aspects such as places to socialize and have fun, having friends in the neighborhood, perceived social support, safety, opportunities for activities in the local area, cohesive relations among neighbors: these aspects can be seen as the root of place attachment during adolescence, the essence of the emotional bond developed to the neighborhood (Manzo & Perkins, 2006; Chipuer, Pretty, Delorey, Miller, Powers, Rumstein et al, 1999; Whitlock & Powers, 2008).

The more youths perceive opportunities to spend time in their local community doing interesting and fun activities, the more they feel a sense of attachment to their neighborhood and create social ties with peers in that context. But activities and friendships are not enough to explain this complex issue: young people feel a stronger self-described bond to place in contexts in which they experience voice and resonance, some power and influence, and adequate adult support and challenge (Evans, 2007).

Neighborhoods can be good or bad, an asset or liability for healthy child rearing. But even communities with the lowest social indicators usually have places where children can feel safe, explore, learn, and gain social, or at least self-, acceptance and confidence. Whether in their own home or elsewhere in their neighborhood, these become favorite places in early to middle adolescence and the attachments formed to those places are critical for their identity defining, restorative, and self-esteem and coherence-regulating properties (Korpela, 1989; Korpela, Hartig, Kaiser & Fuhrer, 2001).

Thus place attachment is a major resource for youth development (Leffert, Benson, Scales, Sharma, Drake, & Blyth, 1998). Residential neighborhoods and communities become more relevant for adolescents, who tend to spend most of their time in their own neighborhood, with peers, or in nearby schools, recreation facilities, libraries, and houses of worship. This process starts in early adolescence, when there is an increase of direct, frequent and unsupervised exposure to neighborhood settings and conditions and direct contacts with neighborhood members (Dallago, Perkins, Santinello, Boyce, Molcho & Morgan, 2009).

THE CONCEPT

Similar to attachments to people, particularly mothers (Bowlby, 1969), the concept of place attachment is based on strong emotional bonds that develop over time. Both kinds of attachments are also closely intertwined as adolescents are attached to the places where they interact with people they like and to the people in places that make them feel good. Place attachment differs and is complementary to connections with people, however, because it is often subconscious and therefore taken for granted, and it implies a sense of, respect for, and belonging in a physical space, which may be empty of people and that solitude may even be its attraction. Thus, place attachment is especially important for adolescents who, for various reasons, may not have the benefit of strong social attachments. Yet regardless of one’s social attachments, from an ecological perspective, understanding the nature of adolescents’ relationships to places is critical to understanding their wellbeing and development.

Theories of place attachment are rooted in many different disciplines: sociologists focus on symbolic meanings of settings to understand their influence on human interactions and develop a rich understanding of community development; anthropologists seek to understand the cultural significance of places in everyday life; human geographers have explored the concept of “sense of place”; environmental psychology has brought person-place cognitions, emotions and behaviors to light and have focused on place identity (Proshansky, Fabian & Kaminoff, 1983; Twigger-Ross & Uzzell, 1996) as well as attachment (Altman & Low, 1992). Community psychology and even more applied fields, such as community development and urban planning have also shown considerable interest in the concept of place attachment (Dallago et al., 2009; Manzo & Perkins, 2006; Vaske & Kobrin, 2001).

For all those disciplines, place attachment represents an emotional or affective bond between a person and a particular place. The most known and used definition is the one proposed by Altman and Low that stated that place attachment is the deep emotional bond or connection that people develop toward specific places over time via repeated positive interactions (1992). Other authors added some other aspects.

Brown and Perkins (1992, p. 284) stated that “Place attachment involves positively experienced bonds, sometime occurring without awareness, that are developed over time from the behavioral, affective and cognitive ties between individuals and/or groups and their socio-physical environment. These bonds provide a framework for both individual and community aspects of identity and have both stabilizing and dynamic features. The environments may include homes or communities, places that are important and directly experienced but which may not have easily specified boundaries... Transformations in place attachment occur whenever the people, places or psychological processes change over time.” For these authors place attachment is the behavioral, cognitive and emotional embeddedness that individuals experience in their environment and that is relevant for the meaning of everyday lives. They consider it a holistic, multifaceted concept that includes several levels of environmental scale. Recently, Scannell and Gifford (2010), connecting the main definitions of the literature, provided an integrative and inclusive framework for place attachment: the person–process–place model. According to these scholars, the person dimension of place attachment refers to its individually or collectively determined meanings; the process dimension includes the affective, cognitive, and behavioral functions of attachment; the place dimension emphasizes the place characteristics of attachment, including social and physical elements.

Borrowing from attachment theory, Fried (2000) maintained that attachment to a community can be understood in terms the deeper meaning of experiencing close, local relationships with people and, by extension, to places of relational interaction. Place can be regarded as a salient category of social identity, with place identity and place attachment acting as the basis for a sense of territorial belonging (Manzo, 2003, 2005; Pretty, Chipuer, & Bramston, 2003). Similarly, pointing out a lack of a developmental theory of place attachment, Morgan (2010) has offered a theoretical model of the process in which it emerges from childhood place experiences. Integrating interpersonal attachment and place attachment theory, this model posits that a pattern of positive affect experiences of place during childhood are generalized into an unconscious internal working model of place, which manifests subjectively as a long-term emotional bond to place, known as place attachment.

MEASUREMENT ISSUES

Despite consensus on the definition and the relevance of the concept, the literature shows a deep measurement controversy: this is mostly due to the lack of clarity over place attachment’s boundaries, and to the presence of similar terms and overlapping concepts.

There is considerable undifferentiated meaning between place attachment and other terms often used as synonymous (such as emotional bonds, affiliation, behavioral commitment, satisfaction, rootedness, membership and belonging) which are sometime loosely associated in theoretical descriptions as peculiar aspects of a more general concept (Pretty et al., 2003). Furthermore literature shows a big overlap between place attachment and other concepts: place identity, sense of community, local bonding, value of community places, social capital, social cohesion, community support. For example, emotional ties and affiliation with place are sometimes defined as aspects of identity, whereas other times these same factors are used to define attachment.

Some studies consider these sense of place indicators as significantly related to each other, without defining or explicating the specific association, some others measure them as distinct concepts, some others as different aspects, antecedents or results of a common comprehensive concept (Pretty et al., 2003; Manzo & Perkins, 2006).

The theoretical quagmire reflected in this blurring of conceptual boundaries is also evident in the lack of precision of the operational definitions that are used to study this concept: sometimes it is measured by one question (“This area/neighborhood/town/my home…is a nice place to live”; “If I had to leave this place, I would feel…”), sometimes with short survey scales or subscales of more general measures (e.g., The Neighborhood Cohesion Instrument, the Neighborhood Adolescence Inventory, the Perceived Residential Environment Quality), sometimes with measures conceived for different concepts (e.g., sense of community, place identity, place dependence; Vaske & Kobrin, 2001; Pretty et al., 2003).

As suggested by the first sample item above, a further measurement complication is that the scale of place can vary widely from a single room or even a cramped, favorite hiding place to attachment to one’s country and every level in between. A related problem is that while place attachment is usually analyzed at the individual level as a person’s emotional and behavioral commitment to a place, the degree to which users or residents of the same place or community share a similar experience of, or attachment to, that place, it may also be aggregated as a collective phenomenon (Brown, Perkins & Brown, 2003; Long & Perkins, 2007), but this is more common among researchers who are focusing on the social, rather than physical, place and they are more likely to refer to social cohesion, collective efficacy, or group sense of community (Manzo & Perkins, 2006).

Although less considered, the political aspects of place and place attachments are relevant and are illustrated in communities that have been empowered or disempowered (often the same community experiences both simultaneously or in succession) in response to environmental problems (Edelstein, 2003). In such cases, place attachments can be used to foster a partnership approach as different parties find common interest in improving the neighborhood and citizens’ well-being. When residents are able to take control of the situation themselves and identify common interests and targets, they are more likely to be mobilized toward action and be empowered (Edelstein, 2003). Conversely, if emotional responses to place (in this case, particularly health- and property-related anxieties) are not acknowledged and understood, people can be divided and immobilized by their individual interests and anxieties (Brown & Perkins, 1992). Consequently, environmental and community psychology studies on the intersection of the politics of place and place attachments warrant further exploration: for the understanding of the political dimension of place attachment, it has to be measured both at individual and community level. This is a challenge that needs to be addressed.

It is also important to understand that place attachment measures should be sensible for age difference: adolescents may perceive community and places in quite different ways than adults. Therefore, tools used to assess place attachment need to reflect these differences, measuring the aspects, scale and specific locations of place that are salient in one’s developmental stage (Chipuer, et al., 1999).

CORRELATES AND MODELS

Many studies on the correlates of place attachment in adult populations link place attachment specifically to length of residence, but the bond developed to the place is also influenced by gender, race, ethnicity and class, by community clean-up and revitalization efforts, and by the capacity of the community to fulfill people’s needs (Manzo, 2003, 2005; Brown et al., 2003). These last effects seem to be circular: this is supported by recent research demonstrating that those who are more attached to their neighborhoods are more likely to invest their time and money into the neighborhood, interact more with neighbors and watch over their communities more. Such activities stem from, and also create, further social cohesion, no matter how diverse the community members might be (Brown et al., 2003). Furthermore, residents who are more attached to their community experience higher levels of social cohesion and social control and less fear of crime, while their neighborhoods have more outward signs of physical revitalization (Brown et al., 2003).

Most studies, following an asset-based perspective, describe place attachment as an essential ingredient in well-functioning communities and citizens. Although there are some studies that see it in a more critical and negative way (as fuel for community conflict, narrow-mindedness, inhibiting social or physical changes, a source of stress when one must move, limiting one’s ability to be objective or critical or to take advantage of opportunities; Manzo, 2005), most researchers agree on its positive effects on people’s wellbeing and quality of life, on safety and social cohesion, on cooperation and positive community actions (Pretty et al., 2003; Manzo & Perkins, 2006).

Along with measurement problems, a main weakness in place attachment literature is the prevalent focus on adults. As stated before, although only very few studies try to understand the role of place attachment during adolescence, it is believed that this is a big and relevant gap in the literature, and that future researches need to address and clarify this issue. Altman and Low (1992, p. 10) argue that “place attachment may contribute to the formation, maintenance, and preservation of the identity of a person, group, or culture.” If place attachment is relevant to identity formation, one must understand precisely how attachments to different kinds of places develop, and the effects of those attachments, during adolescence, a critical period for identity formation.

Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that neighborhood characteristics play a significant role in young people’s physical and psychosocial well-being (Youngblade & Curry, 2006), and may be a critical determinant particularly for economically disadvantaged youth (Kohen, Leventhal, Dahinten, & McIntosh, 2008): place attachment’s role in this relationships deserves more study.

Despite the measurement problems and scarcity of research on adolescent place attachment, what does one know about the topic? Young people develop attachments to both places where they can be alone as well as places that allow positive social interactions with peers. Adolescents’ emotional bonds to the neighborhood can promote the development of social competencies: in a study of Italian adolescents (Lenzi et al., under review) place attachment mediates the link between neighborhood opportunities (the availability of meeting places and activities) and prosocial behavior. Moreover, the benefits of place attachment on positive and pro-social behaviors were mediated by peer support. This can be seen as evidence of the strong relationship between different contexts and the connection and mutual influence between proximal and distal ones.

Besides the social, recreational restorative, and identity functions of place attachment, other relevant aspects are the opportunity for adolescents to influence the place itself (e.g., ameliorate it, facilitate fulfillment of needs) and to be heard and considered important citizens who can actively contribute to making that space-- and by extension, the community and world—a better place.

Furthermore Whitlock (2007) found that adults play an important role in youth’s place attachment: because adults often disrespect youth opinions and perspectives, youths receive few opportunities to contribute meaningfully beyond traditional service activities and are thus disinclined to build a positive bond to places where adults do not respect them or their ideas. Place attachment is therefore related to the feeling of being valued and respected by adults of one’s community, not only during participatory interventions but also in everyday life.

Another typical finding regarding youth place attachment is about gender and age. Some research states that place attachment appears to be even more important during middle adolescence (14-16 years old) than during early adolescence (11-13), or late (17-19) adolescence (Chipuer, Bramston & Pretty, 2003). Considering gender, usually girls are less satisfied and less bonded with place. Moreover for girls social engagement plays a central role in place attachment, while activities and facilities are more relevant for boys (Albanesi, 2007; Pretty et al., 2003; Hildago & Hernandez, 2001). Based on a study conducted in 13 European countries with 68,544 adolescents (see www.hbsc.org; Dallago et al., 2009) it was found that in general (F=64.901; p<0.001) and for most countries (apart from Belgium, Canada, Israel, Ireland) more boys showed higher place attachment than did girls. A consistent finding among all 13 countries regarded age: place attachment decreased with age in all of the countries in the study. In fact, 15-year-old students showed a lower place attachment than did 11- and 13-year-old students, both in general (F=435.872; p<0.001) and by country (Figure 1).

The role and the benefits of place attachment during adolescence have been examined by different authors: some consider it a resilience factor that fosters individual, group, and cultural self-esteem, self-worth, and self-pride. Others have associated it with feelings and perceptions of safety, health, wellbeing, social abilities and social competencies (Albanesi, 2007; Evans, 2007).

The benefits of place attachment during adolescence are not only individual: place attachment is assumed to be beneficial for the neighborhood too. Brown et al (2003) found that place attachments and sense of community play a significant role in neighborhood revitalization efforts, predicts future involvement and participation, civic activity, and environmentally responsible behaviors (Manzo, & Perkins, 2006; Dallago et al., 2009; Vaske & Kobrin, 2001).

Most of the studies on place attachment are based in the United States. The cross-national research on 15-year-old students in 13 countries (Dallago et al., 2009) found that youth in Scandinavian countries showed stronger place attachment while those in Eastern European and Baltic countries were less attached to place . Despite cultural and geographic differences, place attachment was linked to perceived safety. This relation was mediated by social capital, showing the strong connection between place attachment and social life during adolescence. Having found the same result in different counties makes this evidence even stronger.

RELATED ACTIONS

The above mediation effect with social capital confirms that place attachment is also relevant for civic engagement and participation in community service and social action (Manzo & Perkins, 2006). Affective bonds to places can help inspire action because people are motivated to seek, stay in, protect, and improve places that are meaningful to them (Brown et al., 2003), so that participation can be seen as a behavioral manifestation of place attachment.

During adolescence, even more than for adults, the reverse is true too: playing an active role in community development projects increases place attachment. Structured youth experiences that involve commitment of time and energy to a community resource (e.g., park, playground, plaza, recreation center) increase attachments to those resources which may lead adolescents to develop greater civic behavior and environmental responsibility in general (Vaske & Kobrin, 2001). From experience in youth councils and in interventions to increase youth empowerment, it was found that, after giving youth the opportunity to increase their knowledge about the place where they live and to express their concerns, ideas, and proposals to ameliorate it, the bond with the place grew, which in turn increased adolescents’ will to help improve it (Dallago, Cristini, Perkins, Nation, & Santinello, 2010).



Whitlock (2007) found that youth connection and attachment to community is influenced by: (a) the quality of their interactions with adults, “(b) availability of outlets for creative engagement, (c) well (publicized) opportunities for meaningful input, (d) safety, (e) (feeling) welcome in public spaces, (f) knowledge of community events, and (g) awareness of youth impact on community policies” (p. 499). The following recommendations by Whitlock and Powers (2008) for increasing youth place attachment and civic engagement are both sound and helpful:

  • Focus on creating opportunities for youth of all ages to be included and involved on as many levels as possible”. Youth have relevant opinions that can help ameliorate the contexts in which they live. Adults have to support young people to express their opinion, to offer opportunities for them to be heard and to base changes on youth’s need. This is central to the creation of a stable bond with places. Meaningful involvement can take many forms and operates at many levels (class, school, neighborhood, towns).

  • Diversify the range of opportunities for youth to participate in community life; opportunities need not and should not be solely related to areas directly affecting youth”. Usually youth are asked to express their opinion only for youth-related topics. It is important to note that they are citizens too and that they can give useful and new ideas for improving the community, and their ideas can be a useful complement to adults’ point of view. In Whitlock and Powers’ study young people expressed “interest in participating in ways that affect their community at large” (Whitlock & Powers, 2008, p. 14).

  • Work to create a ‘developmentally attentive culture’ in school and community by targeting attitude change among adults-- particularly those with regular but anonymous contact with youth such as police, business, and general community members... Simple exchanges with adults were evaluated by participants according to the respect, civility, and encouragement offered them… Simple exchanges with adults…were evaluated by participants according to the respect, civility, and encouragement offered them. It seems highly likely, however, that most adults have absolutely no idea how powerful these simple transactions can be.

  • Actively recruit high-risk and/or low academically achieving youth for involvement in school and community level leadership opportunities… (M)any of the youth invited to participate in opportunities to assume meaningful roles at the school or community level are those who are already support- and opportunity-rich. This only widens the gap…(and) underscores the need to provide all youth with access to school and community opportunities to effect change and make one's voice heard.

  • Create formal structures or forums for youth representatives to solicit input from their youth constituents” (Whitlock & Powers, 2008, p. 15). Having youth representatives in different governance bodies is a popular means of adding youth points of view in decision making. Creating stable structures for participation helps youth learn how to actively participate and to trust that their ideas will be considered and used.

  • Capitalize on the opportunities already provided to young people in schools by clearly advertising the roles youth play and the effects they have on school life” (Whitlock & Powers, 2008, p. 15). It is important not only to hear youth voices, but to create concrete actions out of their ideas. These actions have to be advertised both among youth, to show how powerful their participation can be, and among adults to show them the utility of involving youth.

An antecedent to all these steps, before asking adolescents to give their input, should be place knowledge: knowledge should not be taken for granted. Living in a place does not mean knowing or understanding the place. Intervention should start with activities designed to help youth to see, know and comprehend the place they are involved in. Knowledge should be gained actively, with means which young people enjoy (camera, drawings, interviews…). Discussions and proposals need to be based on this newly gained knowledge.

Whitlock and Powers’ (2008) found that youths “want to belong to their community and to their schools, to be endowed with meaningful rights and privileges, to be heard and adequately represented” (p. 15). Conversely in some of the interventions, young people display an ambivalent bond (a mix of identification and refusal) to their own city, which they perceive as offering no emotional reassurance, and they express their difficulty in finding a valid point of reference. This usually evolves into a will to leave the place. Yet it is often found that adolescents are not aware of their will to contribute to community life: some youth express surprise in finding they care and they want to have a say in their community. They realize, with the involvement in an intervention, that what they thought to be “adult’s business” is their business too, and that they have useful ideas to share and to realize. Furthermore, what before was considered in a critical way (“Parks here suck!!!”), can now be seen in a constructive way (“Parks suck but we can do something about it!”), understanding everyone’s role in taking care of public places and facilities or in creating opportunities for enjoyment. In short, they want to participate in deciding and in creating the environments that so deeply affect their development during a time in life in which they are especially receptive to learning how to be citizens in societies outside their homes.

FUTURE STEPS

Place attachment in adolescence is an understudied topic and so more research is needed. Considering the evidence on adult place attachment within environmental psychology, anthropology, geography and applied fields (cf. Altman & Low, 1992), however, future research and action need to address youth place attachment in a more interdisciplinary way. Transdisciplinary, collaborative work that takes an ecological perspective is difficult, time-consuming and requires openness, flexibility, and both disciplinary and personal humility. But all those disciplinary perspectives are needed, in close collaboration with expertise in adolescent development and intervention, in order to understand, promote, and take advantage of the complexities of place attachment across different populations and cohorts of youth in different cultures and communities

As suggested, linking place attachment to action is important since place attachment leads to participation, which in turn leads to empowerment. These effects of adolescent place attachment should be addressed more deeply and contextually, both in research and in programs for youth (Dallago et al., 2010; Whitlock, 2007, 2008).

To conclude, a final provocative question is proposed: is it still meaningful to talk, in this day and age, about place attachment? In an individualistic, virtual, and globalized world is it still worth focusing on the bond people develop to places, especially for young people?

The answer suggested by this essay is “yes.” Precisely because the world remains individualistic and is increasingly virtual and globalized, it is all the more reason one needs to focus on continued ties to, and influence by and on, local places. There is a natural tendency to take physical environmental influences on one’s emotions, behavior and wellbeing, including place attachments, for granted. Local places, and the people one loves and depends on in them, provide everyone with the rootedness that is needed to survive in an increasingly complex world. Place attachment can be today, more than ever, a relevant asset from where to start and positively face social changes.

At the same time, one can no longer think only about local places: the term place needs to be given a more general meaning. Especially if one considers youth, places can have a proximal, immediate and tangible meaning (neighborhood, school), a distal and past or occasional meaning (e.g., grandparents’ home or scenic natural places), and even a virtual one (internet, chat rooms, on-line social networks).

These are the new frontiers social scientists have to understand if they want to comprehend fully the concept of place attachment. Virtual places are more and more relevant in adolescent life, and recent evidence shows that on-line communities may be central to supporting the formation and maintenance of social capital in everyday life (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007), especially when life changes move people away from each other. In addition to helping youth, this use of technology could support a variety of populations, including community members of all ages. Thus, place, in all its forms, and one’s attachment to it, in all its complexity, require much deeper investigation.

References


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Whitlock, J., & Powers, J. (2008). Places to Be and to Belong: Youth Perceptions of Life in Community. The Prevention Researcher, 15(2), 12-15.

Figures

Figure 1: Place Attachment in 13 different countries divided by age and gender (where 1=high place attachment and 5= low place attachment)



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