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A river of emotion: Exploring the combination of sense of place theory and the ecosystem service concept

Nile, Yangtze or Rhine – rivers have always had a significant role in human history. River landscapes are complex social-ecological systems, serving as hotspots for biodiversity and certain cultural ecosystem services (CES). Nowadays, river landscapes face changes both impacting biodiversity as well as human lives. People perceive these changes differently – but there are hardly any assessments dealing with people’s emotional connections to river landscapes. Gottwald et al. (2022) propose a combination of senses of place theory and ecosystem services concept to combat this research gap. Senses of place (SOP) are the meanings and attachments people ascribe to places. Place attachments reflect the emotional connections to a place which can be evaluated based on the intensity (low to strong) or dimension (place identity and dependence). Place meanings provide the reasons for these connections. A spatial assessment of SOP has proven difficult, but a relational value approach as applied with CES could help spatially analyze people-place relationships.

In their new paper, Gottwald et al. examine people-place relationships in the river Lahn landscape by integrating both concepts. The study area is located in central western Germany, focusing on a 140 km long stretch in the federal state of Hessen. The landscape consists of medium- and small-sized settlements, grasslands, agricultural fields, and forests.
The authors conducted a survey wherein 275 participants located up to three meaningful places on a map, attributing place meanings and attachments: Participants described their place meanings in an open question. Additionally, they chose from nine CESs (aesthetic appreciation, cultural heritage, local history and culture, nature experience and education, spiritual services, inspiration, biodiversity, natural significance, social relations, and recreation) to describe a place’s meaningfulness. To assess place attachments, Gottwald et al. used a 5-point Likert scale with nine statements that represent dimensions of place dependence (for example, “This place is the best for what I like to do”) and identity (for example, “I identify strongly with this place”).

Spatial distribution of meaningful places within the study area (left) and close up of a central location within the study area displaying distribution of meaningful places and home locations (Gottwald et al. 2022)

Additionally, Gottwald et al. point out that the creation of SOP and perception of ecosystem services is dependent on personal attributes, such as sociodemographic characteristics or environmental attitudes, and biophysical characteristics of the environment. Therefore, the authors examine how the physical environment and socioeconomic variables influence meanings and attachments to meaningful places. They collected data on respondents’ local knowledge and attitudes toward the environment, and described the physical landscape via different land use types, protection status, green space, and distance from the river.

The study highlighted the importance of the specific reasons why people form relationships with places, hence the place meanings. The study revealed that place meaning assessments can help understand the relations between SOP and biophysical and socioeconomic variables. For example, green spaces such as forests or grasslands were positively related to meanings associated with nature and negatively related to cultural heritage or social relations. Urban land uses on the other hand revealed an overrepresentation of meanings related to cultural heritage, spiritual values, and social relations. Participants of the survey were more strongly attached to meaningful places within settlements than green spaces, but the authors could not find any significant relation. Meanwhile, some place attachments differed significantly among the different types of meanings, being stronger for relationship-related meanings, such as everyday life and recreation, and weaker for meanings related to forms such as settlements, rivers, or nature. This illustrates that place meanings can act as a mediator between place attachments and the physical environment.
Gottwald et al. could not confirm any significant relations between personal attributes and place attachments, nor between simple socioeconomic characteristics and place meanings. Therefore, they stress that SOP is a process of place characteristics and individual attributes, the latter entailing complex characteristics and preferences like local knowledge or environmental citizenship, rather than simple traits like gender or age.

While many conceptualizations and empirical studies understand senses of place as one CES, this study offered a turn of perspectives, understanding SOP as the overarching concept and using CES to assess place meanings. While the CES concept is able to provide a variety of meanings reflected in the free-listed meaning types, effectively covering instrumental meanings, it fails to do so regarding relational values. Gottwald et al. stress the need to include these omitted meanings in future research, as the type of meaning matters greatly in understanding the character of a meaningful place and in turn, people-place relationships. Therefore, using ‘senses of place’ as a CES in one single item runs the risk of missing the full complexity of human-nature relationships. Using SOP as an overarching frame in which CES are used as place meanings can combat this issue, and can provide theoretical depth to the concept of relational values linked to the ecosystem service concept.

For more details on this study, check out the paper here.

If you’re interested in how to combine sense of place with mobilities, check out our next session of “SES: A Global Conversation” & register here!


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