Research Summary

Natural area visitors' place meaning and place attachment ascribed to a marine setting

Place Meanings Tied to Place Attachment

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Recreational visitors represent an important stakeholder group to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) in terms of their sheer magnitude and economic contribution. As such, their attitudes toward the natural environment offer potential insight into the meanings associated with place.

Two terms—place meaning and place attachment—are commonly used to understand how and why individuals value and feel connection with natural settings. Although many previous studies have treated these terms independently, this study examines the association between the two in an attempt to understand why resources are meaningful to visitors.

The study’s authors first reviewed place-related literature. They define place meanings as the “affective, cognitive, and behavior aspects of the relationship between the individual and a setting.” Place meanings qualitatively describe why people develop a bond with a setting. Place attachment, on the other hand, quantitatively captures the degree to which visitors identify with or value the natural resource; it is the “emotional intensity of the human-place bond.” Both terms are social constructions that usually reflect the lived experiences and social interactions that occur in the setting.

The authors used a mixed-method design of interviews to measure place meaning (this occurred in Phase I) and questionnaires to measure place attachment (this occurred in Phase II). They used two sample groups, one consisting of 20 key informants who worked professionally with a group of tourist industry representatives and resource managers associated with the GBRMP and the other consisting of 727 respondents living adjacent to the GBRMP. Both groups were also recreational visitors.

In Phase I of the investigation, the 20 key informants were interviewed in a semi-structured format about their emotional attachment and personal connection to the GBRMP. Transcripts and field notes from these narratives were coded to reveal 34 unique ideas, which were then grouped into 10 broad themes about place meaning importance. The authors rated the themes on a 5-point scale, with 1 indicating only slight importance and 5 indicating extreme importance. The two themes rated with the greatest importance were “aesthetic beauty” and “unique natural resource,” and the theme with the lowest rating was “connection to the natural world.”

Based on the 34 unique ideas and 10 place meaning themes that emerged from Phase I, the authors designed a survey instrument for Phase II. They used two scales to establish a link between context (the place meaning scale) and intensity of attachment (the place attachment scale). The authors measured the association between place meaning and place attachment.

Their findings indicated that certain place meaning themes were correlated with the level of place attachment. Respondents in the “high attachment” category, for example, were more likely to indicate the place meaning theme “lack of built infrastructure/pristine environment” in their description of place. The authors also believe that the people who enjoy recreational activities that require wild settings such as those the GBRMP provides are more likely to recreate there. As a result of recreating there, those park users experience higher levels of attachment to the GBRMP.

The Bottom Line

This study helps shed light on why natural settings are meaningful to recreational visitors. The findings suggest that people can become more attached to a place when it’s the setting for the outdoor activities they enjoy. Aesthetic beauty, on the other hand, is not as significant in developing place attachment, because even those who are not attached to a place can note its aesthetic beauty. These results seem to suggest that offering recreational opportunities in natural settings can help increase people’s attachments to those settings. But this strategy is only beneficial among people with an interest in outdoor recreation.