The Emergence of Place Attachment

A Review of Melody's Warnick's "This is Where You Belong"
Stephen Assink

Ever since our country was founded, moving has been in our collective DNA. Every year, 30 million Americans move, and we do so for all kinds of reasons—to get an education, to be closer to (or farther from) family, to be nearer to cultural amenities, and (most often) for a job. And although economists laud our incessant mobility as good for national prosperity, critics are increasingly worried about our apparent inability to be in place.

Rather than lament our national restlessness, Melody Warnick sets out to help nomads like herself in her new book, This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live. The wife of an itinerant professor, Warnick has certainly contributed to the statistics on moving herself—her recent move to Blacksburg, VA was number six for her family. But instead of succumbing to loneliness and fatigue, as can be the case with any new move to an unknown place, Warnick decides to not just to get to know her community but to learn how to care for it.

Through stories and personal narratives, Warnick invites the reader along into discovering the myriad ways of becoming more rooted in our places. From walking and buying local to creative placemaking practices, Warnick offers advice on ten activities for fertilizing our geographical roots. Throughout each chapter, she distills a wealth of research and provides advice for anyone keen on making their places more livable—and by extension, more lovable. Her prose and personable humor make her book both accessible and delightful, all the while pushing the reader to think differently about how they can engage their cities and communities.

At the heart of Warnick’s book is the emerging idea of place attachment. According to Warnick, “place attachment exists partly as emotion and partly as a pattern of thought.” It is the state we feel when we are most at home in our cities and neighborhoods. Place attachment is linked to a wide range of positive outcomes. For instance, people who feel connected to their communities live longer, stay healthier, and volunteer more. Place attachment also facilitates behaviors that are equally beneficial to our communities. Here, Warnick cites one study by researchers in Salt Lake City who argue that purchasing 10 percent from local businesses would add additional $500 million in revenue to the city.

Importantly, place attachment is more than mere sentimentality. It is a formative disposition that motivates us to care for our places and for our neighbors. For example, studies show the importance of neighborhood networks and attachments in fostering social cohesion, collective efficacy, and community safety. At the same time, people who feel connected to their places are also more likely to advocate for the protection of local natural resources. Yet, Warnick’s actions and desires to better her place were never without particular challenges and obstacles—time, money, fear—can all contribute to withdrawal or apathy. Even the physical design of a city can impede basic sociality, as Warnick’s neighborhood did not have important avenues, like sidewalks, for meeting and interacting with one’s neighbors and place.

Warnick’s book adds to a growing conversation among urbanists around ideas like place-making, livability, and quality of life. A common thread uniting these voices is the significance of the lived experience in cities, where the daily realities of life in a place can profoundly inhibit or animate the texture and possibility of human thriving.

Of course, concerns over the quality of life in cities is not a new thing. Ever since industrial cities became a prominent mode of human settlement, critics have worried about the pernicious effects of city life. Reformers in the nineteenth century sought to curb the perceived moral degeneracy of urban life, while Progressives in the early twentieth century focused on the health effects of industrial pollution, housing slums, and the prevalence of poverty in cities at that time.

Yet at the onset of the Great Depression, economic growth quickly became the guiding logic of the American city. With the economy faltering and poverty accelerating, the state apparatus shifted its focus toward controlled growth and employment. After WWII, economic growth solidified the meaning and mode of the urban political economy. Although cities have long sought to entice businesses and educated workers to their borders, the burgeoning consumer economy of 1940s drastically transformed both the urban landscape and developmental priorities.

Girded by economic statistics as well as a declining tax base, municipal governments often prioritized economic growth over other social concerns through massive infrastructure and land use investments. As a result, mass suburbia, urban highways, and urban renewal dramatically changed American cities. Development sprawled and populations dispersed into homogenized enclaves. At the same time, modernist ideals of transport flows and standardization sterilized urban diversity through bland architectural forms, single-use zoning, and car-centric development.

However, even with the ascendency of economic growth as primary logic, critics were quick to point out the limits of commercial development (a topic Thriving Cities has explored). Within contentious and unequal geographies like the twentieth century American city, other concerns like race, poverty, inequality, and safety became significant areas of focus for policymakers. And in the 1990s, cities began seeing widespread interest in environmental sustainability as an attempt to contextualize economic development within ecological realities.

Today, there are many voices—public health experts, new urbanists, criminal justice reformers, and others—contending for political and cultural legitimacy within our metropolitan centers. Warnick’s book adds to these discourses by capturing an important truth often ignored or assumed by many of these voices: any attempt at meaningful change in a community needs citizens who care for that community. Enabling those local affections involves hard work from individuals, locally embedded institutions, a built environment scaled to people, and community-focused habits and practices. Though Warnick’s account focuses primarily on the individual, it’s well worth the read for any city leader or urbanist who wants to cultivate place-attached citizens rather than transient consumers.