Drawing credit: Eric Rajala.

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From one’s own backyard or local park to a 5,000-acre ranch or national park, people develop connections to natural places based on the characteristics of the setting, how they interact with it, and the ways the setting makes them feel about themselves. Each place has a unique collection of qualities that generate meaning for a location which can make it worth caring about. This connection influences how people react when those meanings are challenged when social change, like economic development, or biophysical change, like rising sea levels, occurs. This concept, sense of place, is important for understanding what leads people to adapt to changing social and environmental conditions.    

Our research focuses on a new approach to make the sense of place concept more relevant to a greater diversity of people and their perspectives across a landscape. Our meaning-dependence framework considers both the meanings a person holds for a place and their dependence on a place to provide each meaning. We focused on private landowners in the Southern Great Plains of the United States, a working landscape experiencing ecological transformation from grasslands to degraded woodlands. Based on over 500 survey responses from landowners, we found that our novel approach worked well in explaining why landowners feel connected to their land.

Landowners held many important meanings for their land, but the belief that their land represented their way of life emerged as a central meaning to understand sense of place. Other dominant meanings related to landowners’ individual experiences and personal psychological connections to their land, rather than the ways they use it. Our research, therefore, shows that person-place connections are inherently complex, challenging reductive thinking such as, all ‘ranchers’ have the same connection, and will respond uniformly to transformation in their communities and on their land.

Improved understanding of people’s sense of place allows for more thorough engagement with people in natural resource management and policy-making processes. Our work provides a template to account for the diversity and complexity of sense of place, in turn, enhancing the capacity of this concept to contribute to social-ecological research.