Skip to Main Content

The Science of Place Attachment 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

What does it mean to truly feel at home in your city or town? Have you moved
from place to place, town to town, in search of that feeling? And what might a municipality do to provide it?

“I think there are a lot of ramifications for municipal government,” says Melody Warnick, a freelance journalist whose latest book, “This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live,” lays out extensive facts, figures and ideas about why people choose to settle in or abandon certain locales.

Warnick appeared on a recent episode of Municipal Equation – the League’s
podcast on the challenges, successes and new concepts orbiting municipalities
– to talk about the science of “place attachment.”

She’s no stranger to that search for home, for the right city. Her trajectory
has covered five states in 13 years, with each move for good reason – school,
family, jobs – but never creating any strong local connection.

Warnick said her family “always had the sense of there’s something better out
there for us, that there’s a better town around the corner, and if we can just find that place, that perfect Shangri-La for our family, that things will be better in our lives.”

But her expectations were disappointed again upon Warnick’s move to another city in Virginia four years ago, creating a “breaking point” that brought her to research how she – or anyone – can be happy and locally loyal wherever they are, right now.

It was a terribly under-studied topic, she found, even as Americans average 12 moves in a lifetime. “I couldn’t find a book in the library that was about moving or about finding the right place for you or anything like that,” she said. Churning through troves of scientific studies on residential habits, Warnick began to build a profile of transient America.

With so much buy-in of local government – as also documented in a public opinion poll that the League released in 2015, finding 75 percent voter approval of municipal government performance – municipalities have great opportunity related to how “malleable” cities really are with more citizen involvement, Warnick suggests.

She sees interest and investments in downtown revitalization and the accommodation of residents’ growing interest in non-vehicular mobility among
important steps in allure.

Municipalities across North Carolina are pursuing, if they haven’t already achieved, these improvements with revitalized downtowns made possible by strong local government interest, tax credits like those offered for historic rehabilitation projects, and private backing that comes with such intentionality.

Warnick says these values are hardening into modern city-hall mentalities. “One of the things that we’re seeing is increased interest in urban design and placemaking,” she observed. “City governments are rethinking how they prioritize and plan and budget.”

The goal from there is better citizen engagement, so residents can truly help
to shape the town’s appearance and services, she says. Impressing upon
residents the relative ease with which that can be accomplished is key, and that key requires some understanding of what people value at “home.”

Citing a 2010 Knight Foundation study, “Soul of the Community,” conducted over several years in 26 communities across the U.S., Warnick reported that enduring connections between residents and cities – beyond how residents perceive public safety, leadership and services – often require aesthetics, social offerings and openness.

“I would love to see people become caretakers of their place. I think people who work for municipal governments are already doing this. But I think there are ways to engage residents to give them some freedom over making their places better,” Warnick said. “And as people start doing that, as they start cherishing where they live, they not only become more content in their towns, but they make their towns better places to live.”

She added: “I think if you work for city government, focusing on those things – social offerings, aesthetics, and openness – can really change the way the city works and how well people like it. And when your residents are happy to live in a place, they become ambassadors for it. They talk it up. And they’re proud of their place. And that draws new residents and new businesses and that becomes a very happy cycle.”

More information about Warnick and her research is at melodywarnick.com.

Find an audio interview with Warnick on the Municipal Equation podcast at nclm.org or at soundcloud.com/municipalequation.