toggle menu

Edinburgh World Heritage/Our Heritage/Place attachment | Connecting emotionally to your heritage

Place attachment | Connecting emotionally to your heritage

23rd August 2019

Rebecca Leary

You can probably think of somewhere in your neighbourhood or your city that you feel emotionally attached to. This feeling is referred to as place attachment in academic studies. Attachment to certain places is human nature but often not palpable unless it is threatened. The demolition of a historic building or the redevelopment of a historic place which people feel attached to is an example of this.

Research shows that disrupting place attachment has a negative impact on people’s psychological well-being and the health of their communities. Place attachment can therefore motivate people’s engagement in civic actions to protect beloved places from being destroyed. However, the heritage sector has made only limited attempts to understand more about the emotional value of historic places, and about how place attachment might influence participation in civic affairs. It is on this ‘missing dimension’ of conservation that my PhD research focuses on.

In this blog, I want to share some ideas emerging from this research project, in which I am looking at residents’ emotional attachment to historic places in Edinburgh.

There are many reasons why we need to look beyond the celebrated listed buildings and the city’s World Heritage status to appreciate the everyday emotional values shared by ordinary Edinburgh citizens. The most straightforward reason is that it’s more inclusive. To assess the special architectural and historic interest or the Outstanding Universal Value requires expertise, whereas talking about place attachment allows people from all backgrounds to be involved.

Next, there are historic places of emotional significance which should not be disregarded in local development and planning, though they may not meet the criteria of a listed building or conservation area designation. For instance, the Save Leith Walk campaign in Edinburgh is fighting against the demolition of a historic two-storey sandstone block, not on the grounds of its architectural merits (it is not a listed building), but because it is a well-loved place to shop, work and socialise. Knowing which historic buildings are well loved would allow planners and project instigators to propose changes that can enhance (rather than threaten and disrupt) place attachment.

Even if a disruption has already happened, like in the case of Save Leith Walk, considering the emotional attachment to historic places could open a constructive dialogue between the various publics, the decision makers and the developers on working out a positive solution.

However, it is difficult to capture which places are important and sometimes words do not do the strength of feeling justice. In this regard, I have developed an EGIS (Emotional Geographic Information System) which maps people’s attachment to historic places geographically. The EGIS is built upon spatial analyses of place attachment data collected via a map-based survey. The survey was circulated among local civic associations in Edinburgh and the Lost Edinburgh Group on Facebook, to which I would like to express my gratitude for their generous assistance. The technique has worked well to help us to identify those places of significance that may have been overlooked before and those communities of higher levels of attachment.

The map below is an example of the EGIS deliverables which reveals the historic places (including buildings, streets, squares, gardens, etc) of emotional significance. The points coloured in yellow highlights people’s attached places that go beyond the conservation designation.

I am currently analysing the data from both the quantitative mapping exercises and some follow-up interviews with people who filled out the questionnaire and hope to be able to present some findings soon. If you are interested in my research topic, feel free to drop me an email leaving your comments. Or, if you are happy to share your emotional attachments to Edinburgh’s historic environment with me, I would love to chat to you.

Yang Wang is a PhD student in Urban Studies, School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. His PhD study is funded by the Urban Studies Foundation and the University of Glasgow. You can contact him on the details below.

Yang Wang, Room 234, Level 2, Urban Studies

25-29 Bute Gardens, G12 8RS, Glasgow

Sign up to our newsletter

Get the latest updates on our work in the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage site, plus news, events and exclusive offers.