Place and Identity: the view from environmental psychology

by Christopher Spencer

Environmental psychology is the branch of the academic study of psychology that relates people and places (“relates” in that it conceives of the relationship as working both ways: indeed the word transactions is often used, to remind us that, in Winston Churchill’s words, we shape our places, and they shape us). Within this area of research, one could broadly divide into three sub areas:

  • the perception of and attachment to places;
  • behaviour as shaped by places;
  • and the design and shaping of places.

All three aspects are relevant to our considerations in this e-book: how Sheffield is perceived, how the city is used, and how we may use this information to change and develop the city.

In this essay, we will first examine the phenomenon of attachment to place (and by implication, why being a Sheffielder might be related to personal identity and well-being). In doing this, we will consider what constitutes a place as opposed to just a space? Could we specify whether there are particular features which constitute placeness; and suggest that for many people, it is the combination of people/communities and particular places that are central. We will also consider place identity and a place’s image, which image may well differ whether we are talking to local inhabitants, visitors, exiles from the city, journalists and geographers. Could we, if we wished, shape and change the public image of the place?

Throughout, in discussing identities and Sheffield, we will place much emphasis on the new citizens: its children, as they develop their personal identities through their attachments to place. We will also report a study on the ease that minority group children feel in Sheffield’s public places and its minority groups

Attachment to place

1 Attachments in childhood: place identity, attachment and the child’s sense of personal identity

Place identity and attachment we argue contribute to a person’s sense of personal identity, and this must be particularly important in the middle years of childhood. Many of the pioneer studies of how children use their neighbourhoods have stressed this link: from Roger Hart’s children of the Vermont settlement he disguises as Inavale, through Robin Moore’s walks with children through their towns either side of the Atlantic, and Gunilla Torrell’s discussions with children in Gothenberg. (For references, see bibliography.)

Here in these studies, the focus has tended to be on the more immediate locale that the younger children are free to explore and colonise. But part of growing up is travelling further and more independently, such that for many children of ten and twelve in Britain, trips to the town or city centre with friends are beginning to define who one is, how one thinks of oneself, and how one can participate in the community’s activities.

We have been working with that age group across Britain, and have reported elsewhere (Woolley et al 1999, a and b) on how rich a source of ideas and stimulation children can find our existing town centres to be, even given the blandishments of out-of-town shopping malls. Our questionnaires and focus group discussions have also brought home quite what perceptive and indeed stern critics children can be: at the levels of design, aesthetics and maintenance.

The studies (funded by the ESRC) started with a questionnaire given to top primary and early secondary school pupils across the UK: in all, 1648 children in 21 towns and cities participated. We then were able to go beyond the confines of what one can discover from such survey data by running 91 discussion groups of four or five children in a subset of 13 of these towns: in all, 428 children from 21 schools took part in what proved to be lively and involved discussions.

The questionnaires gave us a picture of children’s patterns of use of their towns and cities; from which a picture emerged of keen interest, much local knowledge, some considerable spending powers; and above all many indications that children cared considerably for the state of the urban centres. This awareness and concern came through even more strongly in the discussion groups: friendly, informal yet focussed groups, which we would much recommend as a research or consultation practice for talking with children.

In the papers referenced below (Woolley et al, 1999 a and b) we have summarized the major themes which emerged: children of 10-12 expressed strong civic values; are generally supportive of the agents of law and order; have strong aesthetic and sensual appreciation of the cityscape, whilst being outspoken critics of poor design and maintenance. They were well able to articulate comparisons between the traditional urban centres and the out-of-town malls, contrasting the cleanliness and feelings of security of the latter with poorly maintained high streets. Children of this age can give vivid accounts of perceived threats to their well being and safety: from some adults on the street, from older adolescents, and often from groups from out of town. Yet their affections towards the town centre came through time and again; and lead to a whole series of aspirations for the regeneration and running of town centres. They are well aware of what needs to be done, what could be done, and how “they” are failing to do it – “they” being the presumed powers and functionaries of the town.

But we asked the children, after they had given us their cogent and detailed criticism and suggestions, would “they” listen? In focus group after focus group across the country, the near universal cry was: no, they would not.

Is this not a tragic reflection of the felt-exclusion that we talked of earlier? In Louise Chawla’s recent collection of studies from around the world (2002), it is often in the most developed countries where the children had least voice in their community and its planning; whereas there are many examples of poorer nations where all the community are properly involved in their community’s future.

In addition to its implications for education, the new awareness of children’s competence in environmental matters described by psychology has implications for their possible involvement in planning: indeed, there are issues about their citizen’s rights. User participation in planning was one of the ’causes’ of the 1970’s (eg Appleyard, 1970; Kaplan, 1978); which, during the 1980s, was extended to include the rights of children to be involved (eg Moore and Hart, 1980, 1981, 1983; Stea, 1985; Sutton, 1985).

Two points arise: however articulate the users are, their participation in the design process is no guarantee that their full range of needs will be expressed, or can be incorporated in the eventual design. (Architect-user communications are a field of study to themselves: see, for example, McKechnie, 1977.) And children need further facilitation even than do adults in the process of participation – extra game-like activities to involve them and help their design-visualisation.

Secondly, in many of the trial projects with children reported above, their participation has been limited to the design of settings specifically labelled as for children – typically the school yard, and the public playground – and not in the wider, shared public settings (eg housing estates, shopping malls, town centres) in which children tend to be the excluded stakeholders. Children are not short of ideas about what they would wish to see in such public spaces, as I can attest from a marvellous (unpublished) exercise carried out by Sheffield Council’s planning department in conjunction with a score of local primary schools. Each school was visited by the planners, and after introductory meetings, it was allocated a sector of the city centre to re-plan as an exercise. Site visits followed, with modelling and map-drawing back in the schools, before everybody came together for a plenary session in which the sectors were brought together as a complete model of the city centre, renewed according to the children’s suggestions. Few of these ideas for re-planning were exclusively child-centred: their idealised city centre was a more humane area for all age groups – more greenery, more pedestrianisation (including play areas), more visual appeal. One school group was particularly concerned to build old people’s flats close to the centre ‘so they would be close to the shops’. Part of the ‘contract’ with the planners was that, by the end of the plenary day, the city architects and planners would discuss with the children which ideas they, the planners, could bring into the immediate budget, which might be realised within two years, and which they felt would be impractical. Many of the improvements we now see show that some of the ideas have been implemented, to the benefit of all; others are on the future agenda.

Just-pre-adolescence as a key stage in place exploration/knowledge/attachment

In the studies mentioned above, we took the immediately pre-adolescence period as a crucial one for the individual’s exploration of their city (beyond the local neighbourhood), leading to rapidly expanded cognitive and affective maps (knowing where things are, and placing personal evaluations on them), leading in turn to broader identifications with city / district/ region.

Sheffield’s 10-12 year olds were sampled, along with age-peers in more than 20 other British towns. These studies have been extensively reported elsewhere (eg Woolley et al), and it suffices to say that children in Sheffield fall well within the range of sensitivities to the urban aesthetic, to the neglect by the adult world of that fabric; feelings of the city then breed doubts about ones own personal safety within the town. Similarly, children in Sheffield are as likely as elsewhere to describe the limited availability of places and activities for people of their age.

Conflicts between themselves and other users of the urban space are sometimes reported: older teenagers commandeering ‘playspaces’; shopkeepers and guards at the out-of-town malls regarding them with suspicion; and as an example which we have studied, skateboarders coming into conflict in city centre with the theatre goers in Tudor Square, but finding a new popularity with local residents when a new and purpose-built skateboard area was built at the edge of Devonshire Green, a vest-pocket park close to the centre, yet in an area with a very different and more relaxed rhythm.

To quote the abstract of this recent e-paper :

Conflicts between users of urban spaces can be resolved by careful consultation, planning and design, as a case study of the creation of a skatepark within a vestpocket park indicates. Woolley and Johns in 2001 wrote about the conflicts between skaters and other users of city centre spaces; and our paper evaluates what happened next, when the city planners and skateboarders collaborated in the design of a purpose-built skate park. We sampled patterns of park use, and employed questionnaires and cognitive mapping techniques to evaluate the park as a whole; while interviews with the skateboarders enabled us to evaluate the new facility’s success in meeting the four criteria of accessibility, sociability, trickability and compatability. Not only are potential conflicts resolved, but the presence of this new activity Is positively evaluated by the other users, the local residents, local businesses. In a city such as Sheffield, some of the activities of youth may bring them into conflict with older citizens, even when those activities are energetic, skilled, and give young citizens a sense of self worth. Skateboarding is just such an activity, and this paper is a study of how careful planning which involves those young people can help resolve conflicts.

2 Attachments in adulthood

Attachments in adulthood obviously relate directly to an individual’s roles: clearly the businessman’s Sheffield is importantly different from that of the busker. Some people’s cognitive maps will be signposted by the city’s pubs, others by its parks. For some, the Crucible Theatre signifies snooker, for others Music in the Round and its Ensemble 360. At this point it may be worth reminding ourselves that there is perhaps an overemphasis in this kind of research upon the city centre and the other major urban spaces on what constitutes the identity of the city: it may be that what makes Sheffield a worthwhile place to live are some of the much more local features: a local parade of shops, a wooded valley running into town, a school and community centre, a playground, allotments, gardens, particular buildings. Attachments don’t have to be to the city as a whole: indeed in a city of our size, there will be many districts we don’t feel at home in, or maybe even know that exist. Several years ago, the Mappin Gallery did an ingenious and thought-provoking project pointing this out, using Sheffield’s bus routes as an urban parable: the idea being that very few people (apart from the drivers) ever travelled between the two ends of our bus routes, which often run from a prosperous district to city centre and then out to a less well-off one on the other side of the city, and then back to centre and to prosperity.

3 Attachment-to-place of Sheffield’s minority groups:

In order to study the feelings of minority groups’ attachment and sense of belonging to Sheffield, the landscape architects Woolley and Amin on looked at a very specific activity within the city: namely Pakistanis going to the park (1995). The focus of this study was Pakistani children and their perception and use of public open spaces in Sheffield. The findings of the study indicate that the majority of the children visit a wide range of public open spaces. These public open spaces vary from local parks, playgrounds, streets/roads to youth clubs in the vicinity of their homes. Most of the children visit public open spaces daily whereas some go on a weekly basis. It can be said on the basis of this study that if public open spaces with appropriate facilities are made available locally then they will be used by most of the children. Cooper-Marcus and Sarkissian (1986) argued that children need safe spaces outside the home for play for their physiological and mental health. The provision of public open spaces in the vicinity of their homes also gives children the opportunity to utilize their time positively. The need for provision of public open spaces in urban areas is much higher than rural settings. This is due to the fact that most of the children’s needs, such as freedom of movement, safety and proximity to the natural world, are fumed naturally in the rural areas.

Many children who feel uncomfortable while using public open spaces are afraid of other children. In Woolley and Amin’s study the most repeatedly mentioned reasons for not feeling comfortable in public open spaces were bullying and “taking the mickey.” Bullying may be either physical, such as hitting, tripping and taking belongings, or verbal, such as name calling and taunting. Most of the children, both girls and boys, said that “they” or “other boys” “take the mickey” or spoil their games. This may indicate that children from Pakistani backgrounds are less comfortable in the company of either English boys or other Pakistani boys. It was observed in those schools’ playgrounds where the questionnaires were administered, and in some other public open spaces, that Pakistani children were usually in groups. They mostly play together and stay together and thus “they” or the “other boys” referred to may be non-Pakistani children.

On the basis of observations, it is proposed that both school teachers and parents should take practical measures to ensure the provision of an environment, in school as well as in the neighbourhood, that encourages all children whether Pakistani or not to play together and share the same piece of land peacefully and effectively. In this research, the majority of children expressed concern over bullying, indicating that this is a major problem. The school teachers and education department can do a lot to minimize the rate of bullying.

One third of the total respondents said that they experienced feeling uncomfortable in public open spaces. Bullying, mentioned by 50 percent of the children, was by far the major reason for feeling uncomfortable in public open spaces. This finding is in close agreement with that of Smith (1994). He surveyed nearly 7,000 pupils of all nationalities in 24 different schools in Sheffield. His results reveal that an average of 27 percent of primary school children and 10 percent of secondary pupils had been bullied at some time during a school term with 10 percent and 4 percent respectively being bullied weekly. It seems that some Pakistani children have been bullied by other children because they are Pakistani, though further research is needed to confirm or deny this. One of the children in Smith’s article indicated that

Sometimes people hurt me in my class. They swear … they call me name … some time they don’t like me because I’m Pakistani. They don’t like me … They won’t be my friends (Farana, age 9).

In this research the second most frequently mentioned reason (15 percent) for feeling uncomfortable was that other users were not friendly. In addition 10 percent stated that other boys were “taking the mickey” (Figure 3). “Taking the mickey” is usually a form of teasing amongst English children. This result partly agrees with the finding of Simmons (1994). She stated that students in her research project expressed considerable concern about the threat from other people, especially kidnappers. The students in her research project were aged eight and nine years.

Among other reasons for feeling uncomfortable in public open spaces were that children had no friends to go with (7 percent), public open spaces were too crowded and they liked to stay home (5 percent). Racism, swearing and that they cannot go on their own were mentioned by less than 5 percent. The latter reason was either because they were not allowed to go or because they were afraid in public open spaces. Therefore the top four reasons, which are all to do with unfriendly people, were apparently strong single reasons.

The Values of place to the individual

1 Places can be restorative…and natural places most of all?

When we consider the relationship between places and identity, we are generally talking about a long period of time. Places can also have an immediate effect upon the individual, both positive and negative. Thus, another truism that environmental psychology has recently started to investigate is that places can be restorative (with the further embedded presumption that ‘natural’ places can be especially so).

So what is the evidence? Would some parts of Sheffield have greater capacity to restore the weary soul than others? What implications would this have for the design or re-design of the city and its neighbourhoods? Might this offer evidence that could be offered to planning enquiries alongside the more conventional economic evidence? Hartig and Staats (2003) have brought together much of the evidence to date; and have also reviewed underlying theories (again, here is Psychology asking the visiting-Martian questions: how and why?) about the processes by which restoration takes place.

Is it, as Stephen and Rachel Kaplan suggest, that what is being restored is one’s capacity to attend, renewing diminished functional resources and capabilities? Or should we emphasize the physiological and emotional aspects of restoration when viewing a scene after a situation involving challenge or threat, as Roger Ulrich indicates?

In practice, we might not see these as rival theories, but as complementary; and researchers are busy defining the conditions under which the effects are mainly cognitive or mainly physiological (eg Hartig et al 2003). In their description of restoration by natural scenes, the Kaplans see four processes at work: restoration from directed attention fatigue occurs with:

  1. psychological distance from routine mental contents (being away)
  2. in conjunction with effortless, interest-driven attention (fascination )
  3. sustained in coherently ordered environments of substantial scope (extent)
  4. when the person’s inclinations match the environment’s demands as well as the supports afforded for desired activities (compatibility)

Ulrich, too, suggests that features of place can aid the physiological recovery process: moderate depth, moderate complexity, the presence of a focal point, natural features such as vegetation and water.

Now the inclusion of those last two, vegetation and water is interesting: for they also crop up in studies of what in practice is our next topic: environmental preferences and environmental aesthetics.

A few years ago, the idea that one might systematically examine and predict people’s aesthetic preferences would have seemed a forlorn hope: after all, aren’t we all so individual in our likes and dislikes?

It turns out that, far from being wildly varied, such preferences (whether for places, objects or art) are highly predictable: in art, for example, proportions are important predictors of whether an image is preferred (think the Greeks’ rule of aesthetics, the Golden Section). Similarly, environmental psychologists have begun to examine what features in landscapes (cityscapes/interiors/buildings/etc) lead to people adjudging them as attractive or unattractive. Vegetation and water are high on the list of features which lead to the ‘attractive’ judgement. One can easily demonstrate this by presenting a whole series of photographic images to people (postcards would do), and analyzing the presence or absence of features in the images, comparing these with the consensual ratings of these images. (Yes: there is usually found a high concordance between people here.) Most-liked pictures turn out to have much vegetation, and often a stream, a lake or the sea within the frame. Next, thanks to the capacity of photo-edit programs on the computer, one can test this by adding or removing features from such images, and predicting how the preference ratings will move. (Obviously, such a study would require that one was showing the variant images to different samples: otherwise, the manipulations would be all-too-obvious when presented serially.)

Similar studies have been done with domestic interiors (eg Canter and Wools in one of the earliest studies manipulated the features of a line drawing of ‘a student flat’: size and location of window, flat or sloping ceiling, etc etc); with the facades of buildings. And Jack Nasar has developed a whole series of predictors for building types, cityscapes and countryside. He has asked “What makes a city appealing?”. And his study of residents and visitors of American cities has identified five factors that make a city visually appealing., which could be adapted for use in Sheffield. He writes:

“Usually, public officials overlook the appearance of their cities because they think it is a matter of taste and that it isn’t very important,”

“However, research shows appearance is very important and that people generally agree about what makes a city look appealing.”

The findings showed that the most-liked parts of cities included some of these five elements: nature, open space, historical significance, a sense of order, and evidence of good upkeep. Nasar said he was struck by the amount of agreement among participants about what was likeable and unlikeable about the two cities. Residents and visitors had similar views, although residents obviously knew more about the cities scenes they rated.

Participants tended to dislike areas that had a lot of parking areas, advertising hoardings, industry, congestion and a lack of coherent styles. They liked areas with a lot of plants and trees, views of rivers and mountains, well-kept buildings, and a sense of organization and order. “Conventional wisdom says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this study and others show strong consistencies in what people like and dislike in the environment”. Other studies have shown that a city’s appearance of disorder and neglect can heighten sensory overload, stress, and fear among residents and visitors: certain design elements of cities can make people more fearful of crime. Research by Nasar and others on what makes a city appealing has been summarized thus:

* Naturalness. Areas with landscaping, countryside, rives, lakes, and mountains.

* Upkeep. Areas that are clean, well-maintained and not dilapidated or dirty.

* Openness. Areas with open spaces and clear views and that are not crowded or congested.

* Historical Significance. Areas that have authentic historical significance or that look historical to observers.

* Order. Areas that look well-organized and compatible without a lot of conflicting styles and chaos.

The preference/aesthetics/wellbeing/self-concept nexus of concepts promises to be a rich area of research in future years: as yet, one could hardly manifest it as having a fully clear roadmap of quite how all the concepts interrelate. But it the consistency with which certain interrelationships turn up in study after study encourages one to hope…

Perhaps even more importantly for the present article are the practical implications for those responsible for our cities, whether as planners or as active citizens. If investments in the fabric and appearance of the city can have payoffs in increased wellbeing of the citizens (and I think that one can make a strong case for this being likely to be so), then there is not only a moral but also an economic argument for such interventions and investments. (When arguing moral cases it is always helpful if the economics go in the same direction!)

So if putting money into, say, the Parks Department budget results in increased mental health, fitness and general happiness of the citizens, then we should expect to see a smaller call on the health and social services budgets. (Being not only an optimist but also a realist, I should not exaggerate: other factors also drive people to unhappiness and stress, of course.) But how to co-ordinate these separate budgets and ‘spending heads’? For a recent summary of the evidence linking aesthetics, preferences and the restorative effects of natural scenes see: van den Berg, Koole and van der Wulp (2003, JEP)

2 Places..or just spaces? What transform a space into a place?

Can one then apply some of the above findings to see what transforms a space into a place? In other words, can we see what are the characteristics which enable the visitor to see an assemblage of environmental features as having a coherence, a placeness? And might these be some of the same features which make the inhabitants of such spaces feel attached to them as places to which they belong and which give them identity?

This is not new: a whole generation of planners ago, the question was phrased: what makes a neighbourhood? Could one for instance say that it would take not only physical contiguity and perhaps some geographical or stylistic coherence to mark something off as a discreet neighbourhood, but also the presence of certain key ‘neighbourhood facilities’: e.g. shops, a primary school, maybe meeting places and places for worship. Would this apply to the neighbourhoods of Sheffield in all their proud identity?

One of the pioneer environmental psychologists, Terence Lee, asked the interesting but potentially provocative question: do people recognise their own neighbourhood? (There may be a label across the map, but is that how people who live locally see it?) Would people use the labels to include the same subarea of the town?

The young Terry Lee took a clipboard round the suburbs of his town (Cambridge) and asked housewives if they would draw a line round the neighbourhood as they saw it. (This was onto a base-map of the town.) No-one found that a problematic request. Yet no-one exactly agreed where the line should go. And the aggregate set of lines on the base-map showed a convoluted picture….with yet some central defining features common to a ll. Where we feel is ‘our’ area in part reflects patterns of knowledge, activity, acquaintanceships, interests….

So: in Sheffield, where does Walkley end and Crookes begin? As estate agents push their definition of (saleable) Dore down the hill to Totley, where does their credibility snap? Redevelopment of Sheffield procedes apace: what will this be doing to people’s perceptions of their neighbourhood? Again, Terence Lee can help us. Another of Lee’s studies looked at the effects of pushing a big road through an area on how existing neighbourhoods are affected. Are they now experienced and understood in different ways? He showed how such planning decisions can considerably affect feelings of attachment, belonging and local identity.

What will first spring to your mind will be the initial destruction, noise and perhaps a new perceived danger from traffic. Lee also showed how such roads can also sever previous psychological and activity links across the neighbourhood, even if the planners include crossings, high-level bridges or underpasses: erstwhile neighbours ‘on the other side’ get visited much less frequently than before the coming of the major road. And these changes are perhaps a dynamic reminder of how long-settled neighbourhoods have some of their distinctiveness: this and that side of the river, up and down that hill etc.

3 Environmental Psychology looks to People-in-Places

All the way through this article I am re-balancing the usual social scientist tendency to talk only about social and economic factors, so as to give physical environmental factors their due. This is not to imply that such social factors are not also important in making a neighbourhood cohere, or giving its character and affect. Indeed, environmental psychology stresses the effects of the ‘socio-physical environment’ upon perceptions and behaviour: so here, we would stress that neighbourhoods to which people feel attached consist of communities situated in places. Indeed, much of what is memorable about places will reflect their inhabitants: think of the ‘quarters’ and ‘districts’ of any famous city you know. Latin Quarters; the almost tribal subdistricts of Siena and Florence, or ancient Rome, divided as it was between the Blues and the Greens.

Interestingly, Sheffield’s patterns of local loyalties are overlaid by the rivalrous loyalties to its two football teams: a loyalty which extends to the table. For their Anniversary edition of their condiment, Henderson’s Relish brought out alternate bottles, labelled in red and in blue stripes.

So what gives a place its identity would seem to be this combination of people-in-places. Most social scientists as we have said ignore setting, many planners in effect ignore the inhabitants of the setting. Environmental Psychology and its precursor Ecological Psychology have tried to work with concepts which embrace both: thus, Ecological Psychology’s Roger Barker talked of “Behaviour Settings”: those local people-place-behaviour divisions of the city which we all recognise: the school playground, with all its activities; the corner shop, with its neighbouring. His point is that there is a great predictability and stability here in behaviour settings: generation after generation of children use the playground in similar ways (have you revisited yours?); similarly, different customers move into the local shop’s area, and yet the same broad activities persist. Indeed, if you wanted to ‘predict peoples’ behaviour’, statistically it would be better to know about the behaviour settings than to have information on the individuals inhabitants’ personalities.

You will be able to see from this that in ‘designing communities’ or neighbourhoods, we must be aware of this transactional relationship between people and their places: existing ‘good neighbourhoods’ seem to work because the urban fabric supports community, brings people together, supports their activities, and facilitates this feeling of place to which one ‘belongs’. Environmental psychologists have talked of ‘affordances’: the possibilities for activity that a place can offer. They assess the match between wanted activities and the spaces available in terms of ‘synmorphy’. And they assess whether places have the effect of bring people together or scattering them as ‘sociopetal ‘ or ‘sociofugal’.

4 The developmental unfolding of place attachment

Environmental psychology has put much effort into showing that, at different stages of the life-cycle, the meaning of places for individuals changes considerably. Their geographical range expands and then perhaps contracts, with major implications for their place knowledge, their cognitive maps, their attachments. So we will consider these developmental-changing patterns of activity and exploration, and what implications they have.

The earliest years of an individual’s life are likely to see an ever-expanding range of activity and exploration: from the scale of a room to house to immediate neighbours through street and regular family visits to neighbourhood and ‘trusted journeys’ within it. Undoubtedly, the roots of attachment lie here, however well-found or aesthetic the home-place may be.

In this essay, however, we will pick up the story at the next stage, as the child potentially grows still wider in their exploration and experiences: ideally moving to citizenship, but, as we shall argue, often being far from included in the citizens’ world. So next in this article we shall review a portion of the research which argues that children have been made outsiders in their own towns: see how far you feel that this is true of Sheffield.

5 Children in urban areas: the unacknowledged ‘outsiders’

Children’s changing access to public places has been the focus of a few concerned planners and social scientists (eg see reviews by Noschis, 1992, 1994). But in general, the planning system has taken very little note of what is now a growing literature on children’s needs and use of the urban environment: Matthews (1995) has characterized children’s current position as being an ‘outsider’ group in society:

Despite a burgeoning body of research which highlights the singular environmental needs of older children, most large-scale environments are designed to reflect only adult values and usages. The visions of environmental planners and landscape architects implicitly reflect the dominant perceptions of a society, such that groups already on the edge become further marginalized by policy making (Matthews, 1995, 456)

Do places within the town also function for children in this way? In interviews with several hundred ten, eleven and twelve year olds, we have indeed found that places for quiet reflection are as important to children as are some of the more obvious attractions of the town; and what they most dislike are those ‘insults’ to what many of them articulate a town centre should be like: incivilities, dirt, litter, graffitti and other signs of people not caring for the place or its fellow users (Woolley et al, 1999, a + b).

How do preferences change as the child grows older? We realize from everyday knowledge of children that they do change, but there exist few systematic studies of the process. Malinowski and Thurber (1996) have given us a start. Rather than studying a very large and complex environment such as the whole urban area, their first study confined itself to a particular setting (a residential summer camp) and traced the development of place preferences within it from 8 to 16 years. The younger children in their sample chose places on the basis of affordances; while the older tended to choose places for their aesthetic or cognitive qualities.

Learning by exploring

Pioneer studies in Europe and the USA of the development of children’s knowledge of their local area (eg Hart, 1979; Björklid, 1982; Moore, 1986; Torrell and Biel, 1995) had confirmed that the child’s ever widening direct acquaintance with the locale was predictive of a similarly widening cognitive map of the area. Most studies found boys to be advance of girls, not because of any supposed difference in spatial skills, but because in many societies boys are accorded the greater freedom to explore (or at least, are more bold in challenging parental restrictions!)

More recently the literature on these constraints on girls’ spatial exploration has been reviewed by Cotterell (1993); whose own work indicates that one cannot assume the universality of the oft-repeated assumptions that girls’ gender role leads to restricted range. In an era of rapid changes of roles on the one hand, and on the other the increasing parental worries about their children’s safety, we should continue to monitor changes over time of children’s use of their areas, and its impact on local knowledge and affections.

But has the concept of children’s “home-range” (used in many of these studies) had its day? Gaster (1995) suggests that the concept itself still has value; but in practice, parents in some communities now so restrict their children that it has effectively ceased to have an application. And even where children still have some freedoms to explore, then their extended area is no longer the fields, woods or unclaimed areas their parents remembered: but rather, the formal city parks or busy city streets (see also Raymund, 1995).

The travel style of 12 year olds through an area of town was studied by Gerber and Kwan (JEP, 1994). They attempted to classify the development of way-finding into four styles, related to the child’s achieved stage in developing their place knowledge, and consequent increase in their confidence: these are, successively what they label as restricted/neophyte; careful/sequential; deductive/familiarized; and visualized/ co-ordinated spatial.

Large v small cities

Sheffield is, for the UK, a large city, but with fiercely self-identifying neighbourhoods As Bonaiuto and Bonnes have shown, (1996), the experience of small and large city-dwelling is discernably different: those who live in the smaller places have more tendency to integrate experiences at the scales of home, neighbourhood and whole city; and the old and the young report less social isolation in the smaller place. Similarly, Skantze (1995) interviewing 10-12 year olds in a suburban setting in Sweden heard them dismiss designed children’s play areas as for the younger age groups, longing themselves for the “real” activities that a larger city would afford them.

Choice of leisure settings

Noack and Silbereisen (1988) show how that, during adolescence, the choice of leisure settings reflect the individual’s stage of social development; and, in particular, the extent to which they are developing partnerships. Places whose primary public designation/function may be other, can afford the adolescent places to ‘hang-out’ with the group, and, later, with a partner: such places might typically include sports centres; shopping malls; public plazas (as we shall see below)

City as Danger

Social dangers to children: In an exploratory piece of research on the social dangers that New York parents of 9-11 year olds saw threatening their children, Blakely (1994) shows how the fears of kidnapping, assault, etc are transmitted by word of mouth, amplifying reportage from the media, etc: a study which could be replicated in virtually every city as the world is perceived to becoming more dangerous.

“Children -Traffic-Environment” is the economical title of a thoughtful piece by Björklid (1994), which concludes that the anxiety that parents and children now share about the dangers from traffic are such that we should consider them victims of “traffic environmental stress”; which in its turn is leading to social isolation.

Street crime

Perkins and colleagues have shown that researchers can construct almost a predictive place-grammar of likely street crime and incivilities (1993). The question then becomes: how far are children aware of this grammar as they live in, travel through and contemplate areas of their towns? Our own recent surveys (Woolley et al, 1999, a+b) show them to be very aware indeed of the danger spots of their locale; and to be shaping their use of towns accordingly.

Children and pollution

Similarly, many surveys (eg Lyons and Breakwell,1994; Woolley et al, 1999b in Sheffield and other UK cities) remind us that there is consistent evidence for children having great environmental awareness and concern; that this starts very early in childhood, and continues well into the teenage years. It is often characterized with anger and frustration about the apparent indifference and poor stewardship by the adult generations.

We are convinced that children’s concerns, about pollution, traffic, crime and incivilities are genuine, and cannot be dismissed as the mere repetition of parental and media-borne opinions: time and again in our interviews throughout Britain, these concerns were manifestly grounded in the child’s own local experiences.

How children can be more involved in planning their cities

Schools and local community

As indicated in the Norwegian action project which Buvik and Cold report (1995), children and their needs can, by skillful mediation, become the basis for a whole community to meet its needs: they give examples of most succesful multigenerational use of schools, for example. Conflict is not inevitable, and each generation benefits by the interactions.

Children and equity

If, as Sutton (1992) argues, there is a general diminution in the sense of community in modern societies; and children are being especially excluded, then how can children be enabled to see that they can have a role in shaping their environments? Once, we were able to see this arising from programs of environmental education in the schools (eg Britain’s excellent former program is described by Bishop, Adams and Kean, 1992; ‘former’ because it was sadly swept away in the face of “curriculum reforms”) But what of achieving a more direct link to the planners?

Children and planners

Children as planners has been the focus of a number of action-research projects in different parts of the world e.g., Hart, 1997; Iltus and Hart (1994); Horelli (1994), and most extensively Chawla (2002). The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child offers a ‘radically new vision of childhood and youth’: fundamental to which is the assertion that children are citizens who have rights and the capacity for improving their own lives and the communities in which they live. The UNICEF meeting of world Mayors is summarized by Blanc, Fonseka, Iacafano and Hart (1994):

Fundamental is the assertion that children are citizens who have rights and the capacity for improving their own lives and the communities in which they live. Children provide a unique opportunity to achieve widespread mobilization to create cities that are humane for all.

Children’s Experiences: worsening?

Has children’s changing access to public places led to an impoverishment of experience? This is a difficult question to answer by retrospective surveys: ideally we need patient longitudinal studies. Nonetheless there is value in careful studies such as that by Gaster (1991). He took one neighbourhood in New York as his study site, and, combining contemporary, memory and archive data, compared changes in access over three generations of children as residents. Over the sixty year period under study, Gaster found that access had been restricted by what one might describe as the steady erosion of habitat. The informal landscapes of play, often themselves the concomitants of building activities, gave way to the more formalized, directed places for play. Similarly, when the architect, Buss (1995) got 10 and 11 year old Los Angeles children to represent their city, using photographs, drawings, and verbal descriptions, they present the city as dangerous, violent and unpredictable. “At an age when they should be individuating from their parents, forging an autonomous identity, negotiating relationships with their peers.. {they are} instead grappling with everyday survival issues such as ‘Will I be shot today?’…” Against all of this, and their perception of the urban squalor, Buss records that many of the children remained environmental activists, offering an activist’s critique of their city and what could be done. Sadly, for them, the privatised, organised consumer places may remain the only relatively safe refuges away from home.

Arguably, the children in Los Angeles are even worse off than many upon whom world attention has been focussed under the label: ‘street children’. Street children have become such a phenomenon of urban life in several continents that the journal, Children’s Environments, in 1988 devoted a whole issue to the topic, drawing together a range of studies and accounts of this sign of the breakdown of society.

….. or improving?

At the opposite end of this continuum of childhood’s civic experience, there is an encouraging photo-essay from Freiburg and other European cities (Lennard and Crowhurst Lennard, 1992) showing that, with good town planning, children can from an early age discover their place in society: we see the infant encountering strangers on an equal footing; we see children being treated as full members of the city’s social life. “Children need not be limited to specialized playgrounds if the whole city is made available to them to explore and play in”. How can we argue for this to be high on the city’s agenda? The various international moves already mentioned, together with the Rio convention on the environment specify the child’s right to be consulted and their needs taken into account. Practical exemplars from UNESCO (Hart, 1997) show these declarations need not be just pious statements of ideals, or tokenism, but can be real, working, community-involving projects. Often they require organization and inspiration, rather than the expenditure of much money. (Often, the improvements most wished for in our own surveys were cheap: to do with maintenance, reclamation, upkeep, planting, activity, and not major capital projects.)

To return, in conclusion, to our opening: Roger Hart has said that:

empirical research and theory on the ecology of children in cities is in an impoverished state. When I look through my shelves for the books that inform readers about the lives and experiences of city children, I find so few that are by psychologists… there has been a reliance upon the creativity of people outside psychology : urban planners and designers {are } the practical psychologists and social scientists of the city. (Hart, 1998. keynote to: Gorlitz et al: Children, Cities and Psychological Theories)

Children as experts on their neighbourhoods and cities

One of the pioneers of, and still strongest advocates for this kind of approach within the social sciences, is Whyte (eg, 1991), perhaps familiar to readers for his early studies of ‘street corner society’. Whyte now talks of ‘participatory action research’ as his aim – effecting change through a joint investigation by researcher and those whose activities are under study. Typically, in his studies, the researcher comes to the behaviour setting, discusses and observes, writes up a preliminary set of observations, circulates these as the basis for the next round of discussions. Whyte argues that one can achieve a rigour with PAR in a way never considered by conventional experimental or survey research: in these usual studies, the subjects have no opportunities to check the ‘facts’ as the researcher sees them. In contrast, the PA researcher checks the observations with those who have first-hand experience, before any reports are written; and the eventual results come from a sharing of findings and interpretations; and from a mutual development of underlying theory.

Should we be doing this with children, as the experts on environmental use? Could we? Robin Moore’s studies (eg 1986, 1989), in essence, have adopted part of the approach. Activity observation and participation is backed up with discussions about the observations. Take as a sample topic the role of adults as ‘gatekeepers’ to places and resources:

Most field trips gave the impression that children were treated with passive toleration by the large majority of unrelated adults they encountered. There were isolated examples of where adults and children had developed a strong rapport … Sometimes, adult objections to children’s play seemed justifiable, especially with relation to private property. But this was not always the case … (1986, p199)

Moore’s discussion here of neighbours, nice and nasty, is full of supportive examples, some of which he directly observed, some of which were reported by ‘his’ children; but all of which bear the mark of discussion before inclusion in the final published record.

There are indeed some aspects of children’s lives which are, by definition, so private and personal that the writer could only know of them through such a process of sharing. (Poignantly, Moore records a succession of children vouchsafing to him the whereabouts of their own favourite, private, even secret places: the same bush, bank or hideaway that other children in his study also regarded as their own secret place.) These are the places which, for younger children, are usually missing from the research agenda. The daily routines and identifications of adolescents are, if anything, even less well documented. Natural landscapes are still used and valued – often as places to ‘be alone’, ‘be oneself’ (Owens, 1988).

The Future Research Agenda: what we need to know

Adolescence and adulthood: the relationship with place continues

In the introduction, I indicated that the place experiences of the child in the city would take the major share of this review of the development of attachments to place through the individual’s experiences. There is also a large literature accumulating on the remainder of the individual’s lifespan; but for brevity I shall conclude here by just suggesting the heads under which it could be reviewed.

Adolescence and Young adulthood is often associated with the move away from parental home: A sample field of research here would be: the relationship between home ties and ease of settling into university: what are the other predictors; how widespread is home sickness? This phase is also one where the individual develops multiple attachments: home, college, workplace, leisure: what is the way these compete or complement?

What is the effect on well-being of major relocations: e.g. students from overseas? How far has the changing and increasing role of contacts via email, phone, travel affected adjustment and well-being, compared with earlier days of slow and infrequent contacts home?

Attachments in adulthood: any studies necessarily should take into account the changing roles of adulthood: work, home, leisure/holiday attachments. Various links can be made to literatures within psychology about the self and identity: one of whose simplest research instruments are ‘who am I?’ questionnaires: these can be analyzed to see how much, unprompted, the individual reports statements which feature places -Clare Cooper Marcus has linked adulthood with the earlier phases of life by showing how the valued places of childhood may persist as important parts of self. Similarly, for many adults, relaxation often involves mental if not physical returns to valued places.

One project I would particularly like to see researched on adult place-identifications would be the presence of place as identifier in autobiographies: in the opening chapters of autobiographies, how often do people give an account of self in a way which makes place central to the story? (And come to that what would we make of those people for whom place is conspicuously absent?) The contemporary cultural anthropologist should have something important to say about the recent burgeoning of local oral history projects. Similarly, there seems to be something of the ‘spirit of the age’ about the fashionable use of reminiscence work with the elderly. Our research agenda should also have room for those exceptional and special attachments: eg the spiritual attachments of Maori peoples to their particular area in NZ; the importance of holy cities and sacred sites. And at a more worldly level, we should acknowledge the importance for many individuals of an identity by football team (a tendency which some adults seem mysteriously not to outgrow after their other childhood enthusiasms are past).

In this article, we have already urged against any research over-emphasis upon the major urban spaces in the individual’s life in this kind of research, because:

– in practice, most people spend most of their time in other more local settings: work, home, neighbourhood, the everyday

– places of refuge, relaxation, ‘being oneself’ would more frequently include gardens etc than the major ‘civic prides’

– the value of natural places, correspondingly, may be to the little, local rather than the lavish

As already indicated, fortunes will differ in Later life

for some, this will mean the reversing of that childhood expansion of activity: so that there would be a reduction of domain that the individual encounters

– This may indeed mean that the individual loses their home, maybe neighbourhood, and becomes dependent upon others. Home is replaced by a “Home’. Yet with sensitivity, it may still be possible for the person to “hold onto home”, perhaps using the symbolism of objects, photos, possessions; and using the importance of reminiscence in the maintenance of identity.

How far successful adjustment to the changes of aging may relate to the extent to which the person feels disengaged from today’s world. Do they talk of ‘in my day’? Or is there some adjustment, with well-being being maintained by continued involvement?

Here, as the reader will see, there are huge implications for housing policy, design, transport etc so that the person can maintain contacts, and have easier travel.

– Does the housing in itself offer views of others’ activity, and of the natural world ? These can relate to well-being and engagement.

– Another huge area of research has been fear of crime at all ages, but particularly in the older citizen. Such may be the extent of this fear that people may self-exclude themselves from whole areas of town, and times of day. Estimates of personal vulnerability can be shown to be wildly exaggerated.

Yet another cause of increased isolation may lie in the very changes in the city’s fabric and layout: familiar roads and areas may be swept away, landmarks disappear: resulting in understandable and real confusion: people as a result may stick to a more limited area of town, unable to cope with the new layouts.

Yet for some, later life will prove to be a time of increased freedom to explore, to extend roles and activities; engagement with community, ‘projects’ and contributions. There is much less research on the active, retired individuals and their city.

Concluding question: so what are the implications for Sheffield?

Having offered an overview in this essay of place attachment and its development over the lifespan, I will end by suggesting that there are many implications for us as citizens, as planners, as politicians. One could classify these under the obvious headings of implications

—for personal well-being

—for design

—for policy and prioritization (should it be Health…or the Parks Department?)

Similarly, in looking to the image of the city as it faces outward, there are other professionals who may wish to call on these literatures. As we have seen, identity and image will differ amongst the city’s inhabitants. But what then will be the various images and identities for those outsiders hearing about the city (via newspapers, travel programs, the Rough Guide etc), considering whether to visit, or to relocate their business here? Can we, should we, be attempting to change this public image? What is the role of city publicity officers? What indeed is the origin of these ‘distant images’ of Sheffield? Again, we could benefit from examining literatures within geography about the impact of the media on such reputational images (see Blaut).

There is of course also an extensive literature on tourism and its drivers: what people expect as they choose between alternative destinations; how far a city such as Sheffield would draw on particular subsections of the potential market: some cities rely on their natural resources, others on available activities, others again make much of what has come to be called “roots tourism”.

This review has posed questions about the identity of the city of Sheffield from the perspective of environmental psychology: and has attempted to link them to the wellbeing of its citizens, with particular emphasis on the childhood years. It has also indicated some directions for future research, and for future consideration in addressing the design and city-image of Sheffield.


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