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Cities and the Power of Place

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 2017

Rich Stedman, M.S. ’93, professor of natural resources. Photo: Robyn Wishna

Shortly before finishing his Ph.D. in rural sociology, Rich Stedman, M.S. ’93, received some sobering advice over beers with one of his professors: “If you love the countryside, live in the city and walk to work. That’s the best thing you can do for the country.”

Today, Stedman, a professor of natural resources, does live in Ithaca and—for the record—he does walk to work. And that sage insight on the interconnectedness of cities and rural areas is never far from his mind, especially given the pattern and pace of urbanization in the United States and the expanding footprint of cities.

“For some people, from an ecological standpoint, urban areas are our sacrifice zones—that urban areas are by default ‘trashed’,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the antidotes is to do what we can to make our cities better places to live.”

The starting point—for him—is a sense of place. It’s a concept he has made a career of redefining, taking the traditionally sentimental notion in a decidedly quantitative and scientific direction. In a nutshell, a sense of place encompasses the meanings and attachments to a special setting, which grows through experience. All of these elements are measurable and comparable—across groups, across places, or even within the same place over time.

For city dwellers, meanings can easily be dominated by the cultural and the social aspects of urban environments, but Stedman’s work shows how education can restore the ecological perspectives that are often overlooked in cities. For example, urban environmental education programs in the Bronx, in which students might observe fish in the Bronx River or hawks in Central Park for the first time, help develop students’ ecological identity. In parallel, the places take on new meanings through the stories people tell about them.

“Why go to this trouble?” he asks. “The reason we care about attachment is that it’s a really good predictor of behavior. We tend to get involved in places that we care about. But there’s a caveat: We are more likely to get involved if we feel like our important meanings are threatened.”

If people have very strong attachments to places but imbue them with very different meanings, it leads to conflicts. Do you value a lake house for solitude or for the social relationships with neighbors? Stedman suggests a “dark side” of having a sense of place. It’s a change-averse concept. We like to keep our favorite places “like they ought to be,” which can impede needed change. In response, Stedman is drawn to diverse areas that are experiencing rapid transition. 

“The more interesting places to study are not necessarily the places where everybody agrees. You see it with communities and immigration today,” he notes. “When you are faced with a rapid influx of people who don’t share your cultural rules, there’s fear that some of what you value about those landscapes will be lost.”

The large amount of migration into European cities offers a unique opportunity to examine a sense of place during a time of transition. Stedman and colleagues will host a workshop this summer in Zurich, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, to bring together sense of place researchers from North America and Europe and set a research agenda for their field in light of the megatrends of migration, global mobility, and urbanization. Key questions include how mobility and urbanization affect place attachment, as well as how immigrants, including refugees, form bonds with their new places. Because bonds between people and places can also create bonds among people, time and again, he has seen how ecological place meanings can give momentum to transformative change in communities.

“With volunteer oyster gardeners in New York City, for example, their work not only increased awareness, but it also created new place meanings—like hope—borne of the astonishment of seeing the oysters growing,” Stedman recalls. “I’ve seen a number of instances where a group has completed a project, and then instead of disbanding they say, ‘What’s next?’ Because they have built that capacity and trust to work well.”

“I’m crossing my fingers that we see something like that in Europe with the refugees,” Stedman says. “That it’s not simply a matter of ‘can we adapt and deal with this,’ but ‘can we leverage this in such a way that the place is actually better off?’”