Many conservation issues are influenced by a complex mix of environmental, social, economic and cultural processes. At times, conservation decision-making can be complicated by opposing social and ecological values. In this week’s reading group, Anja Skroblin led a discussion on “sense of place”, focused on a paper by Hausmann et al. (2015).
The authors suggest that recognising the human concept of “sense of place” as an ecosystem service is an important link to help to resolve conflicts where conservation is at odds with human development needs. The authors of the paper develop a framework for how “sense of place” can be used to inform conservation decision making to benefit human well-being and biodiversity conservation in a seemingly win-win situation.
But what is “sense of place”?
The definition differs across the psychological, sociological, geographical and environmental management disciplines. We felt it was best summarised by the attachment and connections that people develop with, and the meanings they assign to, places.
Each of us could describe a location for which we had sense of place. Our places were all nature-based, perhaps because we were all ecologists with an outdoorsy bent: the bushland patches we played in as kids, the parks where we went camping with our families, the Otways, the Prom, the family farm…The common factor was that we were connected to these places by the webs of stories derived from lived experience, often in childhood.
We agreed that sense of place could be lost if the place was damaged, but also if the activities we associated with the place were no longer possible.
If you care for it, you will protect it! But is sense of place correlated to biodiversity?
The small sample of Qaecologists in this discussion generally agreed that having developed a sense of place with the natural world was a guiding factor in our conservation consciousness. We recognised that engendering a sense of place can be used as a tool to encourage people’s support for conservation related to that place. People who have strong connections to a place are more likely to advocate for it.
But we had some reservations about how sense of place could be used within decision making:
- Firstly, can we (and should we) quantify the value of sense of place as an ecosystem service in decision making? We are not so sure. It seems very difficult to assign a monetary value to sense of place.
- Is sense of place a double-edged sword for conservation? Sense of place can be based on connections that are misaligned with biodiversity. Brumbies in the Australian Alps is just one example we discussed. Many Australians have a strong connection to the Alpine country. For some, their sense of place is interwoven with the stories of Banjo Patterson’s “The Man from Snowy River” and the “Silver Brumby” books, where the brumby plays a central role in sense of Alpine place more than native biodiversity. Placing higher value on sense of place in this context isn’t going to assist biodiversity.
- Whose sense of place should be valued in decisions? It’s not an ecological example, but to make a point – should people climb Uluru? For the Anangu who are the traditional owners of Uluru, their sense of place and culture does not permit climbing. But for some other people, their sense of place is connected to the experience of being able to climb – their sense of place is diminished by not being able to climb. Where there is conflict, whose sense of place should take precedence in decision making? When it comes down to values, minority groups can be overlooked.
We suspect that sense of place, or connection to places, values and activities, may already play a substantial role in decision making. In our experience, decisions in conservation often end up being strongly influenced by values (monetary or other) as well as scientific evidence. People’s attachment to a place may affect their decision to advocate for a management outcome (whether or not it benefits biodiversity).
Regardless, for us, having “sense of place” for our own special places has brought joy and meaningful connection to nature. Opportunities for people to connect with nature is always something to encourage.