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What Makes This a Special Place? Using Photovoice to Explore Place Attachment with Coastal Communities

Background

Photovoice is a participatory research methodology and an engagement approach that be used to explore place attachment. Place attachment shapes the way we think about the past, present, and future of the places that are special to us. It’s a sort of lens that informs how we understand and value a place, how we experience change, how we perceive risk, and how we decide what is important to protect for future generations.

Understanding the dimensions of place attachment is important in the context of coastal management. When people are connected to a place over long periods of time, they gain a vast amount of local knowledge through repeated observation and lived experience. This kind of expertise about a place can inform local decision-making processes, including planning and policy initiatives related to coastal resilience.

Photovoice is an engagement method that can be used to explore community knowledge, experience, perceptions, and aspirations. The Photovoice process asks participants to take photographs in response to a question that is meaningful to the community. They write short narrative statements about their photographs and then participate in group discussions. Finally, a public exhibit of selected photographs is held to engage with the broader community, including elected officials and other decision-makers. 2020-2022 Margaret A. Davidson graduate fellow, Jessica Brunacini, Ph.D. engaged residents from two coastal neighborhoods in the town of Wells - Drakes Island and Moody Beach - to explore the question, "When it comes to [this place], what do you care about most?"

Goal

Explore the dynamics of place attachment in coastal communities where social and environmental change is happening, using Photovoice to engage seasonal and full-time residents who have long-term connections to place.

Methodology

Residents of the Drakes Island and Moody Beach neighborhoods of Wells were invited to participate in a Photovoice project. During the summer and fall of 2021, participants took photos in response to the question, “When it comes to [this place], what do you care about most?” They were asked to submit between 5 and 20 photos, including at least one image of each of the following:

  • A physical location or natural feature in [this place] that is special to you
  • An activity that you enjoy doing in [this place], either by yourself or with others
  • Something that recalls a memory or experience in [this place]
  • Anything that you might be concerned about in [this place]

Participants also wrote brief narratives about each photograph to provide further information and context. They then took part in a group discussion, where they reflected on one another’s images and identified common themes they saw repeated across the full set of photographs and narrative statements. A public exhibit of the photographs that best reflected these themes was held at the Wells Reserve in July 2022. The exhibit was also displayed during a regional coastal resilience planning meeting held at the Reserve in October 2022.

For more information on the Photovoice method, check out this resource from the Community Toolbox project.

    Results

    Through photographs, narrative statements, and focus group discussions, participants shared what makes these places special to them, including what they care about most and what they are most concerned about. Based on analysis of the themes that emerged, two major concepts were identified: factors that foster attachment to place, and factors that threaten attachment to place. The factors that foster attachment to place include the dynamic natural environment, relationships with family, and the positive emotions that people experience in place. On the other hand, factors that threaten people’s attachment to places include environmental change over time, physical access to place, and a sense of uncertainty about the future in a climate changed world. These results shed light on the types of social dimensions that can help and/or hinder processes for identifying coastal management strategies that both respond to climate change impacts and reflect place-based values. The outcomes of this research are useful for those involved in climate adaptation and coastal resilience efforts, including (but not limited to) land use planners, policymakers, engagement practitioners, and community members.

    To view materials that were displayed at the public exhibit, please see: What Makes This a Special Place? Images and text from Drakes Island and Moody Beach Neighborhoods

    Example image and text from the theme Family.

    Resources

      Investigator

      Jessica Brunacini, Ph.D.

      Project Period

      October 2020 - December 2022

      Funding

      • NOAA Office of Coastal Management
      • Michigan State University Department of Community Sustainability

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