Not far from where I grew up in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, there was a public park called Deep Run. It had two retention ponds, a few miles of paved trails, soccer fields, playgrounds, and a large swath of deep, green, Virginia woods. My mother would take us there every time the frenetic energy of three daughters needed to be expelled somewhere not in the house—which was to say, quite often.
In fact, after a lifetime of birthday parties, nature hikes, forced marches, and lava monster games, this park was like a second home. I knew which rocks had crayfish under them. I knew which stamped-out footpaths took me to the climbing boulder. I could point out poison ivy from amidst a wall of green, and I knew where the copperhead snakes sometimes took their naps.
I felt so comfortable at the park that I even ended up going there on the afternoon of September 11th, 2001. Together with a friend, just two high school sophomores, I wandered those trails, so familiar and safe, as we stared out at a future which was anything but.
What I was lucky enough to experience as a child at Deep Run, and what so many of us cherish about living in the Roaring Fork Valley, is called ‘sense of place.’
What is a Sense of Place?
The term ‘sense of place’ can mean slightly different things depending on the context, but most definitions carry the same core concept. In one study from 2005, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), sense of place was explained like this: “Places involve meanings and values that facilitate intimate connections with particular geographical areas.” In other words, every person forms a unique connection to the land based on their own lived experiences in it, and the values they hold.
Interest in the subject of how and where one forms a sense of place is central to the robust debate around public land management and outdoor recreation. In 2018, the outdoor recreation industry topped $886 billion, making it a major player in the discussion and in the economy, and the regulation of extraction industries remains central to western politics. All of those decisions center on how people perceive the value of the land they are using.
The one thing that most researchers agree on is that developing a healthy sense of place takes time.
Kick the Bucket List
If the academic definitions seem a little distant, think about it like this: a sense of place is the opposite of a bucket list. Bucket lists, while much loved by Americans, are a one-and-done situation. In some situations, that makes a lot of sense. Went bungee jumping? Check it off the list. Saw the largest wheel of cheese? Check. Went on a blind date? Check. Made a souffle? Check (but maybe don’t eat it just yet).
When it comes to the outdoors though, the bucket list mentality doesn’t track quite as well. How could someone possibly check off a place as complex and enormous as, say, the Grand Canyon? Yosemite? How about Maroon Bells or Hanging Lake? One visit, even two or three visits, barely scratches a flake off the meaning and depth of any place in the outdoors.
Developing a sense of place is the difference between meeting an old friend for coffee and using a dating app to meet new people every weekend. With the old friend, a person can skip the small talk, and head right to the kind of connection which benefits both people involved. You do not have to live nearby that person to care deeply about how they are doing, either.
Why Recreate to Develop a Sense of Place?
For our current climate, both literally and figuratively, recreating with a sense of place, and teaching our children to do the same, is exactly what we need.
Often Closer to Home In the fog of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, travel plans have become a thing of the past. People are still traveling, yes, but the certainty of long term, long distance travel plans has evaporated entirely. Health experts and the CDC all recommend limiting travel to areas closer to home. Sense of place recreation welcomes people back to places nearby, or at least places through which they can move intentionally and cautiously.
Reduces Carbon Footprint Most of us are well-informed about the heavy toll that constant travel takes on the environment. Because outdoor recreation destinations are often remote, it is not unusual for enthusiasts to take a plane to rent a car to drive a long distance to reach a new crag, trout stream, or dormant volcano. Along with that, every time we pick up a new sport, the price tag in dollars and emissions jumps up again to bring that shiny new gear to your doorstep. On the other hand, going back to places where you’ve already found joy to dig up some more usually means that you can just use what you’ve got.
Creates Informed Advocates Because of my sense of place at Deep Run, I noticed, even as a child, that the bullfrog tadpoles were gone after large developments paved over nearby wetlands. Those of us who have a strong sense of place attachment can identify concerning trends in the outdoor spaces we love. With that awareness often comes the desire to protect the land. When we know an outdoor space well enough to recognize that it has value even when we are not using it, we become informed and committed advocates for it.
Encourages Respect for Other Users Another important side effect of recreating with a strong sense of place is that it requires us to recognize that others’ perceptions of that same place can be very different. A person who has a strong relationship with a place they love can also identify the value that other users see in itl, which can build powerful empathy. As more and more people find their way into the mountains, understanding the priorities of those user groups becomes essential.
How To Strengthen a Sense of Place
Here are a few ways that the experts recommend you can begin recreating with a sense of place.
- Change travel plans to ensure that you return to the same place at least once every year.
- Visit during different seasons.
- Wander through your own neighborhood for a day of outdoor recreation instead of driving somewhere else every time.
- Bring an animal/plant guide on any outing which is appropriate to the area.
- Pursue a variety of activities in the same location.
A sense of place means that you know what a trail looks like in every season, and that you can remember a whole summer from just one smell. It is why we go back to places we’ve already been, and why we stand up for them even when we are apart.