Must my Place-Attachment make me a NIMBY?
“Look – the cottage has hardly changed in over a hundred years. It’s just as it was when Helen Allingham painted it”.
This kind of experience, no more than a mile from where I live, is just the thing to increase my attachment to the place. And as readers of one of my recent blog posts will remember – Place Attachment is one of the essential building blocks of opposition to development.
I got this idea from the writing of Patrick Devine-Wright, who explores it extensively in his book “Renewable Energy and the Public – from NIMBY to participation”. But rather than carry out an extensive study of the attitudes of others, as he has done, I decided to take the rather more straightforward step of using a sample size of one – me – to try and get to the bottom of Place Attachment and what it is about it which seems to lead inexorably to a dislike of change.
Because, more than anything else, what I have learnt from 18 months of exploring places around the country, and then writing about them for this blog, is how deeply attached I am to the gentle countryside of rural southern England. And, what is more, how deeply I feel a sense of loss whenever I stand anywhere in it that someone has plans to use for a purpose other than fields, woods and the occasional small village (built of traditional local materials of course).
At that moment I experience a complete and irredeemable disconnect between the empirical left hemisphere of my brain – which has read the household projections, the carbon targets, the passenger forecasts and all the other stuff that Planners like me read for a living – and the emotional right hemisphere, which is unmoved by such empirical constructs and simply feels a profound loss.
So what is going on here? Our sense of place attachment is generally held to derive from long association with a place, particularly when we were children. Stephen A Mitchell, in his excellent book about personal relationships “Can Love Last”, touches on our love of places as well, and argues that what we have attached to is our sense of the safety that was home at the time in our lives when that place was important to us.
I can travel some way with this theory, but only so far. In a month’s time, when I am out strolling through a wood carpeted with bluebells, or wandering up a sandy lane with the smell of wild garlic in my nostrils and the sight of smoke curling from a cottage chimney ahead of me, I will feel as strongly attached to a place as I ever can be. But these sights and smells played very little part in my childhood. I’m a product of the London suburbs and to be honest I didn’t really know one bird, tree or flower from another until I was about 21 years old. Similarly my teenage hiking exploits in the Scouts were more about endurance and achievement than any sense of unhurried communion with the natural world.
I’ve been trying to make up for lost time ever since. And in this I am, I suspect, no different from the tens of thousands of other people who have migrated out of our major cities in search of a closer connection with a place.
So if my Place Attachment is in some way connected with childhood, but not with precisely my own childhood experience, what is it? I think it is that the tranquillity of the countryside gives me the opportunity to “just be”. No one is making any demands on me, I don’t have to haggle or negotiate with anyone, and there is nobody around doing something far more useful than I am – which would make me feel guilty that I am wasting my time. In other words it allows me to feel much as we would all want to have felt as three or four year old children – safe, free to please ourselves and to learn about the world around us at our own pace. And as any parent will tell you, using reason or empirical evidence to appeal to a three year old is likely to deliver decidedly unimpressive results.
Of course it is true that some people attach to places where they have achieved great things, rather than simply felt nurtured and safe. A famous actor may campaign to save the theatre where he gave his triumphant portrayal of King Lear for example. But for most of us it is places where we feel we are safe to which we are most strongly attached.
Put like this Place Attachment feels like a curiously narcissistic, although at one level wholly logical, trait. After all, places are not sentient beings. The attachment is entirely one way, and I can reinvent the place in my imagination as much as I like, and then attach to that. And I certainly do. The truth is that I am not attaching to the complexities of the real place at all. My relationship with the countryside is based more on the novels of Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman’s blank verse autobiography “Summoned by Bells” and Flora Thompson’s childhood reminiscences in Lark Rise to Candleford than it is to a personal relationship with the people who live there, the reality of the price supermarkets will pay for their milk, or the flakiness of their broadband connection.
People might complain that the Archers is unrealistic, but it is pretty lifelike compared to the product of my imagination. And as long as no one comes along and disrupts the place so much that it destroys my imagined place, the attachment is secure. This is a classically narcissistic perspective: it can only be about me, I’m the only person involved. But it could also be argued to be completely logical. Attaching to the real people would be far more risky. They might go and behave in all kinds of unpredictable ways which don’t fit with how I have constructed them in my imagination.
And the power of this Place Attachment is such that I am immediately drawn to those aspects of the empirical evidence which justify not making any change to the place, whereas I do not want to believe those that point in the other direction. And of course there are always two sides to the argument – a good job for the armies of Town Planners, planning lawyers and other expert witnesses who would make a very poor living otherwise – so I can generally find some evidence to suit me.
In his book Patrick Devine-Wright proposes that the solution is the concept of Emplacement – that by looking at how new development engages with the place objections can be overcome. He may be right, and he certainly has the advantage over me of plenty of empirical evidence. But I’m not so sure. If I attach to a place because it makes me feel, at some level deep within me, like a safe and nurtured three year old child, then surely I will want it to stay just as it is, whatever the cost.
On this analysis, it is only by changing the nature of my attachment to the place that my attitude to any change being made to it will become different. Specifically, I wondered, what if I could access that sense of safety and nurture without having to actually be in the place to which I was attached? And conversely what if, when I was actually there, I stayed firmly in the present and saw the place for what it is today, rather than as it appears in my imagination. Might that have the effect of moving me to a more holistic view of the land as a resource for us all, for which each of us may quite reasonably have different priorities, and over which I have no more hold than anybody else?
It’s an interesting hypothesis, and I tested it out a couple of times recently. Firstly I tried sitting peacefully in my living room staring at some wispy clouds moving across a blue sky, while listening to some music (Kate Bush’s “50 Words for Snow” album in case you’re interested), and secondly I attempted to supress all but current reality from my mind when out and about on foot near home.
The results of this highly subjective experiment were interesting and disturbing. On the one hand I found that I certainly didn’t have to leave the house to experience the feelings I have described – so far so good. On the other hand I found that denying myself access to my imagination when I was out in the countryside had a profoundly unpleasant effect on me. I felt that my imagined place had been utterly destroyed. I was mourning its loss just as much as if it already had a high speed rail line under construction through it. Although in this case, of course, nothing had changed.
I was shocked at how much of the time my mind wanted to stray to an imagined world. Those shaggy piebald horses in the field might be destined for pet food (or frozen lasagne) for all I knew, but in my imagination they were somebody’s cherished companions. And that ancient cottage once commemorated in watercolour by Helen Allingham might well be home to normal 21st century domestic stresses and strains – quite possibly involving a grown up child who can’t afford the rent on a flat of their own, and a parent who drives the three miles each way to Tescos every Friday – but to become aware of this I first had to stop imagining the farmer’s wife about to head off on foot to the market, wicker basket in hand, as she had been in the 1880’s when the painting was completed.
Now of course you will all say “of course”. So did I. The sad truth is that I had hardly realised I had been retreating into my imagination so much. But more importantly, did it actually alter how I felt about the place, and how I might react to change?
In the short term I think it did. The countryside round my home felt a stranger place, and I was far more aware that most of those living in it were strangers to me, whose own opinions and needs I could only guess at. In turn this made me feel less attached to, or protective of, it. And so grieving for its loss would be somewhat easier for me now, in the event that it were to become the site of a new housing estate or a wind farm.
But in the long term I now aspire to a different relationship with the place – more complex and yet, I suspect, more complete. This won’t be easy. It involves me engaging emotionally with everybody’s needs, not just those of (the three year old) me. But it starts from a clearer understanding of what I have actually attached to – as much a creation of my imagination as a product of the real world.
Whether working through some kind of similar process with a whole community, in drawing up a Neighbourhood Plan say, would change local people’s attitudes to development I don’t know. It would certainly be challenging to explore issues of any psychological depth with a disparate group of local people, and of course some development proposals are still just a bad idea, with or without the added complexity of place attachment. But I hope that this is something I will be able to look at further in a future blog post.
What certainly is the case is that engaging with the right hand side of objectors’ brains should be a vital part of gaining community support for development. And that is something that no amount of Boles Bungs, New Homes Bonuses or temporary relaxations of the General Permitted Development Order will ever be able to do.