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Is It Really Just a Social Construction?:

The Contribution of the Physical
Environment to Sense of Place
Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology,
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Version of record first published: 19 Jan 2011.

To cite this article: RICHARD C. STEDMAN (2003): Is It Really Just a Social Construction?: The
Contribution of the Physical Environment to Sense of Place, Society & Natural Resources: An
International Journal, 16:8, 671-685

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Society and Natural Resources, 16:671–685, 2003
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ISSN: 0894-1920 print/1521-0723 online
DOI: 10.1080/08941920390217627

Is It Really Just a Social Construction?:

The Contribution of the Physical Environment
to Sense of Place

Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology
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Pennsylvania State University

University Park, Pennsylvania, USA

Although sense of place definitions nominally include the physical environment, much
research has emphasized the social construction of sense of place and neglect the
potentially important contributions of the physical environment to place meanings
and attachment. This article presents research that tests several models that inte-
grate (1) characteristics of the environment, (2) human uses of the environment,
(3) constructed meanings, and (4) place attachment and satisfaction. The research
utilized a mail survey of 1,000 property owners in a lake-rich region (the Northern
Highlands Lake District of Northern Wisconsin). Structural equation modeling
revealed that the best fit model integrating environmental variables with sense of place
was a meaning-mediated model that considered certain landscape attributes (i.e.,
level of shoreline development) as predictive of certain meanings related to attachment
and satisfaction. This research demonstrates that landscape attributes matter a great
deal to constructed meanings; these constructions are not exclusively social.

Keywords sense of place, place attachment, social construction of nature

Introduction: The ‘‘Overconstructed’’ View of Place?

Common to the rapidly proliferating definitions of sense of place is a three-com-
ponent view that weaves together the physical environment, human behaviors, and
social and=or psychological processes. Empirical research, however, has neglected
the role of the physical environment, focusing on place meanings and attachment as
products of shared behaviors and cultural processes. This article addresses this
disconnect, suggesting that the physical environment itself contributes to sense of
place through specifiable mechanisms. Although social constructions are important,
they hardly arise out of thin air: The local environment sets bounds and gives form
to these constructions. This article attempts to document the magnitude of the effect

Received 20 December 2001; accepted 11 November 2002.

This research was supported by the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment
Station. Support was also provided by the University of Wisconsin Department of Limnology
Trout Lake Field Station and the Kemp Natural Resources Field Station. John Parkins and
Joan Riera provided valuable assistance with data collection and analysis.
Address correspondence to Richard C. Stedman, Department of Agricultural Economics
and Rural Society, Pennsylvania State University, Armsby Building, University Park, PA
16802-5600, USA. E-mail:
672 R. C. Stedman

of the physical environment on sense of place and to identify a ‘‘best fit’’ model of
the mechanism by which this effect occurs.

Sense of Place: Meanings, Experience, Environment?

As already described, places encompass the physical setting, as well as human
experience and interpretation (Brandenburg and Carroll 1995; Relph 1976; Sack
1997; Tuan 1977). A core concept, place attachment, is a positive emotional bond
that develops between people and their environment (Hummon 1992; Low and
Altman 1992; Moore and Graefe 1994). Shumaker and Taylor (1983, 221) define
place attachment as a ‘‘person–place bond that evolves from specifiable conditions of
place and characteristics of people.’’ Although not often considered a core concept
within sense of place, place satisfaction, or a summary judgement of the perceived
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quality of a setting (Mesch and Manor 1998), is important to consider as well in a

fuller conception of sense of place. Satisfaction is analytically distinct from attach-
ment (Brown 1993; Guest and Lee 1983): One may be satisfied with the setting but
not particularly attached, and the reverse may also be true. Sense of place is therefore
conceived of as encompassing meanings, attachment, and satisfaction. Delineating
the role of the physical environment in contributing to each of these domains is the
central task of this article.

Constructing Meanings From Experience

Sense of place is based on symbolic meanings attributed to the setting (Hummon
1992; Greider and Garkovich 1994; Williams and Stewart 1998). Tuan (1977)
incorporates meanings into his definition of place as a ‘‘center of meaning or field of
care.’’ Ryden (1993, 37–38) adds that ‘‘a place . . . takes in the meanings which people
assign to that landscape through the process of living in it.’’ These authors suggest
that sense of place is not intrinsic to the physical setting itself, but resides in human
interpretations of the setting, which are constructed through experience with it.
Spaces become ‘‘places’’ as they become imbued with meaning through lived
experience (Tuan 1977).
Because place is a meaning-based concept, with meanings derived from experi-
ence with the physical landscape, a fairly strong ‘‘social construction’’ view pre-
dominates in some place writings (e.g., Hufford 1992). Tuan suggests that an
unexperienced physical setting is ‘‘blank space,’’ without important characteristics of
its own: ‘‘What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place when we endow it
with value’’ (Tuan 1977, 6). Thus for Tuan, meaning is primarily socially con-
structed: Humans ascribe meanings to space on the basis of their experiences. Much
work has tended to follow this path. Greider and Garkovich (1994, 2, emphasis in
original) assert ‘‘landscapes are the reflections of these cultural identities, which are
about us, rather than the natural environment.’’ They continue (p. 2):
Any physical place has the potential to embody multiple landscapes, each
of which is grounded in the cultural definitions of those who encounter
that place. Every river is more than one river. Every rock is more than just
one rock. . . . Of course, humans reside in a natural . . . world that is
there . . . but this world is meaningless. Meanings are not inherent in the
nature of things.
The authors assert that meanings of the environment are not given, but are
socially constructed, and that too much emphasis has been put on the deterministic
The Physical Environment and Sense of Place 673

aspects of the environment in contributing to human behavior. Eisenhauer et al.

(2000, 422) follow: ‘‘In essence, people confer meaning on the environment in ways
that reflect their social and cultural experiences.’’ In this way, it is possible for a
single space to encompass multiple ‘‘places,’’ reflecting the uniqueness of human
culture and variations in experiences people have had with the landscape.

What Role for the Physical Environment?

There is a paradox at work here: Despite the constructed nature of place articu-
lated in many writings, others assert the importance of the physical environment in
creating places. Shumaker and Taylor (1983) suggest the physical amenities of the
setting as landscape attributes that satisfy certain needs. Sack (1997) links nature,
culture, and social relations in the creation of place, and notes that some places
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are richer in natural elements than others (i.e., the attributes found in the land-
scape are foundations of attachment and satisfaction). Kemmis (1990) suggests
that community attachment is based on amenities present in the natural
environment (see also Wilkinson 1991). Eisenhauer et al. (2000) assert a reciprocal
relationship between places in nature and social interactions. In their empirical
application they asked respondents why places held special meanings to them, and
responses were evenly divided between ‘‘family & friend related reasons’’ (36.9%)
and ‘‘environmental features & characteristics of place’’ (34.2%). Although the
authors attribute between-community variation in these proportions to social-
cultural differences in the way people interact with the natural environment, is it
also possible that much of this variation is attributable to differences in the
physical environment itself? Local community culture influences place meanings,
but so might the nature of the physical environment influence community culture.
Is there an ultimate limit, set by the physical environment itself, to this ‘‘con-
structed landscape’’ approach? Are we really likely to attribute ‘‘wilderness’’
meanings to a suburban shopping mall? I suggest that these symbols are at least
partially based on some material reality. In so doing, I am not arguing a deter-
minism, but rather an empirical investigation into the relationship between aspects
of the physical environment, and its meanings.

The Physical Landscape: How Important is it, and How Might it Work?
Do characteristics of the landscape contribute to sense of place, and in what manner?
Potential mechanisms by which the physical environment influences sense of place
are implied, but not specified in the literature. The next section of the article presents
attempts to systematize sense of place prose into measurable relationships.

Genius Loci, or ‘‘Direct Effects’’ Model

Some authors imply a direct relationship between landscape features and sense of
place: We are attached to places because of outstanding physical features (Shumaker
and Taylor 1983). Ryden (1993, 38) emphasizes the physical nature of place as
‘‘grounded in those aspects of the environment which we appreciate through the
senses and through movement: color, texture, slope, quality of light, the feel of wind,
the sounds and scents carried by that wind.’’ Shields (1991) asserts the nature of the
physical space strongly affects the nature of the created place (see also Rudzitis
1993). Jackson (1994, 151, emphasis in original) articulates the debate between
674 R. C. Stedman

experience with a setting versus characteristics of the setting in producing a sense of

It is my own belief that a sense of place is something that we ourselves create
in the course of time. It is the result of habit or custom. But others disagree.
They believe that a sense of place comes from our response to features that
are already there—either a beautiful natural setting or well-designed archi-
tecture. They believe that a sense of place comes from being in an unusual
composition of spaces and forms—natural or man-made.
This formulation of sense of place ‘‘is an awkward and ambiguous modern
translation of the Latin term genius loci . . . not so much the place itself as the
guardian divinity of that place. It was believed that a locality—a space or a structure
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or a whole community—derived much of its unique quality from the presence or

guardianship of a supernatural spirit’’ (Jackson 1994, 157). The sense of a place
means its essence, which is not constructed via experience, but rather is imbued in the
setting itself. Although somewhat peripheral to sense of place, much of the work
of environmental psychologists who focus on patterns of environmental preference
can be located here. Visual preferences for certain age and species composition of
forests (see Gobster 2001) may be based in human evolution (Appleton 1984), or
need for information (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989).

The Meaning-Mediated Model

This model suggests that the meanings of a setting are based on its environmental
attributes. This is to some degree an extension of the genius loci model: Physical
features do not produce sense of place directly, but influence the symbolic meanings
of the landscape, which are in turn associated with evaluations such as attachment.
For example, places of low population density will more likely take on the meaning
of ‘‘wilderness’’ than will places of high population density. Humans then become
attached to the meaning they have constructed for the landscape. Elements of the
natural environment thus underpin the symbolic meanings on which attachment is

The Experiential Model

Previous behaviors or experiences in the landscape may create lenses through which
humans attribute meanings to landscape. Experiences are linked to the environment
in which they occur; physical landscapes, by virtue of certain characteristics, enable
or constrain a range of experiences that shape meanings. To stay with our example,
wilderness meanings may not be tied directly to landscape variables such as remo-
teness. Instead, these meanings may be constructed through behaviors (i.e.,
back-country camping) that are enabled by characteristics of the setting. People
create wilderness meanings as they do certain things consistent with their notions of
what one does in a wilderness area. For example, Greider and Garkovich’s (1994)
open field is viewed differently through different lenses (hunter, farmer, real estate
developer) that have been created through dominant modes of interaction with the
landscape. The analytical question becomes whether these patterns of interaction are
driven by characteristics of the landscape itself, or whether human behaviors and
landscape characteristics are largely independent factors.
The Physical Environment and Sense of Place 675

To summarize, there are implicit within the place literature several potential
models of how the physical landscape may produce a sense of place. However, none
has been ‘‘tested’’ to assess the magnitude of the relationship between environment
and sense of place, nor the mechanism by which it operates. This is in part due to the
phenomenological underpinnings of much of the sense of place literature. The
question of the utility of traditional hypothesis testing is not the subject of this article
but has been engaged elsewhere (Jorgensen and Stedman 2001; Stedman 2002). The
goals of this article are to begin to fill these gaps, asking (1) How strong is the
relationship between characteristics of the physical environment and sense of place
and (2) What model provides the best explanation of the process by which the effect
occurs? Due to the theoretical conceptions of sense of place that emphasize the
experiential and meaning based nature of sense of place, I hypothesize that the best
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model of sense of place will be that which suggests that attributes of the environment
are associated with characteristic experiences. Symbolic meanings are produced from
these experiences, and these meanings in turn underpin place attachment and

Research: Sense of Place in Vilas County, Wisconsin

The Research Setting

Vilas County, in the north central region of Wisconsin, provides a good laboratory
for exploring these models. This is a lake-rich landscape: Vilas County has 1,320
lakes, more than any other county in the state (WDNR 1991). Lakes provide the raw
material for sense of place in Vilas County: They embody the ‘‘northwoods char-
acter, identity, and sense of place’’ of Northern Wisconsin (WDNR 1996, 1). In Vilas
County, meanings encompass scenic beauty, environmental quality, and recreation,
based on visitation and second home ownership. In 2000, 56.5% of all Vilas County
housing was classified as ‘‘for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use,’’ the highest
proportion in the state. A shoreline development boom has been occurring in
northern Wisconsin, manifested in increased new home starts, subdivisions, esca-
lated property values, rising tax rates, and overall patterns of sprawl (Hammer et al.
1999). Development pressures have been especially intense around lakes. The
Northern Wisconsin’s Lakes and Shoreline Study (WDNR 1996) found a 60%
increase in shore development density on selected lakes between 1960 and 1996.
Nearly 3,500 new homes were constructed in Vilas County, with a 1990 population
of only 17,000 residents, between 1985 and 1996 (Vilas County 1996). Much of this
development is concentrated on or near lake shores (Osterman 1997).
Several municipal planning documents echo concerns about development and
its potential impacts on sense of place or northwoods character. The Town of
Manitowish Waters (1995) charged its zoning committee to manage growth to
maintain northwoods character and preserve natural shoreline. Similar concerns
were expressed in other nearby communities (Town of Eagle River 1996; Town of
Phelps 1998; Town of St. Germain 1998). In summary, Vilas County appears to be a
good laboratory for examining the role of the physical environment on sense of
place: It has important natural attributes (lakes) with strong symbolic meanings that
may be threatened by change to the physical environment. Importantly, there are
lake databases that permit modeling the relationship between environmental attri-
butes and sense of place.
676 R. C. Stedman

Methods and Data

Lake databases were matched to surveys conducted with Vilas County property
owners. One lake database provided by county government included lake size,
average depth, and shoreline development density as measured by the number of
structures in the shoreline buffer (within 100m from the lake) per mile of lake
frontage for all lakes over 50 acres. The ERL database (Glass and Sorenson 1994)
provides information for 171 Vilas County lakes on variables such as water clarity,
algal biomass, chlorophyll, color (light absorption, or dissolved organic carbon as a
surrogate), alkalinity, and conductivity (total dissolved solids). The majority of the
ERL lakes (n ¼ 117) also are in the Vilas County database.
Lake characteristics were linked to responses to a random sample of 1,000 Vilas
County property owners, drawn from the 1999 County tax records list. The research
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utilized a three-contact mailing procedure (initial mailing, postcard reminder, and

follow-up full mailing), resulting in a 72.1% response rate. Respondents were asked
about the particular lake on which they owned property (if the property owned did
not border a lake, respondents were instructed to select a lake that they visited often,
lived near, or was otherwise a favorite). Respondents related their experiences with
their lake, the symbolic meanings they attributed to it, and their levels of place
attachment and satisfaction. These evaluations were then linked to lake specific
attributes (environmental variables) described earlier.

Sense of Place Measures

I focus on two dimensions of sense of place: place attachment and satisfaction. Place
attachment1 is consistent with definitions of identity (how strong do I perceive my
linkage to the setting to be); place satisfaction is consistent with definitions of atti-
tude (degree of like or dislike for the setting). These two items thus flesh out the
social psychological dimensions of sense of place (see Stedman 2002). To measure
attachment, respondents were asked ‘‘how important is your lake to you’’ and were
presented with nine items (e.g., ‘‘my lake is my favorite place to be’’) used in previous
research (Jorgensen and Stedman 2001). Each was measured on a 7-point scale from
strongly agree to strongly disagree. Respondents demonstrated high levels of
attachment to their lake (Table 1), and the attachment scale encompasses a highly
reliable single domain of meaning (alpha ¼ .937).

TABLE 1 Place Attachment

Mean Agree

I feel that I can really be myself there 5.50 73.7

I really miss it when I am away too long 5.42 72.7
I feel happiest when I am there 5.32 70.0
It is the best place to do the things I enjoy 5.17 68.5
It is my favorite place to be 5.14 65.4
It reflects the type of person I am 4.96 58.5
For the things I enjoy most, no other place can compare 4.82 57.3
Everything about it is a reflection of me 4.53 47.3
As far as I am concerned, there are better places to be 3.18 23.8
Scale a ¼ .937
The Physical Environment and Sense of Place 677

Place satisfaction is adopted from the field of community sociology as a com-

plementary concept to place attachment. Satisfaction was assessed via a question
that asked respondents to rate their satisfaction with different elements of their lake
on a 5-point Likert scale ‘‘extremely satisfied’’ to ‘‘extremely dissatisfied.’’ The items
were summed (Table 2) into a composite satisfaction measure (alpha ¼ .822). The
attachment and satisfaction scales are positively, but modestly correlated (r ¼ .159).
Symbolic meanings were assessed via a series of items attempted to measure
respondent beliefs about their lake: answers to the question ‘‘what kind of place is
this?’’ In an effort to reflect the nature of the dominant meanings held for the area,
dimensions of ‘‘up north’’ received special focus, as did the degree to which one’s
lake represented a social place with important personal relationships. The ‘‘up
north’’ domain was extracted from a more extensive list of items created through
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maximum likelihood factor analysis of meanings held for one’s lake. Overall,
respondents agreed (with some variability) that their lake was up north (Table 3).
The degree to which respondents perceived their lake as a social place is based on a
single item: the proportion of people around their lake they consider close friends.
Finally, the experience measures included items addressing whether the respondent
owned lakeshore property, whether they were a seasonal or year-round resident,
their length of time in the setting, and their activities around the lake.

TABLE 2 Elements of Satisfaction

Satisfaction %
with lake elements Satisfied

Scenery 94.2
Water quality 83.5
Solitude=peacefulness 82.9
Population of wildlife 83.1
Number of users 68.4
Level of shore development 66.0
Other’s recreation activities 53.0
Fishing quality 53.2
Scale a ¼ .822

TABLE 3 Up North Meanings

My lake is . . . Agree Factor loading

A place to escape 70.1 .7604

from civilization
The real ‘‘up north’’ 69.5 .7726
A place of high environmental 64.3 .6710
A pristine wilderness 46.5 .6716
Scale a ¼ .722
678 R. C. Stedman

Multivariate Results
Place attachment and satisfaction appear to be very different concepts. Using a
bivariate correlation analysis (Table 4), none of the environmental variables is sig-
nificantly related to place attachment: The degree to which one is attached to his or
her lake apparently has very little to do with its physical, biochemical, and social
attributes. In contrast, place satisfaction is predicted by social, physical, and lim-
nological properties of the lake itself; six of the seven lake attribute properties are
significant at ( p < .01). Clear, large lakes, on the blue=green end of the color spec-
trum, with low chlorophyll, are loci for more positive attitudes, as are lakes with less
shoreline development that lack public access. These attributes correspond to public
perceptions of desirable lakes where vacant property is most expensive (Pierce 1999).
Although these findings shed some light on the relationship between char-
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acteristics of the physical environment and place attachment=satisfaction, this simple

analysis is hardly sufficient to understand the relationship: It examines only the
direct effects, as if attachment and satisfaction were directly caused by environ-
mental features. Several important components are missing from the equation:
experience with the landscape and symbolic meanings.
This article has described several models that include the role of symbolic
meanings and experience as potential mediators of the relationship between sense of
place and place characteristics. I used LISREL VII (Joreskog and Sorbom 1989) to
model the direct and indirect relationships among the variables. Rather than using
factor analysis-derived scales, some (e.g., Hayduk 1987; Hayduk et al. 1995) argue
that LISREL modelers should carefully chose a single indicator that best represents
the underlying substantive concept. This becomes especially important with con-
structs that show a large diversity of response (i.e., ‘‘lake characteristics’’) that do not
group together in a reliable way or tap a common domain of meaning. Accordingly,
the analysis employed here makes use of single concept indicators, rather than
composite scales.
Shoreline development density was chosen as the ‘‘environmental variable’’ to
model: As described earlier, the loss of wild shoreline has been identified as a crucial
issue for loss of sense of place. Development density was measured by Vilas County
zoning personnel via 1997 aerial photography of all structures within the shoreline
development buffer (100 m of the shore). Lakeshore development also likely con-
tributes to other lake characteristics of interest, such as water turbidity and chlor-
ophyll levels. There are also fewer missing cases for this variable than for many of

TABLE 4 Lake Characteristics and Place Attachment=Satisfaction: Bivariate

Lake attributes Attachment Satisfaction n Cases

Structures per mile .100 .196*** 592

Public access .055 .237*** 652
Lake size .043 .129** 641
Average depth .049 .056 564
Color .010 .174** 350
Chlorophyll .086 .173** 334
Turbidity .121 .142** 297
Note. Significance indicated by *p < .05 ;**p < .01 ; ***
p < .001.
The Physical Environment and Sense of Place 679

the others, resulting in greater analytical power. Place attachment is measured by

response to the item ‘‘This is my favorite place to be’’ (.912 loading on the place
attachment factor). The item ‘‘how satisfied are you with your lake overall’’ loads
.882 on the place satisfaction scale; my lake is a ‘‘place of escape’’ demonstrates a
.761 loading on the ‘‘up north’’ factor, and the proportion of people around the lake
considered close friends indicates the sociability of one’s lake.

Analyzing the Models

The ‘‘direct effects’’ model posits no mediating effect of meanings, but rather that
attachment and satisfaction can be understood purely as a function of setting
characteristics. In structural equation modeling with no intervening variables, the
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results are equivalent to those that would be obtained in an OLS equation. Not
surprisingly, therefore, the degree of lakeshore development has a strong (negative)
impact on level of place satisfaction (respondents who own property on more
developed lakes are less satisfied with them). In contrast, there is no effect on place
attachment. Using established criteria (Joreskog and Sorbom 1989), this model is not
a satisfactory representation of the data, as the p value is highly significant ( p < .001)
and the chi-square value high (13.23) for just one degree of freedom (Figure 1).
The meaning-mediated model introduces symbolic meanings as mediating vari-
ables in the relationship between the physical landscape and sense of place: Certain
landscape attributes foster or inhibit certain meanings. Are more densely developed
lakes ‘‘different’’ places (in terms of symbolic meanings) and therefore places to
which one is less attached and=or satisfied? Shoreline development may reduce the
degree to which one’s lake represents an escape from civilization, and may foster
‘‘neighborhood’’ meanings consistent with neighbors and social relationships. Sub-
stantively, these meanings are at the core of the debate about the future of Vilas
County and its lakes, as the landscape evolves from a wilderness escape place,
to a place that feels more like a day-to-day setting of social relationships. Each
meaning is represented via a single indicator: ‘‘My lake is an escape from civiliza-
tion,’’ and ‘‘I consider the people around my lake close friends.’’ This cognitively
mediated model is a much better fit of the data (chi-square ¼ 4.50, df ¼ 2,
p ¼ .10560), RMSEA ¼ .040 (Figure 2).

FIGURE 1 The direct effects model.

680 R. C. Stedman
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FIGURE 2 The meaning-mediated model.

Cognitions help to explain the relationship between landscape characteristics

and place attachment=satisfaction. The chi-square value is reduced dramatically, and
the p value does not approach significance. Moving beyond questions of model fit,
however, the structural equation modeling exercise reveals substantively interesting
indirect effects that are useful in interpreting the impacts of development on
attachment. Recall that bivariate correlations initially suggested that place attach-
ment had little to do with environmental characteristics of the spatial setting. The
modeling reveals that shoreline development density has a negligible overall effect on
attachment due to two cognitive mediations (on ‘‘place of escape’’ and ‘‘social
place’’) that effectively cancel each other. Thus, the indirect effects reveal that
shoreline development is importantly related to place attachment, but in two con-
tradictory ways. More development negatively impacts one’s lake as a ‘‘place of
escape’’ (beta ¼ .24, p < .001). However, more development also increases a lake’s
sociability (beta ¼ .18, p < .001). In turn, each of these domains is positively related
to attachment (betas ¼ .32 and .25, respectively). There is no direct effect, unex-
plained by cognition, of shoreline development on attachment; the effect is entirely a
product of effects of shoreline development on meanings. Despite the ‘‘no overall
effect’’ of development on attachment, it is quite important (theoretically and sub-
stantively) to know that even if overall levels of attachment do not change as a result
of changes to the physical landscape, the basis of attachment (the meanings that
people are attached to) may change dramatically.
A different story is observed for place satisfaction. Despite the positive effect
observed in the direct effects model, cognitive mediation provides additional
explanation. Viewing one’s lake as an ‘‘escape place’’ is strongly associated with
higher levels of place satisfaction (beta ¼ .45, p < .001). In contrast, stronger
friendship networks do not increase satisfaction with one’s lake. Therefore, these
effects do not counterbalance each other, and the overall effect of increased shoreline
development on satisfaction is negative. Also, there is a small (p < .05) residual
negative effect of shoreline development on satisfaction that is not explained by the
cognitions in the model.
The logic underlying the experiential model is that shoreline development affects
the range of experiences that one has, and in turn, these experiences serve as the
foundations for meanings ascribed to the landscape. Here, the level of shoreline
development is hypothesized to affect the proportion of people using the lake who
The Physical Environment and Sense of Place 681
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FIGURE 3 The experiential model, I.

are year-round residents. In turn, year-round residents are hypothesized to ascribe

different meanings to the lake than seasonal residents and visitors (Figure 3). This
model is a poor fit of the data, as the chisquare value once again is highly significant
( p ¼ .01450). The problem with the model immediately becomes obvious: Shoreline
development is completely unrelated (beta ¼ .02) to the proportion of respondents
who are year-round residents, as it is to all other experience variables that might have
been substituted. Attributes of the physical environment, at least in this particular
case, have little to do with the way that people interact with it. This essentially sets up
experience with the setting as a potentially competing, rather than complementary,
explanation for the source of cognitions. Accordingly, although not originally part
of the research question, one final model—experience with the landscape, rather than
attributes of the landscape as driving cognition—is tested as well (Figure 4).
This model, though a better fit than either the direct effects model or the experi-
ence þ cognitions model, is not as strong a fit as the cognitive mediation model; the p
value is significant (indicating unsatisfactory fit), although barely so. Essentially, this
model tells us that lakes are somewhat different places for seasonal and year-round

FIGURE 4 The experiential model, II.

682 R. C. Stedman

residents; quite reasonably, year-round residents are less likely to view their lake as a
place of escape (after all, it is their regular home). However, there is no evident
relationship between residence patterns and the degree to which one’s lake is con-
sidered a ‘‘social place’’: Friendships with others around their lake are equally
important to year-round and seasonal residents.

Summary and Discussion

This research takes steps toward filling a large gap in the sense of place literature.
Some assert that the socially constructed meanings of the environment are of
paramount importance, that the physical environment matters little, even as a
material basis of these constructions. Others suggest that landscape characteristics
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are important to sense of place, but fail to provide specific statements about how
much influence the physical landscape has, nor the causal mechanisms at play. This
article demonstrates that landscape characteristics matter; they underpin both place
attachment and satisfaction, but in very different ways. People are more satisfied
with deep lakes that have less shoreline development, clearer water, less public
access, and lower chlorophyll levels. The effect on place attachment is more complex,
and only revealed via modeling the indirect effects of symbolic meanings. More
developed lakes are less likely to be ‘‘escape places,’’ and more likely to be ‘‘social
places.’’ Because each of these meanings is positively associated with attachment,
shoreline development changes the symbolic base of attachment without affecting
overall attachment.
In examining different models of the relationship between the physical landscape
and sense of place, the only model not rejected as poor fit was that which treated
characteristics of the physical environment as the basis of meanings, which in turn
affected attachment and satisfaction. Neither the ‘‘direct effects’’ (where attributes of
the landscape serve directly as the source of sense of place) nor models that incor-
porate experience demonstrated acceptable model fit. It is possible, however, that
characteristics of this particular setting and the people using it may have contri
buted to these results. Simply put, there is not much variation in these lakes and the
kinds of experiences that people have with them. Studying other settings that are
more diverse in both environmental quality and the mode of interaction (i.e., some
people recreating, other people working) may help us to more fully understand this
If the physical environment matters little as a source of attachment, there is a
wide latitude in which environmental degradation may occur, while leaving
attachment intact. It is crucial that we understand the importance of meanings and
how they may change in response to physical landscape change. Urry (1995) notes
that place myths (as collections of symbiotic meanings) are not eternal: The condi-
tions of the physical setting may change and no longer support the myths. Relph
(1976) asserts that once developed, a place identity is maintained only as long as it is
plausible. It can become implausible if changing conditions make it inadequate for
its primary purpose. Holding on to one’s place meanings may become increasingly
challenging as the gap widens between the meaning and the physical characteristics
of the setting (Fitchen 1991), but a number of mechanisms help the social actor
preserve meanings even as the environment changes. Marcus (1992) emphasizes the
role of memory, as recalled experiences continue to shape current place meanings.
Important as well is the linked nature of meanings, as threats to one important image
may threaten the coherence of the entire set (Shields 1991).
The Physical Environment and Sense of Place 683

Common to all of these statements about loss of place is the notion that sense of
place is vulnerable to changes in place meanings. The physical landscape may change
to such a degree that preferred meanings become untenable or are maintained only
through active effort. These efforts are probably limited to those who have a long-
term presence in the landscape. Settings with rapid turnover may be characterized by
a ‘‘baseline effect’’ phenomenon: ‘‘Up north’’ is what you see when you get there.
When people arrive into a setting they encounter a landscape that they are told via
many sources, including local media promotion, is ‘‘up north.’’ If the setting has no
lakeshore development, light recreational use, and pristine water quality, this will
serve as their baseline perception of what up north means. This ‘‘up north’’ may be
threatened by new lakeshore cabins and motorboat traffic. Others, however, will
arrive with these phenomena as the ‘‘normal’’ condition of what up north is all
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about; their conception may be threatened by jet skis and condominium resorts.
Thus, there may still be agreement with the symbol, while the physical environment
underpinning it erodes. This latter point in particular has implications for natural
resource and land use planning: Attempts to manipulate the landscape in the service
of attachment will fail if meanings are not considered. Restricting shore development
may have no effect on attachment levels but dramatically change what kind of place
the setting represents.
One final nod to theory needs to be made. Much of the latent debate between the
strong social constructivist position and those who assert that the material envir-
onment underpins sense of place echos dialogue that led to the formation of
environmental sociology as a distinct discipline: a recognition that humans are not
exempt from constraints set forth by the biophysical environment (Dunlap and
Catton 1979; Buttel 1987). Is it really reasonable to suggest that our constructed
meanings are independent of the environmental attributes found there? That these
variables contribute to human behavior, however, hardly suggests that they deter-
mine human behavior. Rather, these questions are open to empirical inquiry such as
that conducted in this article, which helps to systematize important theoretical
statements about the interplay between the physical environment, human behavior,
symbolic meanings, and sense of place.

1. There has been a great deal of attention paid to the potential dimensionality of place
attachment. Williams et al. (1992), Moore and Graefe (1994), and Kaltenborn (1998) have
asserted that place attachment encompasses two distinct constructs: place dependence, or the
instrumentality of a setting to serve needs; and place identity, or the symbolic bonds between
people and place. Jorgensen and Stedman (2001) and Stedman (2002) suggest that the rela-
tionship is somewhat more complex than this, with mixed evidence for multidimensionality. In
particular, Jorgensen and Stedman (2001) find that three distinct factors (identity, attachment,
and dependence) emerge, but with a considerable amount of common variation across these
constructs, which is primarily attributed to the attachment domain. This article treats
attachment as encompassing a single dimension, which can be justified given the high relia-
bility of the attachment scale.

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