Putting down roots

Researchers from the University of Western Australia have been looking at the impact trees have on making home ‘home’ after surveying . Harrison McGrath, Dr Cristina Ramalho, Professor Erik Veneklaas, Dr Tim Kurz, and Emeritus Professor Carmen Lawrence recently released the report after a survey of Perth residents. We should point out the report which has helped Mr McGrath earn his Masters.

FEELING attached to where you live may improve your health, relationships, and life satisfaction.

But Australians are some of the most mobile people in the world and with so much change it’s easy to feel out of place. 

So if you’re looking to settle down and get invested in a place, consider planting a tree. 

Why? Well it just might help you to put down roots!

At least that’s what results from our recent study of Perth residents seem to suggest. 

We found that residents’ attachment to their homes, streets, and neighbourhoods is influenced by the trees in each location. Higher levels of canopy cover were consistently linked with people feeling more ‘place attachment’.

Place attachment is a term for the emotional bonds we form to places. 

Just like we bond with people or other animals, we can also form bonds to meaningful places. 

But how do trees influence place attachment? Well that’s where things get interesting!

Creating a ‘sense of place’

It’s not a direct link from trees to place attachment. 

The important connecting piece seems to be residents’ satisfaction with the ‘sense of place’, a term closely related to place attachment that is used to describe the character or atmosphere of a location. 

The trees seem to create a stronger sense of place, which in turn leads to higher place attachment. 

But some authors worry that our sense of place itself may be disappearing.

Globalisation, increased mobility, and environmental disasters can all strain our sense of place. 

They can even threaten the very existence of these places. Authors Edward Relph and Marc Augé have both explored this disappearance of place.

They suggest the modern era creates places that lack character, causing a ‘shallowness’ of experience. Something that new suburbs are often criticised for.

These concerns beg the question, if there is no ‘place’ can you still feel attached to it?

Luckily, our study suggests that urban trees may offer a solution to creating and maintaining a sense of place in our cities. 

Building a sense of place is often a goal of cities’ urban forest plans, so it’s nice to see this reflected in our findings. 

We also found that sense of place is influenced less strongly by tree health, maturity, number of species, and whether the trees are native to the area. 

We have a complex relationship with trees, so you never quite know if you’ll find what you’re expecting to…

Some unexpected results

One surprising finding is that ‘having a say’ in the trees that exist around your home and verge is particularly important. 

People who feel like they have agency are more attached and they feel their trees are healthier.

We also asked people whether the trees cause problems such as dropping litter or damaging buildings. 

But compared to the benefits the trees provided, the downsides have little impact on people’s place attachment.

Over 600 residents voiced their opinions about trees in the online survey. 

The survey focused on the benefits trees can provide, but many residents left additional feedback expressing their worry about losing trees to redevelopment.

“I wish there was somewhere in the survey to comment on how I felt about the destruction of the trees in my neighbourhood (due to building over the entire block and infill). … I am increasingly less satisfied. I strongly feel 

the councils should have a tree preservation policy.”

Looking forward

We hope that these results will help local governments to make informed decisions when they’re managing our urban trees. 

Our results suggest that trees play an important role in shaping both sense of place and people’s place attachment.

We hope these psychological and emotional benefits that the trees provide will be fully considered. 

Decisions that authorities make today will have lasting impacts for both the environment and the people who live in these places.

We’re now digging into whether specific tree species have more of an influence than others. 

Hopefully these findings will lead to urban trees that provide more benefits and fewer drawbacks for residents.

We’re hoping these findings will assist local governments, but there’s nothing to stop individuals from taking advantage of them too. 

So if you’re putting down roots somewhere, plant a tree, because it looks like your attachment will grow with it!

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