Sowing a sense of place : an in-depth case study of changing youths' sense of places
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning.
Lawrence J. Vale.
MetadataShow full item record
In this dissertation I examine the change in youths' sense of urban and non-urban places brought about by involvement in a multi-site agriculture program. The concept of 'Place' is more than the biophysical and built settings in a defined space; it also includes the human meanings and values associated with these locations. How a place is experienced is often referred to as sense of place, which may be defined broadly as the collection of meanings, beliefs, symbols, values, and feelings that individuals or groups associate with a particular locality. The literature in this area comes from a broad range of disciplines, including geography, environmental psychology, sociology and anthropology. It has also entered the lexicon of a diversity of practitioners, including environmental educators, urban planners, architects, and real estate developers. Its broad use suggests that these concepts resonate with a wide spectrum of scholars and practitioners. Surprisingly, little has been written about the sense of place among youth (either with reference to their home environment or in relation to other places that they may or may not have directly experienced). Similarly, little is known about the processes by which a sense of place develops.(cont.) My research begins to fill these gaps through an in-depth, multi-year case study of youth who participated in a two-month agriculture program with The Food Project (together with a control group of non-participating: youth). The Food Project is a Boston-based organization that brings together non-urban and inner city youth to work together on organic farms located in Lincoln (a wealthy, predominantly White town outside of Boston) and Roxbury (a predominantly Black and Hispanic, low-income inner city neighborhood of Boston). Unlike many racial integration programs that bring youth of color from the city out to the suburbs where they have contact with White, suburban peers (such as school busing programs), all participants in The Food Project experience intense contact with peers from different backgrounds in both familiar and unfamiliar environments. The Food Project program can be thought of as an accelerated version of more mundane place experience; without the focused intervention that this program provided, repeated exposures to new, non-residential places tend to occur over a longer period of time than the two months spent with The Project. Studying an accelerated place experience such as that enabled by The Food Project's Summer Program provides a window into how youth develop relationships to places over longer periods of time.(cont.) I draw upon a mixed method design to examine the question: How do non-urban and urban youth sense places and how is this changed through a place-based integration program? The data that I utilize comes from semi-structured interviews, surveys, cognitive mapping exercises and participant observation. The final method was particularly useful in garnering an understanding of the development of the youths' place perceptions. Embedded as a fellow 'crew worker' for a two-month period, I observed and recorded the youths' actions and attitudes toward places. My intense daily contact with the young people provided insights into the factors that impacted the way in which they sensed Lincoln, Roxbury and their home environments that cannot be captured through standardized measures, such as surveys and questionnaires. My mixed methods approach provided a rich data set that affords an opportunity to compare the sense of places of urban and non-urban youth as well as the changes produced by this program. Although the sense of places of the youth in this study reflected their individually unique identities, values and social skills, the results of my research led to the development of a general framework that has utility to guide future research questions in this area.(cont.) This framework includes the mediating variable I call place repertoires and two moderating variables, environmental fit, and cross place friendships. A place repertoire refers to an individual's lived and virtual experiences in a set of places. In making assessments or discussing places, all of the youth drew on their repertoires, mentally comparing and contrasting features of places with one another. The expansion of a youth's repertoire resulted in sharper images and the ability to see subtle variations across places. The effect of an increased repertoire was moderated by the youth's environmental fit, which refers to the alignment of their personal identity with their local environs. The strength of the relationships that they formed with their peers who resided in places different from their own also moderated the impact of an expanded repertoire on their sense of a given environment. Outcomes of particular interest included the association between the non-urban youths' expanded repertoires and their increased use of racial indicators in place discussions. This shift in language represented a convergence in the urban and non-urban youths' place talk. Another notable observation was the variation in the youths' tendency to reimage Roxbury through the historical interpretive frame that was presented to them by The Food Project.(cont.) Youth who started the program with broader place repertoires consistently reframed their image through a historical lens, while their peers with narrower repertoires did not. I hypothesize that the former group's larger initial place literacy facilitated the development of a more complex image and understanding of Roxbury. Both of these results highlight the important role that planning practitioners can play in fostering a shared understanding and vision of places amongst their constituents. This dissertation moves the sense of place literature beyond a vague description of what is being sensed (and what goes unsensed) by youth from different backgrounds, and provides a greater understanding of the similarities and differences in how youth sense these places. This information is of great importance to urban planners, community organizers and environmental educators with interests in developing strategies for engaging youth in the stewardship of their environments. The results are also relevant for scholars, planners and decision makers interested in how people in a diverse and segregated society develop a racialized sense of places.(cont.) My hope is that this work will encourage planners to look beyond the traditional sense of place literature that emphasizes 'natural' environments, home, and what I argue is a romanticized notion of the positive relationship between time spent in a place and one's sense of that place. The results of my research indicate that there is a need to consider an individual's attributes, such as race, class, biases and stereotypes, in understanding how people develop their sense of a given place. These variables are traditionally the domain of sociologists who often deal in placeless units, such as census tracts. As planners we should 'emplace' these variables in order to unveil their meaning for the way in which people experience their environments.
Thesis (M.C.P.)--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning, 2007.Includes bibliographical references (p. 339-346).
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Urban Studies and Planning.