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Cultural Meanings of the Landscape

Article by Karin Peters.

Place meanings and place attachments are socially constructed. Individuals can experience different senses of meaning and attachment over their life course, and in relation to socio-cultural environments. In this essay I will explore how place attachment of first generation migrants is important for evaluating how urban design deals with the consequences of changing populations. Place attachment As many authors have argued before, place meanings and place attachments incorporate many elements of one’s cultural perspective (see e.g. Eisenhauer, Krannich, and Blahna 2000; Kyle and Johnson 2008; Wynveen et al. 2011). Place attachments can build through ancestral connection, past experiences, memories, and social connection within a setting. Furthermore, in relation with all of these forms, repeated interactions in public spaces influence the ways in which people feel connected to these spaces.

First generation migrants, as individuals who have had long-term contact with different places, demonstrate how place attachment habits can vary over life courses and from home to home. In ongoing comparative research in the US, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands, we have shown that interviewed immigrants felt strongly attached to both the natural environment in their home country as well as their host countries. Moroccan-Dutch and Turkish-German as well as Ukrainian women in Poland talked with passion about the villages where they were raised and where some of them still had houses. These particular attachments relate mainly to ancestral connections and past experiences. Other experiences of attachment to natural environments in the country of settlement varied depending on the immigrants’ ethnic background, their life stage and the length of time elapsed since immigration. Here repeated interactions and past experiences formed the attachment to specific places.

Design Urban landscapes continuously transform for many reasons, including the one of central importance here – changing populations through migration. In this section I’ll discuss two sites of urban landscape from previous research in Nijmegen and Utrecht (Peters, 2011, p.121-122/p.135-136). The first site is a small urban park in Nijmegen, Thiemepark.

Thiemepark, Nijmegen

When this park was designed, one of the clear objectives was to create a meeting place. Local residents, who were involved in every phase of the park’s design process, wanted a green place where they could sit, relax and meet each other. The current design reflects many of these wishes. For example, the grassy area is gently sloped in order to discourage the playing of football and thus minimize possible conflicts over its use. Rest and gathering are supposed to be the main functions of this park. In addition, the wish to have water in the park was expressed mainly by Moroccan-Dutch people, and water was included in the design. Furthermore, the multicultural character of the neighbourhood was explicitly acknowledged by, for example, including Arabic elements, such as a sculpture by an Arab artist. The fact that the design of Thiemepark was made in cooperation with the local residents has strengthened the familiarity with and use of it, and has also increased the opportunities for social interactions between different ethnic groups. Local inhabitants of different origins all feel very attached to the park because people can easily connect to the place and to other people, because many will already be familiar with each other from the neighbourhood.

The second example deals with the building of a new mosque in Lombok (Utrecht).

Mosque Lombok, Utrecht

In 1983, ULU mosque opened in an old bath house in Lombok. It was obvious that this was only a temporary place for the mosque, and it soon became too small for the increasing number of people who went there. At the turn of the new century, the board of the mosque started to develop ideas for building a new one. In 2009, the first stone of the new mosque was laid. It is being built opposite the old mosque, and is completed in 2014. The new design incorporates two 44-metre high minarets and a 24-metre high cupola. This spatial development was discussed extensively by residents of Lombok during my interviews. Some residents do not like the height of the minarets and think that the building will dominate the public space too much. Furthermore, the new mosque has led to discussions in which the Muslim inhabitants of Lombok are portrayed in a derogatory way by some local residents, showing that differences are perceived between Muslim and non-Muslim residents and their behaviour. For many residents, however, the mosque is no cause for concern, because it is part of today’s society: Islamic people are living in the Netherlands, and they want and are entitled to a mosque; after all, there are also churches in the Netherlands. These residents are happy about the new mosque and see the development as a good example of their multicultural neighbourhood – a neighbourhood that is different from other neighbourhoods, and where people accept each other: Everybody moans about this, and in many cities this is not a good thing. That’s the nice thing about Lombok: here in Lombok the inhabitants ensured that the new mosque will be in a prominent place … Native and non-native Dutch inhabitants did this together. That is really nice (40-year-old German-Dutch man). In that sense, this development shows that many residents feel attached to their neighbourhood, and feel that this new mosque belongs in their neighbourhood.

Final note With these two examples I wanted to show how individuals from different cultural backgrounds both relate to places and, directly and indirectly, influence places.

This type of research, however, is often problematic because by labelling individuals with their ethnic background, we inevitably reproduce behaviour as specific to certain ethnic categories. As such, there appears to be a conceptual paradox between the need to categorize individuals to a certain extent, and the fact that using categories will produce and reproduce these categories. In future research it might be more fruitful to use (also) different analytical divisions. Generation might serve as an interesting lens through which differences can be examined because it seems to be more neutral and influences life trajectories of all humans.


Eisenhauer, B. W., R.S. Krannich, and D.J. Blahna. 2000. Attachments to special places on public lands: An analysis of activities, reason for attachments, and community connections. Society and Natural Resources 13:421-441.

Kyle, G. T., and C.Y. Johnson. 2008. Understanding cultural variation in place meaning. In: Kruger, L. E.; Hall, T.E; & M.C. Stiefel (Eds.), Proceedings: Understanding Concepts of Place in Recreation Research and Management (Gen. Tech. Rep. PNWGTR-698, pp. 109-134). Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Peters, K. (2011). Living together in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods: The meaning of public spaces for issues of social integration. Wageningen University, Wageningen. Wynveen, C., Kyel, G.T., Absher, J.D., & Theodori, G.L. (2011). The meanings associated with varying degree of attachment to a natural landscape. Journal of Leisure Research, 43, 290-311.

september 8, 2014

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