General view of monument to Queen Victoria. View shows the other side of the monument "The figure of 'Maternity' at the back of the throne - a symbol of 'the Mother of her People'". In the foreground are people using the gardens, reading, relaxing and chatting.
Monument to Queen Victoria, completed in 1901 as a centrepiece to Piccadilly Gardens, Greater Manchester © Historic England DP220619
Monument to Queen Victoria, completed in 1901 as a centrepiece to Piccadilly Gardens, Greater Manchester © Historic England DP220619

People’s Attachment to Historic Places and the Benefits

Part of the Heritage Counts series. 5 minute read.

People develop rich and meaningful relationships with places. This is referred to as ‘place attachment’. These bonds can be both emotional and functional in nature, emerging through a range of factors including personal experiences and memories in a place and social connections (Low and Altman, 1992; Williams and Vaske, 2003; Raymond et al, 2010). This article explores the role of heritage in enabling and strengthening the bonds between people and places.

Several studies have found an association between heritage and place attachment.

These bonds can influence the way we feel and behave:

  • Improving our self-esteem, sense of belonging, relaxation and personal growth (Scannell and Gifford, 2017). Studies of people’s brain activity show that meaningful places are capable of stimulating strong neurological and emotional responses and can thus have a positive impact on mental wellbeing (National Trust, 2017; Gatersleben et al, 2020)
  • People are also motivated to look after the places they feel connected to, whilst threats to places/disruptions to these attachments can evoke emotional responses and lead to civic action (Devine-Wright and Howe, 2010; McGinlay et al, 2023)

Heritage and place attachment

The creation of scales* to capture and quantify the bonds between people and places has allowed researchers to study the association between living in historic places and place attachment:

  • The Centre for Urban and Regional Studies (CURDS, 2009) found that living in ‘more historic’ places (defined in terms of density of listed buildings) was linked to having a stronger sense of place (measured using a series of statements designed to assess respondents’ subjective feelings towards where they lived)
  • Lewicka (2008) surveyed residents (n=500) of two cities in Eastern Europe using a nine-item questionnaire tool and found evidence of stronger attachment to the city amongst residents of historical districts
  • To explore residents’ attachments to historic sites in Edinburgh, Wang (2021) used a quantitative scale to measure participants' attachment to their local neighbourhood and wider city, combined with semi-structured qualitative interviews. They found evidence of three interrelated dimensions of attachment to the historic environment: intellectual (derived from people’s interests in history); autobiographical (linked to a person’s life journey and/or family connections), and nostalgic (taking the form of sentimental yearning for places, things and periods in the past)

* For further information see Shamai, 1991; Raymond et al, 2010; Williams and Vaske, 2003; Domingues et al, 2021.

Historic places are sites of lived experience, memory and social relationships

People develop meaningful connections to historic places through lived experience:

  • Heritage assets (for example, historic places, buildings, places of worship, intangible assets) can act as ‘symbols’ of significance that bond people to place by providing reminders of meaningful personal experiences and family histories, among other things (Hull et al, 1994)
  • Madgin’s (2021) research exploring how people develop emotional connections to historic places highlighted the importance of ‘everyday rhythms, rituals and life patterns’ in establishing these connections
  • Connections to a historic place can also be created through social relationships. People feel attached not just to the place itself but to the people with which they have developed bonds (Rollero and de Piccolo, 2010, Scannell and Gifford, 2010). Historic places are particularly good at facilitating social interactions; for example, by providing venues for meeting family and friends as communal, public spaces

Historic places can meet our emotional needs

People form attachments to places that meet basic emotional and psychological needs, such as for stability, continuity, security and relaxation (Arricio et al, 2021; Droseltiset al, 2010; Scannell and Gifford, 2017). Historic places can satisfy these needs by connecting us to the past and providing opportunities for respite:

  • Historic places represent a tangible link to the past which supports a sense of continuity over time and serves as an ‘anchor’ of personal and collective identity (Hawke, 2011a and 2011b; Cantillon et al, 2022). Continuity and identity are considered important components of place attachment, in that people feel connected to places that support their sense of self, help them to place themselves in the present, and fulfil the need for stability and security (Lewicka, 2008 and 2011; Mayes, 2015)
  • Studies of people’s emotional responses to historic places shows that they possess restorative qualities and can evoke positive emotions (relaxation, happiness) and reduce negative ones as stress and anxiety (Grossi et al, 2019; Gallou et al, 2022)
  • Wang’s (2023) research also highlighted how historic sites in the city can offer opportunities to decompress, by providing a sense of permanency, familiarity and comfort

Heritage can give places a distinctive and authentic character

People develop emotional connections to the ‘personality’ of historic places, which are made up of a range of interlocking parts, both tangible (architecture, materials) and intangible (stories, memories, feelings). This was the main finding of an academic research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Madgin, 2021).

The tangible elements of historic places can convey a sense of uniqueness and distinctiveness that people value and feel connected to:

  • Research from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (2020) highlights the relationship between heritage and local distinctiveness. The report refers to the use of local materials and building traditions, which gives specific regions a distinctive ‘architectural character’
  • The look of a place was an important factor mentioned by participants in Wang’s (2023) research with residents of Edinburgh. The ‘visual magnitude’ of historic attractions due to their beauty and architecture contributed to their feelings about the place and its significance

How a place feels – its atmosphere, sense of familiarity, and authenticity – is shaped by heritage and, in turn, can influence attachment:

  • Traces of the past can shape the ‘feel’ of a place. In an ethnographic study of Smithfield Market participants spoke of a ‘historic atmosphere’ which shaped their attachment to the place (Degen and Lewis, 2020). Local history can therefore be a means of maintaining and fostering a sense of place in the context of change, as evidenced in a study of a social housing regeneration project in London (Nelson and Lewis, 2021)
  • There is a relationship between heritage, perceptions of (subjective feelings about how genuine or ‘real’ something is) and place attachment. Ram et al’s (2016) study found that visitor attractions in locations of greater ‘heritage value’ were perceived as being more authentic by tourists, and that place attachment was a predictor of authenticity. Other studies have shown that authenticity can predict place attachment. Using a structural equation model, Wu et al (2019) found that perceived authenticity significantly increased tourists’ level of place attachment


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