June 22nd, 2017

The Place of Food Systems: Exploring the Relationship between Sense of Place and Community Food Systems Engagement

By Jeremy Solin

Solin JSE May 2017 14 Regenerative Agriculture PDF

Solin Cover Photo JSE

Note: This article was taken from my doctoral dissertation project at Prescott College. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2015 (3705933).

Sense of place has been shown to be a motivator of environmentally responsible behavior (Ardoin, 2009; Kudryavtsev, 2013; Payton, Fulton & Anderson, 2005; Vaske & Kobrin, 2001) and has been referenced as a potential engagement strategy in and justification for the development of community food systems (Ackerman-Leist, 2013; DeLind, 2002, 2010; Feagan, 2007; Feenstra, 1997; Gottlieb, 2010; Kloppenburg, Hendrickson, & Stevenson, 1996; Williams & Brown, 2012).  However, there is very little research that directly explores the relationship between sense of place and civic engagement in community food systems.

Literature Review

Sense of Place

Sense of place is a complex and elusive concept that is of interest to a variety of fields including education, natural resource management, community organizing, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, ethnoecology, environmental psychology, sociology, urban planning, and political science for its potential to understand and motivate human behavior.  A variety of definitions of sense of place exist.  Ardoin (2006) stated that “sense of place describes the complex cognitive, affective, and evaluative relationships people develop with social and ecological communities” (p. 118).  Stedman (2002) defined sense of place as the “meanings and attachment to a setting held by an individual or group” (p. 561). Williams and Stewart (1998) described sense of place as the “collection of meanings, beliefs, symbols, values and feelings that individuals or groups associate with a particular locality” (p. 19).  Variation existed in these definitions with relationships, meanings, attachment, emotions, values, beliefs, and symbols all had a different focus in the definitions.  At its core, sense of place seems to be about the “meanings and attachment to a [place] held by an individual or group” (Stedman, 2002, p. 561).  And, it is clear that sense of place is individually and socially constructed through the development of meaning.

Ardoin (2009) identified four dimensions of sense of place:  the biophysical (the ecological and built physical components), the personal/psychological (individual development of meaning and identity), the sociocultural (social and cultural relationships and the group development of meaning and identity), and the political-economic (engagement with issues and place).  Ardoin (2009) stated that each of these dimensions “contributes to a robust sense of place, and a robust sense of place contributes back to one’s experience of these dimensions” (p. 25).

Kudryavtsev, Stedman and Krasny (2012) and Trentelman (2009) identified two broad components of sense of place: place attachment and place meaning.  My attempt in breaking down the sense of place construct is to provide some organization and detail to the thinking and research around sense of place.  However, in line with phenomenological perspective, I hold sense of place as a comprehensive phenomenon that integrates all of these components.  Sense of place may not be able to be understood as the simple additive result of the components.

Place meaning.  Place meaning is the symbolic meanings that people give to places (Relph, 1976; Semken & Butler Freeman, 2007; Stedman, 2002). Meanings can span ecological, social, and behavioral values.  Different meanings can be held by different people for the same place (Stedman, 2002; Williams & Stewart, 1998).  The meaning that is given to (or comes from) place varies by person and culture.  For some, such as Australian aborigines, places are “a record of ‘who were here, and did what’” and a record of ‘who are here now’… The landscape … documents the achievement of a people” (Tuan, 1977, p. 132).  But for some people, even the place they live may hold little meaning and may only be held subconsciously.  Place meanings may be based on the physical characteristics of a place, but are a property of human interaction and experience in place (Relph, 1976).  That is, they develop from peoples’ pre-existing values in interaction with a place.  Place meanings develop and change through learning (Kudryavtsev, 2013).  In support of the construct that place meaning and place attachment are interrelated aspects of sense of place, at least one study found that place meanings may be the reason people connect to places (Stedman, 2006).

Place attachment. Place attachment is the emotional, psychological, and physical connection to a place (Altman & Low, 1992; Jorgensen & Stedman, 2001; Manzo & Devine-Wright, 2014; Williams, Patterson, Roggenbuck, & Watson, 1992).  Place identity and place dependence are identifiable and interrelated aspects of how and why people connect with places.  Place identity is the extent to which a place becomes part of a person’s identity (Altman & Low, 1992; Cuba & Hummon, 1993; Proshansky, Fabian & Kaminoff, 1983; Vaske & Kobrin, 2001).  Place dependence encompasses the ways in which a place fulfills needs or wants (Halpenny, 2010; Vaske & Kobrin 2001).  Place dependence includes physical and affective characteristics including emotional, psychological, relational, and physical needs.  Examples of place dependence include recreational attainment, provisioning (e.g., hunting, foraging, gardening), attaining spiritual needs, and earning a living (e.g., farming, logging, fishing).

Development of sense of place. Research provided some insight into how meaning and attachment to place have been developed.  Tuan (1974) believed that “place achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is, through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind” (p. 18) and “feeling for place is influenced by knowledge” (p. 32).  Creation of place can result from a variety of factors including distinction, time, and notable events and people (Feld & Basso, 1996; Tuan, 1974).  Soul (1988) argued that “arational,” or affective, experiences and memories of place – emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual – generate understanding and values connected to that place. Place is also held at different levels of intimacy or feeling.  Meaning and attachment are developed in relation to the land and other beings.  “Profound sentiment for land” is also held by many people (Tuan, 1977, p. 156).  Tuan noted this particularly true for indigenous people, but it is also true of many non-natives who have developed a connection to the land (Mueller Worster & Abrams, 2005; Caniglia, 2011).  Tuan stated that “sentiment for nature, inhabited only by spirits, is therefore weaker” (p. 158).  That is, the human relationship/sentiment is stronger than the relationship to the land.  This may be true for some, but is the opposite for others (Caniglia, 2011).

Childhood experience is important in the development of meaning and attachment to place.  Tuan (1974) noted that the connection developed in childhood may be unique due to how children experience and understand the world:

The child knows the world more sensuously than does the adult.  This is one reason why the adult cannot go home again.  This is also one reason why a native citizen knows his country in a way that cannot be duplicated by a naturalized citizen who has grown up elsewhere. (p. 185)

Chawla (1999), in research that examined the pathways to environmental engagement, found that in nearly all cases “formative places were childhood places” (p. 21).  Further research supports the importance and depth of childhood sense of place, which develops through time in nature often with adult mentors, in adulthood involvement in environmental issues (Gruenewald & Smith, 2010; Kahn & Kellert, 2002; Nabhan & Trimble, 1994).

However, the importance of the childhood sense of place does not limit the development of a sense of place later in life.  As Tuan (1974) noted, “the importance of events in any life is more directly proportionate to their intensity than to their extensity” (p 184). Therefore, adults can experience intense connections to place that lead to a sense of place.

Community Food Systems

There are a variety of terms that are used to describe alternatives to the corporate industrialized food system.  For this study, I used community food system as a way to capture and focus on a holistic approach to address the various issues that communities face within their food systems and the strategies they are implementing to address those issues.  Feenstra and Garrett (1999) defined a community food system as “one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place” (p. 2).  As can be seen in this definition, sustainable food systems, local food systems, food justice and civic engagement in agriculture, or civic agriculture (Lyson, 2004), are all concepts and goals within community food systems.

Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is defined as “organized voluntary activity focused on problem solving and helping others” (Zukin, Keeter, Andolina, Jenkins & Delli Carpini, 2006, p. 7).  Civic engagement activities can take place individually or as part of a group (formally or informally organized) and are generally recognized as a core responsibility and opportunity in democracies (Theiss-Morse & Hibbing, 2005).  It should be noted that there are critical views of civic engagement from the perspectives that engagement itself is not inherently positive, e.g., it could be supporting discriminatory policies or practices, and that it can come from an egoistic basis (Fiorina, 1999; Theiss-Morse & Hibbing, 2005).  There is a distinction between civic engagement and political engagement.  Civic engagement is the broader concept incorporating political engagement, which has a specific focus on government functions through policy or representation (Zukin et al., 2006).

A wide range of activities can be considered civic engagement.  Based on the definition offered above, the intent of an activity is a better indicator of its categorization as civic engagement than any attempt at a comprehensive listing of specific civic engagement activities.   With the clarification that, in the definition above, “others” include non-human beings and the Earth, generally, civic engagement spans the spectrum from personal action with the intent to decrease one’s ecological impact to large-scale community organizing or campaigning to influence policy or elections.  Engagement on social and political issues dominates the civic engagement literature while environmentally-focused engagement is often minimized.  Therefore, there is a disconnect between the environmentally responsible behavior literature emerging from the environmental education field and the general civic engagement literature (Ardoin, 2009).

While the definition and realm of civic engagement are important, of greater interest to this study is the motivation for civic engagement.  Like most of human behavior, civic engagement is a multi-faceted combination of behavioral, cognitive, and socio-emotional constructs (Zaff, Boyd, Li, Lerner & Lerner, 2010).  Therefore, understanding the motivation for civic engagement is complicated.  One theory that explains motivation for civic engagement is expectancy-value theory. Built on the work of Bandura (1985), this theory suggests an individual’s motivation is based on their expectation for success or achievement and the extent to which they value the activity. Research has also found that participation in civic activities increased the likelihood of additional civic engagement (Ardoin, 2009; Gaeke, 2009; Youniss, McLellan, & Yates, 1997).  These aspects of expectancy-value and active participation motivating engagement result in a reinforcing system of civic engagement.  However, it is important to understand what first gets people involved.  Civic engagement requires not only resources (time, money, and skills), but also interest and efficacy, which can be gained through education (Verba, Schlozman & Brady, 1995 in Gaeke, 2009).  In addition, family and social connections are strong motivators (Beck & Jennings, 1982 in Gaeke, 2009; Hernandez & Monroe, 2000 in Ardoin, 2009; Zaff et al., 2010).

Research in the field of environmental education over the past several decades also explored the motivations and predictors of civic engagement, specifically environmentally responsible behavior, which is broadly defined as “activities that support a sustainable society” (Monroe, 2003, p. 114).  Generally, we know that there is not a direct correlation between information and behavior (Heimlich & Ardoin, 2008; Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002).  Kollmuss’ and Agyeman’s (2002) meta-analysis of relevant research indicated that motivation for environmentally responsible behavior was complicated and that understanding and incorporating “all the factors behind pro-environmental behavior might neither be feasible nor useful” (p. 256).  Nonetheless, they put forth a model of environmentally responsible behavior that incorporates “demographic factors, external factors (e.g., institutional, economic, social, and cultural factors), and internal factors (e.g., motivation, environmental knowledge, awareness, values, attitudes, emotion, locus of control, responsibilities, and priorities)” (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002, p. 248).

It is relevant to note here that sense of place specifically does not get included in this environmentally responsible behavior model or much of the research on motivation for civic engagement or environmentally responsible behavior.  However, components included in these motivations (e.g., family connections, social relationships, environmental knowledge and values) are part of the sense of place construct.  A few research projects have looked specifically at sense of place as a motivator for civic engagement/environmentally responsible behavior with mixed outcomes.  There is support that sense of place has been at least correlated with environmentally responsible behavior and potentially directly led to increased environmentally responsible behavior (Ardoin, 2009; Brehm, Eisenhauer, & Krannich, 2006; Stedman, 2002; Vorkinn & Riese, 2001; Walker & Chapman, 2003; Worster & Abrams, 2005).  Soul (1988) argued that “arational,” or affective, experiences and memories of nature – emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual – generate understanding and values that motivate behavior. Rooted in the sensory-motor centers of the human brain and spread to the limbic system, these memories and experiences are more motivational than those created by knowledge, centered in the neocortex, alone.  However, other studies showed that in some cases that sense of place was negatively correlated with environmentally responsible behavior due perhaps to low environmental knowledge or conservative values (Fried, 2000; Lewicka, 2005).

Given that community food systems are often developed in response to the destructiveness of the corporate global food system, Gruenewald’s critical pedagogy of place provided a useful framework for civic engagement.  The critical pedagogy of place framework provided the direct link between civic engagement and sense of place and could be applied within a community food systems context.  Critical pedagogy of place “aims to (a) identify, recover, and create material spaces and places that teach us how to live well in our total environments (reinhabitation); and (b) identify and change ways of thinking that injure and exploit other people and places (decolonization)” (Gruenewald , 2003, p. 9).  In this way, civic engagement can be considered as the actions taken to decolonize and live well in a place. Decolonization is the effort to overcome the dominant Western industrial-capitalist paradigm leading to the “restoration and development of cultural practices, values, and thoughts” (Kamal, Linklater, Thompson, Dipple, & Ithinto Mechisowin Committee, 2015, p. 565) and “self-determination and political agency” (White, 2011, p. 19) Relative to community food systems, then, civic engagement activities can span the spectrum from foraging native foods to farming and gardening for community needs to community organizing around food justice to political engagement on food policies and funding.  Engagement to address food justice, environmental impacts, economic disparities, and human health can all be considered as attempts to decolonize food systems (Bradley & Herrera, 2016; Grey & Patel, 2014; White, 2011) and may be specific reasons why individuals or groups are engaged in community food systems.

Figure 1 below provides a schematic of the relationship between these dimensions of sense of place and civic engagement in food systems.  Place attachment and place meaning contribute to an overall sense of place.  Sense of place can motivate civic engagement in food systems.  It is also believed that childhood sense of place may motivate civic engagement.  Civic engagement, in turn, can deepen both place attachment and place meaning.  In this research project, childhood sense of place, place attachment and place meaning were all explored relative to civic engagement in community food systems.

Solin_Figure1 FINAL

A set of themes emerged from the literature review that were used to frame the research project. These included: place, ecological sense of place, social sense of place, childhood sense of place, place attachment, place meaning, food systems engagement, motivations for engagement, outcomes of engagement, vision for community food systems, and emotion.  These themes guided the development of the semi-structured interviews and were a starting point for coding the interviews.

Research Methodology and Design

This qualitative study explored the relationship between sense of place and civic engagement in community food systems in three Wisconsin community food systems organizations and groups.  The primary research question for this study was: What relationship exists between sense of place and community food systems engagement?  Sub-questions were:

  • How does sense of place motivate engagement in community food systems?
  • How does sense of place develop through engagement in community food systems?
  • How does a childhood sense of place serve as a motivator for people to recreate places of connection and comfort?
  • How do people connect with their natural (ecological) community that motivates their engagement in community food systems?
  • How do people connect with the human community that motivates their engagement in community food systems?

The three community food systems groups were Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems (OCIFS), Alice’s Garden, and Central Rivers Farmshed (Farmshed).  OCIFS is a network of Wisconsin Oneida tribal entities with a mission to develop “a community food system that will include traditional food products and help create a local economy that will provide jobs, and promote and encourage long term solutions to farm and nutrition issues on the Oneida Reservation” (OCIFS, n.d., p.3).  OCIFS has three primary strategies to achieve its mission: 1) educating the Oneida community about food, agriculture and nutrition, 2) integrating Oneida and locally produced food into the community and institutions, and 3) planning for growth and development of food systems within the Nation.  Alice’s Garden is a two-acre community garden in the Lindsay Heights Neighborhood of central Milwaukee.  Alice’s Garden was developed in the early 1970s on cleared and abandoned land under the leadership of Milwaukee County Cooperative Extension.  In addition to serving as a place for community members to organically grow food on rented plots of land, this is a true community garden that works to improve the health and reconciliation of the entire community through targeted programs, mentorships, and relationship building.  Farmshed is a non-profit organization based in Stevens Point, Wisconsin that was started in late 2006 by a small group of activists/organizers.  The organization was created as a way to engage the public in community sustainability activities.  Farmshed works to expand the connection between local residents and their food by providing opportunities for participation, education, cooperation, and action to support a local food economy in Central Wisconsin.

The research design was developed around four primary aspects of place: 1) the socio-ecological place, which is the setting in which people are engaged and which they are influencing with their practices; 2) place actions, which are the organizational and personal practices in food systems (the ways people are engaged in food systems) and the motivations for those actions; 3) individual sense of place (meanings of and attachment to their places); and 4) socio-cultural sense of place.

The study utilized five methods of gathering information: 1) focus groups, 2) demographic survey, 3) semi-structured interviews, 4) phenomenological community and organizational experience, and 5) document and literature review.  The methods were utilized to address each of the aspects of place and to provide rich responses to the research questions for this study. The semi-structured interviews are the primary basis of data for this article.

Twenty-nine (29) people participated in this research.  Participants were identified through purposeful sampling to represent diverse geographic locations, ethnicities, professions, and economic situations.  The study participants were all involved with community food systems organizations.  The organizations identified were geographically diverse and include individuals of diverse experiences, cultures, professions, and socio-economic standing.

Participants were selected using the following criteria:

  • High level of involvement with the community food system efforts in the community
  • Represent a diversity of cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and professional backgrounds
  • Likelihood to participate in the research

Analysis and Results

Coding of the interviews began with a priori codes developed through literature review and impressions from the interviews.  A priori codes included: place, ecological sense of place, social sense of place, childhood sense of place, place attachment, place meaning, food systems engagement (ways people were taking actions within food systems), motivations, outcomes (outcomes of participant’s involvement in food systems), vision (participants’ vision for their community relative to food systems), and emotion (instances where participants expressed significant emotion).

NVivo software was used to organize the transcripts and codes.  Transcripts were read line by line and manually coded using a structural coding approach (Saldana, 2013).  Only the relevant text in each interview was coded.  The text could be included in multiple codes when relevant.

Five primary content categories and their contained themes, and sub-themes were identified through coding. Eleven secondary content categories and three cross-cutting content categories were also identified. A listing of the all of the content categories, themes, and sub-themes is provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Content Categories, Themes and Sub-themes from Analysis. Numbers in parentheses are the number of participants who had text coded within that content area, theme and sub-theme.
Content Categories Themes Sub-themes
Primary Content Categories
Motivations (29) Community relationships and responsibility (23)
Care for the land (21)
Justice (20)
Personal growth and satisfaction (18)
Personal and community health (15)
Family experience (10)
Support for family farms (9)
Desire for fresh food (6)
Economics (5)
Support for local businesses (4)
Food systems engagement (29) Education (25)
Gardening (23)
Food choices (18)
Policy, planning and programming (18)
Supporting local sales (13)
Volunteering (12)
Food preservation (12)
Cooking (12)
Sharing food with others (11)
Hunting, gathering and foraging (10)
Sustainable farm and garden practices (8)
Cultural regeneration (7)
Spiritual (5)
Seed saving (1)
Donating money (1)
Outcomes (29) Sense of place (29)
Increase in awareness  and involvement (27)
Personal growth and satisfaction (19)
Community building (17)
Support for family farms (15)
Increase in personal or community health (9)
Economic improvements (2)
Environmental improvements (2)
Sense of Place (29) Place meanings (29) Ecology (28)
Family (17)
Education (16)
Inhabitation (16)
Culture (12)
Health (12)
Peacefulness and happiness (10)
Pride and accomplishment (9)
Food (8)
History (7)
Aesthetic (6)
Sacred (5)
Love (3)
Creativity (2)
Appreciation (1)
Recreation (1)
Place belonging (28) Community belonging (28)
Ecological belonging (15)
Elsewhere (12)
Childhood sense of place (29)
Reciprocity and responsibility (17)
Sustenance (16)
Place identity (15)
Place connection (13)
Drawbacks (4)
Place (26) Social place (26)
Community (26)
Multi-scale and location (10)
Culture (9)
Ecological place (7)
Secondary Content Categories
Vision (26)
Issues and challenges (23)
Other civic engagement (17) Environmental (14)
Social (11)
Inclusion and justice (10)
Tertiary Content Categories
Gardening (8)
Colonization (7)
Travel (7)
Decolonization (6)
Outdoor experiences (6)
Privilege (4)
Education (4)
Cross-cutting Content Categories
Good quotes (29)
Emotion (10)
Methods and process (9)


Provided below is an interpretation and synthesis of the primary findings of the research. The interpretations of this research are related to the literature emphasizing areas of support and disagreement between this project and the literature.

For this project, I took food systems engagement to be any of a broad range of activities in which individuals interact with and attempt to influence their food system.  Food systems engagement included activities intended to benefit the individual as well as activities meant to benefit their broader human and/or ecological communities. There is not a clear line between what could be considered personal and civic activities.  In this project, I considered civic engagement in community food systems as an attempt to decolonize and re-inhabit (Gruenewald, 2003) the food systems in response to the “ecological and social destructiveness of the globally-based food system” (Kloppenburg et al., 1996, p. 34).  Therefore, even activities that may, at first, be perceived to be personal may have had a broader intent to better inhabit a place (e.g., gardening) or to address injustices or colonization (e.g., foraging food to reclaim cultural practices).  From this perspective, all food systems engagement activities were considered civic engagement if they were driven by a motivation to change or influence the individual’s or community’s food system. As Alkon and Agyeman (2011) noted “for the movement, eating is not only personal but also political … By transforming our food practices, the movement tells us, we can live healthier, more authentic lives while supporting positive social and environmental change” (p. 2).

The type of activities in which the participants were engaged created some challenges from an academic perspective in that they cut across disciplines. These engagement activities were not inherently environmental behaviors nor were they social behaviors. Rather, they spanned and integrated social and environmental realms; and in doing so, represented an integrated human-nature worldview.  Therefore, there was little distinction between environmental and social engagement.  The participants held what Ardoin (2009) referred to as “robust place connections” that allowed the participants to consider the “consequences of action more broadly; that is, someone who is connected with place across a range of dimensions may more carefully consider the impacts of an action on different dimensions of the place” (p. 516).  This was confirmed during the follow up focus groups when the initial results were shared with the participants. It was noted that although care for the land was identified as a motivation, there were few participants who spoke directly about environmental activities or who identified environmentally-related outcomes. The group discussion centered on the perspective that these are not categories into which the participants separated their activities and perspectives. Rather, they saw their work within food systems as integrative; recognizing what one of the participants (Yures) aptly shared: “how we treat the land is a reflection of how we are treating ourselves.” The challenge that this presents is that the literature on sense of place is primarily related to the ecological and physical aspects of place and connected to pro-environmental behaviors.

The participants’ motivations for involvement in community food systems were diverse.  There were 10 broad themes of motivations that ranged from the personal to the social to the ecological. Most research that looks at motivations for civic engagement finds the same complex diversity (Honig, et al., 2014; Kollmus & Agyeman, 2002).  The motivations of each participant were further analyzed, and the primary motivation(s) of each of the 29 participants were identified based on their responses. Each participant had one to three primary motivations.  These primary motivations indicated the sense of responsibility that the participants have to their human and natural communities. Within those 10 themes, there were four primary motivations expressed by the participants, which were justice (racial, cultural, and economic), community, health (personal and community) and the land.  Care for the land was a primary motivation for 13 of the participants, and care for the broader human community (though justice, health and community generally) was identified as a primary motivation by 16 participants.


The findings of this research project support a rich, interdisciplinary understanding and conceptualization of sense of place that includes interrelated aspects or components of place, place actions, and sense of place.  An individual’s sense of place itself can be considered to be developed from and contain psychological and affective components and social and cultural components.  The psychological and affective components of sense of place include place-related identity, belonging, and sustenance (dependence) that are considered part of place attachment (Hernandez, Hidalgo & Ruiz, 2014; Kudryavtsev, Stedman & Krasny, 2012) and diverse place meanings.  The social and cultural components include social and cultural beliefs, norms, and practices that are part of socio-cultural sense of place (held within the social or cultural group) that influence an individuals’ sense of place. In addition, each of the psychological and affective aspects can include both social and ecological components. That is, place identity, sustenance, and belonging can be developed from ecological and/or social components.  Reciprocity, as identified in this project, is another aspect of sense of place that connects and serves as a motivator between sense of place and place engagement.  Reciprocity is moderated or emphasized by other internal and external motivations and barriers (Kollmus & Agyeman, 2002).

Figure 2 captures this understanding of sense of place.  It is important to note here that there is a strong interrelationship between sense of place, motivation, food systems engagement, and outcomes.  It is difficult to disentangle the interrelationships, but it is clear that sense of place is both a motivator for and an outcome of food systems engagement.  All of the aspects of sense of place are interrelated and best understood as a whole.  Aspects are identified to emphasize influences on overall sense of place.  Personal sense of place is influenced by socio-cultural sense of place held by the culture or community. Personal and socio-cultural sense of place include place attachment and place meanings. Place attachment and meanings include both social and ecological perspectives.  Place attachment includes identity, belonging, and sustenance. Place meanings contain all the diverse symbolic meanings individuals hold for a place. Sense of place can motivate place engagement through reciprocity – a sense of responsibility to their social and ecological place that encompasses place-based motivations.  Reciprocity is moderated or emphasized by other internal and external motivations and barriers.  Through engagement, an individual’s sense of place is deepened.  Place engagement changes or influences the place, which is the setting and purpose for sense of place.

Solin Photo 2

Ardoin, Schuh, and Gould (2012), proposed a similar model for sense of place. Building from Ardoin’s (2006) earlier work and drawing from multiple disciplines, they conceptualize “sense of place as comprised of four distinct, but interrelated, dimensions… biophysical, sociocultural, political-economic, and psychological” (Ardoin, Schuh & Gould, 2012, p. 584). The biophysical dimension is what is typically considered – the physical location and all of the living beings there. The sociocultural dimension includes cultural practices, social relationships, and community attachment among other aspects. The political-economic dimension includes political boundaries, professional situation, and other related aspects in which I would include civic engagement. And, finally, the psychological dimension includes the personal aspects of place attachment and meanings.  The model developed as a result of this study contributes the additional component of reciprocity and deepens the psychological aspect of the model proposal by Ardoin, Schuh, and Gould (2012).

Importance of the Commons

One of the main underlying ideas of this research project is that the land and community can be a common motivator for civic engagement. The potential for this was highlighted by the case study of Alice’s Garden. Most of the participants with that organization commented on their relationship with other garden users that would not have happened had they not been part of the garden. Alice’s Garden served as a commons to share ideas, learn from each other, and interact with people from different backgrounds, status, and ideologies. For example commented: “Alice’s Garden is doing it in a different way, like a community versus a couple of individuals that are doing great work.  I think it’s the community, the potential of a community coming together” (Martin), “I see it allows certain prejudices or barriers to be confronted and dealt with.  We’re all, it’s, it is a community, it’s more than just Alice’s Garden, it’s a community, there’s a movement that is connecting” (Yures), and “I am supporting a, um, a venture in a neighborhood that has experienced destruction and poverty and I’m building relationships with people that I never would have met except through Alice’s” (Belle).

It is important to note here that people are connecting with this place (ecologically and socially) through gardening, but the garden plots themselves are not the focus. The broader, collective common space is the focus of the participants’ interests and connections.  Farmshed, another of the case studies conducted for this study, is just beginning to create shared space through the Greenhouse Project, and some of the same reactions were heard there about the value of a common space. This suggests the importance of creating commons that are inclusive to help build a shared connection to and motivation to care for place.

What was observed at Alice’s Garden and within Farmshed is consistent with the design principles for effectively managing common pool resources put for by Ostrom (1990).  These places (with clearly defined boundaries of who is involved and what the resource is they are working on) create opportunities for building trust and for developing rules that are directly relevant to the ecological and social situations of those involved.  The trust and appropriate rules provide safe places to monitor activities and to address conflict.  That said, it is not apparent in these case studies how situations in which participants go against identified rules are sanctioned.

Visceral Connection to Food

Based on the findings of this study, there appears to be something unique that food contributes to civic engagement and sense of place.  That is, the understanding of sense of place and civic engagement emerging from this study has unique aspects because food was a central focus.  I believe the uniqueness of peoples’ engagement and senses of place are due to the visceral and physical connections to place and each other inherent in food.  Quotes from the participants help to demonstrate these concepts.  Mary Ellen stated, “The other night we had fresh potatoes.  I boiled them and mashed them with the skins on.  I said you can almost taste the earth.”  Additional examples are:

To be in ecological settings is important for human beings. It’s important medically. I heard this study that farm kids are generally healthier because they eat dirt and they are in nature and have less allergies and stuff. We have to get dirty and put our feet in the soil and experience seasons in some sense. (Tom)

So, that’s what keeps me continuing to do all that and, again, you can’t duplicate the taste the flavor, you just can’t.  So, that’s the incentive, that’s the carrot that gets people. … And herbs—I love to season with them, and dry them. (Oliver)

These visceral aspects of food are something we often take for granted, but likely affect us individually and collectively in ways that we may not be aware of.  Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy (2010) define the visceral “as the bodily realm in/through which feelings, sensations, moods, and so on are experienced. Necessarily, visceral includes the cognitive mind; the visceral body is an internal relation of mind/body” (p. 2957).  More than perhaps anything else we do, eating is a sensual experience.  As Longhurst, Johnston, and Ho (2009) remind us, eating “involves mouths, chewing, throats, smells, tastes, textures, stomachs, feeling hungry and feeling full” (p. 39).

All of the participants in this study were, obviously, eaters, but more importantly they are eaters in a civically engaged way.  And, all of them were eating foods grown in their places whether for health, ecological, social, or justice reasons.  And, many of them were eating together at organizationally organized potlucks and programs, serendipitously while browsing in their garden plots, or by sharing communally in the foods grown on local farms.  These sensual, visceral connections affectively connect us to place and to each other (Hayes-Conroy & Hayes-Conroy, 2010; Longhurst, Johnston, & Ho, 2009; Slocum, 2010).

It is worth noting, although obvious, that our experiences with food are not consistent; that is, each person senses food differently and has his/her own preferences (Anderson, 2014; Hayes-Conroy & Hayes-Conroy, 2010; Longhurst, Johnston, & Ho, 2009).  But even with these differences, it is commonly understood that sharing meals creates common bonds.  This likely emerges from both the social interaction that happens around food and the shared visceral experience.

The sensual aspects of food extend to the physical or experiential experiences of the participants as well.  Twenty-six of the 29 participants in this study were gardeners and/or family-scale farmers.  Therefore, they had a direct physical relationship with the land.  In fact, well over half of them (18 of the 29 participants) spoke directly about their soil.  This relationship was sensual – developed through the sense of touch and sight primarily, but also through smell, sound, and taste.  As Williams and Brown (2011) noted, “when two skins – that of the earth and that of humans – come in contact, it is almost as though the pores and the capillaries exchange information” (p. 8).  The biological aspect of the soil is also important to note.  It has been shown that certain bacteria in the soil can enhance happiness and health through the stimulation of serotonin (see Glausiusz, 2007 for a summary).  This additional feeling of happiness likely helps to build the affective connection to place.

These visceral and physical connections are inherent and unique to food.  There is no other human activity that so fully engages our senses and experiences.  And, combined with the fact that food is a basic biological need only surpassed by water, we have an inherently unique relationship with food and food production.  This is true, as Anderson (2014) noted, even for the vast majority of humanity who are not eating for pleasure, but for survival.

What emerged from this study is that people who are involved in food systems work, through these visceral and physical connections, are likely to develop a worldview that integrates humans and the rest of the natural world. As mentioned earlier, many of the participants exhibit this integrated worldview which is apparent through the conversation and the way that they spoke about their human and natural communities.  Trubek (2008) (cited in Sutton 2010) called this a “‘foodview,’ i.e., a food-centered worldview” (p. 216). Sutton noted, as an extension to foodview, “how taste and other sensory experiences of food can become central to such cosmologies” (p. 216).  That is, the sensual experience of food shifts peoples’ worldview to be centered on their experience with food.  In the case of this study, this reflected an integrated human-nature worldview.


In summary, peoples’ engagement in food systems is likely different than engagement in any other civic topics.  It is apparent that the majority of participants in this study were deeply connected to place and were critically engaged in food systems work; and this connection and engagement was at least partially due to the visceral and physical experience of food and food production.

An interesting question is raised by this relationship between the visceral and sensual aspects of food and sense of place: Is it possible that eating food is the root of our sense of place?  If this is true, the places we eat or access food should be the places where we have our strongest sense of place.  And, engaging in multiple aspects of the food production and eating process should strengthen one’s sense of place.  Having a garden where your food is grown and eaten fresh would be the place of one’s strongest sense of place.  At least for some people, this is true.  Taking a bite of a fruit or vegetable can immediately connect one to an important place, past or present.  For me, the taste of maple syrup connects me with the land on which I grew up and still call home.  This all raises another question: Is disconnection from our food a source of our disconnection from place?  The results of this research do not provide definitive answers to these questions.  These are questions to be further explored by future research.


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