Proof that places shape who we are – and what that means for society today

The National Trust has published new research showing just how much places shape who we are. In this blog we take a look at what the research shows and what it means for society today.

On the beach at Souter Lighthouse and The Leas, Tyne & Wear ©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The report we’ve published today is based on pioneering brain research, which for the first time proves that meaningful places play a huge part in our emotional and physical wellbeing. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain carried out as part of the research show that the brain generates an emotional response to places that people feel are significant to them, such as feeling joyful, calm and energised.

The fMRI scans also show that the brain’s emotional response to special places is much higher than towards objects which we think are meaningful, such as a wedding ring or photograph. This suggests that the place where a person got married contains greater emotional importance than the ring they received on the day.

As well as the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans, we also surveyed the public about how they feel about places. The survey shows how places bring people together, both as locations where we interact with others but also because we want to share our loves of places with other people.

On a bridge over the moat at Scotney Castle, Kent. ©National Trust Images/John Millar

And it’s perhaps this last role that is of most importance to society right now. Since the EU referendum, academics and commentators have become much more concerned about the polarisation in British society. To Britain’s long history of class divisions, new divisions have emerged around the places people live, their education and their age.

Political analysts looked at the result of the 2015 election and highlighted Ed Miliband’s failure to win the votes of older people (who tend to vote) compared to his success with younger voters (who are less likely to turn out). Across the middling age ranges, votes were much flatter, but the older voters helped win David Cameron a majority.

The 2016 Brexit referendum has changed all that. The young tended to vote Remain. Older people tended to vote Leave. And how people voted in the referendum in 2016 seems to have influenced how they voted in 2017.

Under 47, you’re more likely to be a Labour voter. Over 47, you’re increasingly likely to vote Conservative.

And the divides are also seen in what young and old see as the priorities for the country.

These divides are also seen between Remainers and Leavers (with the national institution of the NHS the only common priority).

Remainers and Leavers also have quite different views on the forces shaping society with diametrically opposing views on whether muliticulturalism, feminism and the green movement are forces for good or ill.

Though the NHS unites both sides, other institutions are caught up. Ipsos Mori carries out surveys on how much people think different professions tell the truth. For charity CEOs, there is a divide opening up. 57% of 35-44s believe charity CEOs generally tell the truth whilst only 36% of 65+ believe they do (54% don’t think they tell truth). 59% of those with degrees trust charity CEOs to tell the truth but this drops to 38% of those people where their highest qualification is GCSE or equivalent.

Drawing on this, the think tanker David Goodhart divides society into a majority population of “somewhere” rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or in the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated – and those who could come from Anywhere: footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated.

But is this fair? My own corner of south east London could be seen as “Anywhere Central”. Mostly Remain voting, it’s seen its traditional white working and lower middle class community joined by waves of migration from Europe, Africa and the Middle East, along with middle class migrants from elsewhere in Britain, and most recently from north Londoners as Highbury and Hampstead prices rise ever upwards.

But all these people – whether “migrants” or “natives”, “somewheres” or “anywheres” – are making this place their home. The schools, societies and sports clubs in the area provide help root people, and the park on the hill – saved from development by National Trust founder Octavia Hill – provides the open air living room for everyone to enjoy.

Our own research shows how important places are to people, with eight of ten feeling that their special place is part of them. A majority feel a sense of belonging when in places that are special to them, and say that those places have shaped who they are.

And importantly, we’re not just tied to the places where we grew up. Places that are connected with our “here and now” are just as important as connections we form in our formative years, according to respondents in our research. We’re not just rooted to where we first came from, but where we choose to be too. Everyone is a “somewhere” person.

So just as every child matters, so also every place should matter. As a conservation organisation, we permanently preserve places that are special to the nation, for every and for everyone. But the everyday places that matter to local communities also need looking after.

The planning system plays a role in providing permanent protection but we also need to conserve and maintain places, rather than spending just on shiny new things. We’re working to explore new models to look after parks and local heritage as council budgets come under increasing pressure. For an example, find out more about the Roundhouse in Birmingham and take a look at our Future Parks toolkit.

The places we love not only shape who we are, but offer deep physical and psychological benefits. At a time of increasing polarisation, places – both special and everyday – can start to bring people together. So it’s even more vital that we look after them for future generations to enjoy.

Richard Hebditch, Government Affairs Director, National Trust

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