PhD highlights place attachment’s influence on people’s disaster preparedness

Dr Amanda Wallis found people with a stronger attachment towards their homes and neighbourhoods were more likely to be prepared for natural hazard events.

An aerial shot of Wellington city

“There’s no place like home” is a well-worn proverb that could play a big role in boosting preparedness for Aotearoa New Zealand’s next major earthquake or other natural hazard event.

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD graduate Dr Amanda Wallis has been investigating the role of place attachment in encouraging people, and communities, to prepare for the worst.

Dr Wallis, who graduated last week from the University’s Te Kura Mātai Hinengaro—School of Psychology, says people’s emotional bonds to their places should be built into future risk-reduction strategies for dealing with disasters.

“New Zealand is exposed to many natural hazards, but our rates of individual preparedness remain low. This apparent lack of preparedness indicates much work needs to be done.”

Dr Wallis says place attachment can be used to predict three different types of natural hazard preparedness—survival, mitigation, and community.

To test the relationship between place attachment and preparation, across two studies, she firstly investigated responses from nearly 700 residents in the Wellington region and asked about their attachment to their houses and their neighbourhoods, as well as their level of preparedness.

“I found people with a stronger attachment towards their homes and neighbourhoods were more likely to be prepared for natural hazard events.”

In her second study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Dr Wallis asked Wellington residents to mentally picture their house or neighbourhood using a series of visualisation prompts to invoke their place attachment.

She then surveyed these same residents up to two weeks later to test whether their preparedness rates had shifted.

“My place visualisation experiment did not lead to greater preparedness intentions or behaviour. However, this doesn't rule out place attachment as a motivating factor in natural hazard preparedness, it’s just that place visualisation may not be the best intervention approach.

“What was unique about my research was I was able to narrow down the association between place attachment and preparedness. Specifically, house attachment was associated with mitigation preparedness, such as strengthening your home, while neighbourhood attachment was associated with community preparedness, including having extra supplies for your neighbours and knowing vulnerable neighbours to check up on in an emergency.”

Dr Wallis recommends place attachment be included in disaster risk reduction strategies as a variable to consider.

“It’s only relatively recently that researchers have started to introduce place-based relationships, such as place attachment, into the field of disaster preparedness.

“Given the growing economic and psychological impacts of natural hazards, and the vulnerability of many populations to multiple hazards, as for example in the Wellington region, the implications of my research are wide reaching.”

The idea of place attachment and “no place like home” goes back centuries, well beyond John Howard Page’s song “Home! Sweet Home!”, released in 1823 for the opera Clari, or the Maid of Milan.

“The lyrics of this song are an example of the importance of place for people from centuries past through to the present day. My research shows our bonds to our homes are also relevant when it comes to solving pressing environmental challenges,” says Dr Wallis.

Very few studies have been devoted to understanding ‘what works’ when it comes to increasing disaster preparedness using low-cost interventions able to be delivered easily to large groups or communities.

“I’m excited about future research in this field as more researchers trial novel interventions to improve population-wide preparedness and, as a result, the safety of our communities.”