Many campuses continue to struggle with increasing student stress, anxiety, depression, and mental health challenges. Important to addressing the many challenges that students face as they come to campus is finding the locations and spaces that students can visit to foster restoration and center themselves. The college union has the potential to serve as a restorative place for students. Additionally, college union professionals strive to build connections and a sense of place for students, but how can they better promote location-based restoration?
A recent article in the journal Environment and Behavior explored the relationship between memories, favorite places, and restorative outcomes. The study by psychologists Eleanor Ratcliffe, University of Surrey, and Kalevi Korpela, University of Tampere (Finland), centered on the relationship of memories and the concepts of place attachment, place identity, and place dependence. Place attachment is the “emotional bond individuals feel with a place.” Place identity can be described as the extent to which that place is part of an individual’s self-concept, including how important that place is to the individual. Place dependence refers to the functionality of a place or the ability of a place to meet a need.
Using an online questionnaire, Ratcliffe and Korpela asked respondents to imagine they were feeling “mentally worn out” and “then imagine going to your favorite place.” They then asked respondents to detail the place, including an associated positive memory. Following this, study participants were asked a series of questions about the place they identified, such as whether they agreed they “can do things I like here” and “It is an escape experience.”
Items were included to understand participants’ sense of place attachment to the places they described, including place identity (“This place means a lot to me”), place dependence (“I enjoy visiting this place more than any other”), and social bonding (“I have a lot of fond memories about this place”). The goal of the study was to determine if memories of favorite places had any restorative value and if the types of memories and the level of place attachment predicted the level of restoration.
Over half (55%) of the places described were almost entirely, if not all, natural and only 14% were almost entirely urban or built spaces. The remaining were described as being about half built and half natural.
The place descriptions and associated memories were coded and sorted into themes. The themes that emerged from the memories and place descriptions included activities (subtheme examples: exploring, drugs and alcohol, talking), cognition (subtheme examples: creativity, religion, fascination), emotion (subtheme examples: love, freedom), self (subtheme examples: self-actualization, self-care, belonging), social context (subtheme examples: being alone, family, children), time (subtheme examples: seasons, future, holidays), and environment (subtheme examples: sounds, weather, accessibility). These themes—with the exception of environment, which was evident in all descriptions—were used in quantitative analyses to discern if the type of memories and places participants reported were related with their restoration outcome scores.
A few interesting findings emerged from the quantitative portion of the study. First, results suggested that there is a relationship between restoration outcomes and place identity as well as place dependence. That is, respondents were more likely to report higher agreement to items such as “I feel calmer after being here” if they also reported that the place was an important part of their self-concept and the place was the best option compared to other alternatives for accomplishing the specific goal.
Another interesting finding from the study concerned the connection between the tags used to describe the places and associated memories and their relationship to the different aspects of place attachment. Specifically, those places with memories coded in the self and time themes also had higher place identity scores. In other words, respondents were more likely to report they identified strongly with the place if their memory descriptions included topics such as (1) self-actualization, ownership, and togetherness and (2) timelessness, change, and the seasons.
Ratcliffe and Korpela also explored the relationship between the themes associated with the place descriptions, the concepts of place attachment, and the restoration outcomes. Past research has discussed the idea that memories play an important role in developing place attachment; that is, individuals are not likely to develop strong attachment to places they do not remember. Ratcliffe and Korpela extended this thread of research and found that place identity mediated the relationship between memories of self and restoration outcomes as well as memories of time and restoration outcomes. This relationship did not hold for the other aspects of place attachment (place dependence, social bonding), however. The authors concluded that this finding suggests memories individuals have of their favorite places may have more to do with their identification with the place rather than the functional value or social experiences in the place.
This is an important finding for union professionals to consider. It suggests that it is more important to ensure that students and visitors identify with or see themselves in the union than it is that they have fond memories of the union or enjoy visiting the union compared to other buildings on campus. Union professionals might therefore use the results of this study to provide further evidence for inclusive programs, marketing efforts, and food options.
There are other implications union professionals may consider stemming from this study. First, as 55% of the favorite places described in the study were described as entirely natural, union facilities teams may consider incorporating “green” or “bio” walls, large windows with views of the natural environment, and ample seating
Second, ensuring there are opportunities to nurture positive personal memories associated with the union may increase place attachment and facilitate restoration. Union professionals may consider reviewing their program offerings and locations to determine if there are spaces and programs in the union associated with self-actualization, ownership, and belonging as these may serve to increase students’ sense of place attachment to the union itself. Given the variety and number of programs hosted in unions annually as well as space considerations, union professionals may want to expand on this research to explore if the importance of hosting these events in the physical union, or if knowledge that the programs are associated with the union, is enough to generate these outcomes.
While this study analyzed questionnaire responses from more than 200 individuals, it was limited to adults living in Finland (64% of the respondents were university students) and prompted participants to think of a favorite place within Finland. Future studies may further limit the scope of respondent’s reflection, focusing their memory recall to the college campus or union specifically.
Ratcliffe, E., & Korpela, K. (2017). Time- and self-related memories predict restorative perceptions of favorite places via place identity. Environment and Behavior, 50, 690-720.