Living Connected to Place and Why It Matters Now

This article is part of Profiles in Living Connected to Place, a new series by Matt Biggar, Ph.D., that portrays individuals living connected to place with intention and the support of systems that make it possible. Living connected to place supports the well-being of individuals, communities, and the environment simultaneously. For other writings from Matt, see his blog.

 

Over time, I’ve come to realize that downturns in my mood are often related to feeling disconnected. I get busy trying to work through the seemingly never-ending ‘to-do list.’ Much of my time gets spent on my computer and less time connecting with family, friends, and others. I may be talking with others on Zoom, but it’s not the same felt sense of connection as being together in person.

There can also be a sense of separation from my physical surroundings. Online and staying indoors, I lose sight of the community and nature just out the door. The remedy seems simple— get outside and connect to the place where I live.

I know from research and experience how valuable connecting to place is to our health and well-being, but it can be a struggle these days to connect in tangible, meaningful ways to what is around us. Perhaps you can relate, as how we have shaped modern society has much to do with this fading sense of connection in our lives.

In a tiny blip of human history, a profound shift in how we live and how we relate to the places where we live has taken hold. Car dependency, digital devices, and consumerism have firmly taken root in our society and lives. For those with resources, the standard of living has arguably improved with more conveniences, goods, and information at their fingertips.

Car Dependency (istockphoto.com license)

At a fundamental level, however, these current patterns of living have eroded our relationships with each other and nature in our local context. A growing sense of placelessness has arisen in modern society. When so much of our time is spent in cars, indoors in private spaces, buying and managing stuff, in the digital realm, and on social media, we can easily become disconnected from the local community and nature surrounding us in the real physical world. It’s no coincidence that we now face a loneliness epidemic, harming individual and community health.

It’s not just our personal well-being that has been affected. The exploitation of nature and people as well as social division are embedded in the systems that support American society today.

Rising and troubling social divisions have emerged. Separation and alienation from community and people with different lived experience plays a role. Car-centric land use patterns with exclusionary zoning keep many people separated from community life and also from one another along socioeconomic, racial, and political lines. We’re vulnerable to seeing other human groups in a negative light when we exist in separate places. Politicians have exploited this separation with such vitriol that our divisions have become polarized, toxic, and even dangerous.

The degradation of nature or our life support system and the climate crisis are directly linked to our resource and energy-intensive ways of living. A deeper cause of environmental decline relates to our lack of connection with nature in daily life. The alienation from nature extends into our economic system as natural resources are often extracted and processed far away from the demand for products and energy that arise from them. The damage to nature is hidden from most consumers but harms communities with less power near these operations. This disconnectedness has led to an illusion that we are separate from nature, ignoring how we depend on and are part of nature at our own peril.

The dominant societal narrative suggests that these resource-intensive ways of living are here to stay and will expand. Yet, there is a clear alternative we can each support in our own way. It starts with resetting our relationship with nature and people in the places where we live and through how we live. It’s about finding our way back into balance with nature and community based on respect and honor for all life.

Living connected to place provides an antidote to alienation, as the heart of our crises, by increasing and deepening our daily interaction with each other, our communities, and nature. Making this shift involves changing how we live, but it is intuitive and flows naturally when anchored in values for connection, place, nature, and community.

We know how to do this. It’s deep in our DNA. For well over 99% of human history, people deeply connected to the places where they lived. Over the millennia, human communities developed an intimate and regenerative relationship with local nature. Daily life was characterized and made more meaningful through interaction and interdependence among people in their local community. These are indigenous ways of living that have been overpowered and nearly erased by colonialism and global capitalism.

Strengthening our connection to place invites us to firmly embed ourselves in our physical surroundings and nearby human community. It can be practiced in all aspects of life— shopping at local businesses; walking, biking, and using public transit; eating food and buying goods from local and regional sources; using and conserving energy generated on rooftops or from within our regions; treasuring and sharing what we have and reducing waste; and, as much as possible, living, working, and recreating locally. Everyday life actions can feel mostly like chores and routines, but they can also enhance connection and meaning in our lives.

Poster in local business window, Castro neighborhood, San Francisco (Credit: Matt Biggar)

In The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift, Raymond DeYoung and Thomas Princen of the University of Michigan refer to this as localized living in which “people’s attention focuses on everyday behavior within place-based communities.” They clarify that localization “is not a revolution in the streets or a new strategy for corporate or NGO headquarters” but “an affirmative social trend, driven by biophysical realities and accepting of the innate human inclinations for self-provisioning and commitment to place.” It’s a movement to live more reasonably within the limits of sustaining our planet, doing less harm to others, and regenerating nature, community, and local wealth.

 When we travel less distance in cars, support local businesses, and seek out local community and nature, we emit less greenhouse gas emissions, deplete fewer natural resources, strengthen the social fabric of our communities, and reduce inequality through patronizing local businesses more and multinational corporations less. When we anchor our lives in a place and connect to all it offers, we go from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution.

The transition to living connected to place requires personal change such as decreasing time driving behind the wheel and in ride shares, resisting the temptation of one-click shopping on Amazon, spending less time indoors using energy, and buying less stuff. Given how embedded these ways of living are in society, it may feel like sacrifice at first, but the rewards over time will almost certainly outweigh them.

Substantial research has found that regular connection with nature enhances physical, mental, cognitive, and emotional health. The benefits extend to nature as connecting with it motivates us to be good stewards and live in ways that regenerate rather than deplete it. We protect what we love and love only what we know.

By engaging with community in the place where we live, relationships are built and shared purpose is found, important sources of personal and community well-being. This engagement can lead to opportunities to help others and regenerate our communities, adding further happiness and meaning to our lives.

Living connected to place supports local businesses and organizations and thus regenerates local wealth by providing more people access to ownership and meaningful place-based employment. Careers and jobs become bolstered by regional and local economies, not the whims of the global economy and corporations that focus on quarterly profit growth and cost-cutting.

Changing how we live and becoming deeply rooted in our places can help us push back against the dominant systems that support current unsustainable, unjust ways of life. We stand firm by being aware of the impact of our choices and being a positive force for change. We break down divisions and create hope for a better future when we step away from our screens and cars and engage with local community and nature. We align with the fundamental forces of life and connectedness, knowing that our well-being is deeply intertwined with the health of our communities and nature.

Intention is important but insufficient to change how we live. Human behavior is heavily dependent on context and available options. As we change as individuals, we also need to push for systems change. Place-based systems like the following (and in this more complete list) make living connected to place possible.

  • Housing is available and affordable in mixed-income, mixed-use communities.

  • Work: local businesses, government, and organizations provide livelihoods and meaningful work for people where they live.

  • Transportation: active, community-oriented, and pollution-free modes are easily accessed and safe.

  • Community Space is safe, car-free, and vibrant.

  • Nature Space is abundant, accessible, and nearby.

  • Food: regional, healthy, and seasonal food is available and plentiful.

  • Building Energy is regionally harvested from renewable sources, and conservation and efficiency are default choices.

  • Consumer Goods are available in local stores, shared, repaired, and regionally made and recirculated with minimal waste.

Pedestrian Street, Oslo, Norway (istockphoto.com license)- an element of Place-Based Community Space and Transportation Systems

When these systems are present, we can live with a much smaller ecological footprint, stronger bonds to local community and each other, and more meaning, happiness, and hope.

The road to realizing these systems is riddled with barriers related to land use, power, silos, and culture. I’m writing a book on place-based systems change to surface those barriers and explore how they can be overcome to create a society rooted in the regeneration of nature, community, and local wealth.

As a precursor to my book on systems change, I want to show in this series what living connected to place looks like and how it can be a means to lessen resistance to change (which is hard for us humans!). Fortunately, many people are living connected to place in different aspects of their lives and enjoying the benefits that come with it, providing examples of how to live in such ways.

Over the next few months, I will share Profiles in Living Connected to Place that portray individuals living connected to place with intention and the support of systems (listed in parentheses below). You’ll meet:

  • Hannah Love lives connected to place across many dimensions, deeply rooted in her hometown of Berkeley, California. Her story illustrates the intersection of well-being with living connected to place. (Multiple)

  • Nic Jay Aulston co-founded Bicis del Pueblo to provide bikes and promote cycling in underserved communities of San Francisco. Engaged in community-based work, he shows the importance and value of local work. (Work)

  • Juan Miguel Arias is an environmental education scholar. Excerpts from his life demonstrate the importance of buying local to support local businesses and jobs. (Work)

  • TR Amsler and Chalida Anusasananan are public school teachers. They live car-free with their two children in the heart of San Francisco. (Transportation)

  • Leslie Parra is a nonprofit program manager. She participates in and helps build community in her local neighborhood. (Community Space)

  • Anthony Khalil is a local environmental justice leader. He has led and participated in local nature-based work and spends much nature-oriented time with his family. (Nature Space)

  • Rebecca Au is the Volunteer Coordinator for Golden Gate National Parks, headquartered in San Francisco, where she lives. She is connected to her local food system and community through food, generating feelings of groundedness and gratitude. (Food)

  • Lucian Beebe is a software professional and a pioneer in residential solar and electric vehicles. He helps push the limits of harnessing local nature for renewable energy. (Energy)

  • Bill Kelly has a career spanning energy management, solar power, and climate action in K-12 schools. He and his family made their home a fully electrified net zero energy home. (Energy)

  • Brett Korsgaard is a real estate investor living in Austin, Texas. He prioritizes local nature and community experiences over stuff, which has led to lasting satisfaction in his life. (Consumer Goods)

  • Roshni Sahu is part of Gen Z and its rising participation in conscious consumerism and away from hyper-consumerism. (Consumer Goods)

  • Joshua Spodek is a professor at New York University, author, speaker, and podcaster. He has not flown (by choice) since March 2016, enjoying life’s adventures without boarding a plane. (Travel)

  • Tina Syer is the Chief Advancement Officer at the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula and a former executive at Positive Coaching Alliance. She has supported and promoted local youth sports and activities at work and in raising her two sons with her wife. (Children and Youth Recreation)

  • Damien Raffa has worked as an outdoor education specialist and program manager at the Presidio Trust in San Francisco since 1998. He has championed connecting children to nature across the city. (Children and Youth Recreation)

  • Wanda Stewart is the Executive Director of Common Vision, a nonprofit that plants fruit tree orchards in low-income schools throughout California. Prior to this role, she started and ran a garden in a West Oakland school that became a central part of the school and students’ education. (Education)

They all live in ways that benefit their communities and the environment. Each of them depends on place-based systems to live as they do but are also helping change systems through their actions and example. They find meaning in what they do and how they live that nourishes them. Joined by others, they reconnect to a sense of hope in a troubled world. They are not acting in these ways out of sacrifice but with purpose, satisfaction, and joy.

We live in challenging times, and the light can be hard to find. Could living connected to place be the light we need to regenerate nature, community, and local wealth, turn the tide on the climate and our interrelated crises, and live with more meaning, happiness, and hope? I hope that you’ll explore this with me through the Profiles in Living Connected to Place series.

Thank you for reading. How does living connected to place resonate with you? How do you or could you connect to place in your life? What challenges do you see in shifting society to enable living connected to place? How can we overcome those challenges? Your comments and questions are welcome.

This article was originally published on www.connectedtoplace.com.

Cover image: Nature and Community on South Congress St, Austin, Texas (istockphoto.com license)

 

About the Lead Author

Matt Biggar
Matt Biggarhttps://www.connectedtoplace.com/
Matt has 28 years of professional experience as a strategy consultant, researcher, organizational leader, and educator. He earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2015, where his research involved behavioral science, sustainability, and collective impact. In 2016, Matt founded Connected to Place. Matt is also a speaker and writer with a forthcoming book and several published articles in academic journals and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, involving his research on human behavior and systems change.

The Latest

The Story of the Clouds and the Forests

There’s a story one often hears in conversations about systemic transformation that goes like this… We are headed in the...

Featured

More Articles Like This