Why Do Historic Places Matter? Emotional Attachments to Urban Heritage

Historic urban places matter economically, environmentally and socially. But more than that, they matter emotionally. But why?

A new report examines why people develop emotional attachments to the historic buildings and heritage of towns and cities.

The University of Glasgow partnership project with Historic Environment Scotland, Montagu Evans LLP, and Save Britain’s Heritage,  considered the significance of emotion and emotional attachments in understanding why historic urban places matter, and why people choose to live and work there.

Traditionally ideas of value in heritage conservation are based on expert views on the fabric of the historic built environment. But now there’s additional emphasis on a people-centred approach that acknowledges how people relate to urban heritage.

Professor Rebecca Madgin, the author of the report and a Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow, said: “The report focuses on developing a better understanding of the relationship between the historic urban fabric and people. It does so by including a range of voices and by focusing on emotional attachments which can be thought of as the glue that connects people with places and which are often only revealed during times of change.”

The findings have emerged from the textual and visual analysis of a range of existing archival documents and from place-based oral histories and emoji-based workshops which captured the thoughts and feelings of people involved with and/or impacted by urban change, including built environment professionals and local residents.

Elizabeth McCrone, Director of Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland, said: “How we feel about the sites and places around us can help us to understand what we value about them and how we could look after them. These are important questions for Historic Environment Scotland, and we were delighted to support this research.”

Chris Miele, Montagu Evans LLB, Partner for Planning, Historic Environment and Townscape, said: “Montagu Evans were delighted to support Professor Madgin’s innovative research. We provided a kind of bridge between the academic and property sectors, and a perspective that is too often lacking in research of this nature. The findings are useful because they provide an insight into the strong emotional response that the historic environment can elicit.

“No less importantly, the research illustrates the considerable common ground as between communities and the property sector. Finding such common ground is an important theme in recent planning policy, as demonstrated in the July 2021 changes to the National Planning Policy Framework which in turn reflect the findings of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and the new Office for Place, a new agency advising government and the wider sector.”

Henrietta Billings, Director, Save Britain’s Heritage, said: “At a time when so many of our towns and cities are under intense development pressure, it’s more important than ever to understand how people value and care about the historic places in which they live, work or relax, from grand country houses or ordinary terraced streets, to cinemas, hospitals and department stores. This report on how and why we care for what’s around us could not be more timely, and will help inform developers, building owners, decision makers and heritage campaigners alike.”

The research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, should be useful to a range of individuals and organisations involved with urban heritage and place-making including planners, residents, developers, investors, and campaigners. 

Follow-up work will examine the extent to which emotional attachments to historic places are considered within heritage management policies and practices, and look at how the lens of emotional attachments could be used to contribute to conversations around place-making.

Professor Madgin is also working on a book, due to be published in 2023.

All the partners will discuss the research and its implications at a public event on 17 September 2021.

TLearn more about the project on its website - www.gla.ac.uk/whydohistoricplacesmatter

First published: 17 September 2021