Dr. Michelle Dovil

Dr. Michelle Dovil. Photo by Dr. Shaleen Miller.

By Anna Gustines

On Thursday, Feb. 27, Dr. Michelle Dovil of Florida A&M University (FAMU) presented research on environmental risk perception and place attachment in coastal North Carolina as part of the Natural Hazards Resilience Speakers Series. Environmental risk perception, a judgment of the adverse consequences of a particular hazard, is influenced by a variety of factors. Age, gender, income, ethnicity, political attitudes, trust in government to manage the risk, religion, environmental attitude, risk salience (how imminent the threat is) and risk characteristics all play a role in a person’s perception. Place attachment is the social bond that people have with their physical place; place attachment is closely related to place identity (“I’m from this place and it’s part of the identity I project to society”) and dependency (having familial ties, owning a business or a home) and is best encompassed by the feeling of a certain place being “home.”

Dr. Dovil’s research, conducted as part of a Department of Homeland Security-organized program and hosted by the Coastal Resilience Center, considered whether increased risk perception can override place attachment, and lead people to consider relocating in the face of sea-level rise and climate change. She and her research team of FAMU undergraduate students found that although place attachment in coastal North Carolina is strong, experiences with flooding and hurricanes are increasing the perceived risk of coastal living, leading residents in Wilmington and Elizabeth City to consider relocation.

Dr. Dovil highlights the two communities surveyed as part of her 2019 project. Photo by Josh Kastrinsky.

Dr. Dovil highlights the two communities surveyed as part of her 2019 project. Photo by Josh Kastrinsky.

Unsurprisingly, the effects of climate change that have the biggest effect on families’ and individuals’ daily lives, like repeated flood and hurricane events that caused significant property damage and property insurance cost increases, were cited by participants as their biggest concerns. However, heat-trapping emissions, sea level rise and climate change were cited as least concerning, indicating that the link between the effects of climate change, and climate change itself, are not being recognized by residents that will feel the effects most acutely.

My takeaway was that in order to illuminate the risk associated with climate change, educators, governments, journalists and activists will need to link these individual impacts with the bigger cause. Only then will the long-term risk be perceived accurately, and begin to override place attachment in decision making about new development and relocation.

Anna Gustines

Anna Gustines

Learning about Dr. Dovil’s risk perception and place attachment caused me to reflect on my own place identity, dependency and attachment, and what types of risks might make me consider calling a new place “home.” I come from Raleigh, and I do consider it to be part of my identity. However, as a young professional chasing opportunities, I have limited dependency on Raleigh: I have friends and family that live there, but I do not own a home or have a business tying me to the place. I am open to moving for opportunity, but do have a significant attachment to the place. Even though I am open to moving and have spent time living in other cities, I can’t imagine calling another place “home.”

Taking William & Vaske’s Place Attachment Inventory, accessed through Arizona State University, statements like “this place means a lot to me, this place is very special to me, and being at this place says a lot about who I am,” resonated with me.

William & Vaske’s Place Attachment Inventory, indicating Gustines's attachment to Raleigh, North Carolina

William & Vaske’s Place Attachment Inventory, indicating Gustines’s attachment to Raleigh, North Carolina

Although Raleigh does face risks associated with climate change, such as riverine flooding, extreme weather events, like rain and heat and hurricane impacts, my risk perception here is low, and that is based on my personal experience with the aforementioned events. I believe that until those three things affect me, my friends, or my family directly and repeatedly, my risk perception will remain low. My place attachment hugely overrides my risk perception.

Although the risks at the coast are more imminent than the risks to my inland home, this reflects the challenge we face in motivating action in the face of climate change. I recognize the big, slow threat of climate change, and it has resulted in small behavior changes, but it does not override my place attachment and lead me to consider a new home. In order to guide decision making related to new development and buyouts (to allow for relocation), we must more clearly link the individual effects to the bigger cause in people’s minds so that the risk perception matches the actual risk and overrides place attachment.

Gustines is a first-year master’s degree candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in Land Use and Environmental Planning and pursuing work in sustainable real estate development and affordable housing. Gustines obtained her undergraduate degree in Business Administration and Environmental studies from UNC Chapel Hill.