What Notre Dame tells us about emotional connection to place

The news this week has been covered with disturbing images of Notre Dame  - on fire. The tragic loss of one of France’s national icons is also one that many of us have visited and stood in awe of. Seeing fires engulf the 856-year-old cathedral, its spire falling, feels more like losing a childhood home - a sense of irreplaceable loss. A sense of grief, perhaps, about a place, a building, a temple.

It is the same sense of grief that we should also feel for Aleppo, whose entire downtown area was UNESCO world heritage listed before the shelling began, or for the 800-year-old Djap Wurrung trees, including a birthing tree, which are earmarked for removal as part of the Western Highway expansion in Victoria. Sacred places.

The events of this week highlight the emotional bond we feel for places. How the places we love and feel connected to shape us, and our identity and our culture. Environmental psychologists have spent many decades studying this phenomena known as “place attachment”. While Indigenous culture helps teach us that connection to country is a much deeper spiritual connection still.  It is critical for city-making, and it is critical for wellbeing.

Notre Dame interior

Notre Dame interior

To put it simply, we are emotional beings, as well as physical ones. Therefore our cities and places need to cater for our emotional needs for belonging, memory, comfort, safety and connection as much as they do our need for transport, shelter and recreation. This might sound obvious, yet we rarely give our social and emotional needs the same level or planning priority as we do the physical needs, often because they are harder to quantify and measure. I have often reflected that urban development projects need an “emotional brief” as well as “physical brief”: how do we want people to feel?

Urban development projects need an “emotional brief” as well as a “physical brief”: how do we want people to feel.

What are some of the drivers of place attachment?  

The social research shows us that there are three components to place attachment:

  • Person: Who is attached? Describing the person, community or group connected to the place and the variation that occurs;

  • Process: The psychological process: what is the nature of the relationship - what is the affect, cognition or behaviour;

  • Place: The object of attachment: the physical place we feel connected to.

Scannell, L and Gifford,R -  Defining Place Attachment : A tripartite organising framework.

Scannell, L and Gifford,R - Defining Place Attachment: A tripartite organising framework.


With regard to Notre Dame, we each have a very different and personal relationship to the iconic building.

Holiday memories, perhaps, or a connection of deeper significance, a connection to history, culture or spirituality. We are attached in different ways but feel a sense of affection for the building not just as a physical place but as a social symbol.

Stories from Notre Dame

Stories from Notre Dame

Social Data and Place Attachment

Over the past year at Neighbourlytics we have been researching the different ways in which the digital footprint of a neighbourhood describes the collective emotional experience, or place attachment. What people post, like, comment and share online describes the behaviours, places and activities that are important to them.

We’ve seen some clear emerging trends about people’s behavior: when people feel emotionally connected to a place they post about it, when they don’t, they don’t post. In neighbourhoods where there is a strong sense of connection, people constantly post photos of the neighbourhood month-in, month-out.

When people feel emotionally connected to a place they post about it, when they don’t, they don’t.

For example in Parkville, a parkside suburb in inner Melbourne, there are consistently high volumes of posts about the park. While that might sound obvious, in neighbourhoods like Point Cook, which are equally proximate to a large park, there are very few posts about the park (or the neighbourhood in general). Posts are instead about family, cooking, sporting clubs and activities.

In a study of over 10 innovative neighbourhoods from around the world:  neighbourhood renewal projects which had significantly increased the number of jobs and local activities in the past decade; there were consistently high proportion of post about the neighbourhoods, or local business - from Barcelona to Vancouver.

Neighbourhoods where posts about the public realm and local business are consistently high.

Neighbourhoods where posts about the public realm and local business are consistently high.

As our lives are increasingly online, the digital footprint of neighbourhoods continues to grow.

Social data provides an increasingly useful tool for understanding and measuring our emotional connection to place, as well as our physical connection to place.

Lucinda Hartley

I’m an urban designer and social entrepreneur who has spent the past decade pioneering innovative methods to improve the social sustainability of cities, now being implemented around the world. 

As a co-founder at Neighbourlytics, I bring my social innovation and entrepreneurship strengths to harness big data, and deliver community insights that inform evidence-based urban development decisions. Neighbourlytics is backed by BlueChilli Group’s highly competitive She Starts program.