Place-Belonging is the Medicine We Need for our Social Ailments

Let's take aim at the root-causes of polarization and social decline. (Reading time: about 4 minutes)

Do you feel you belong where you live?

According to a recent study, 60% of Americans strongly agree to feeling belonging in America, but only 35% strongly agree to feeling belonging in their communities

Let me repeat that: Two out of three of us don’t feel like we belong where we live. 

That’s shocking, but perhaps not that surprising. This lack of belonging correlates with other alarming statistics of loneliness and disconnection characterizing our modern society.

For example, the number of people who say they have no close friends has risen significantly. Over half of Americans say no one knows them well. Increasing numbers are depressed, with an especially alarming crisis among youth. 50% of Americans say they don’t trust their neighbors. The average American spends barely 30 minutes a day on any kind of socializing or talking with other adults, yet averaged over five hours watching TV or being on our phone. 

Need I go on?

Is it any wonder that people are finding belonging, connection, and meaning in places like tribal polarized politics or wacky conspiracy theories? Untethered and disconnected from each other, we have become susceptible to getting swept up by these emotionally charged phenomena. As David Brooks recently observed, “Conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century,”

Can restoring a sense of belonging counteract these corruptive forces tearing apart our social fabric?

So what is belonging? 

Peter block, author of Community:The Structure of Belonging, gives us this poetic description:

“It is the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase. It is the opposite of thinking that whenever I am, I would be better off somewhere else… The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always on the margin, an outsider. To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I am among friends”

Belonging resides at the core of well-being. We evolved as social animals, and belonging to social groups, once critical to our survival, is still critical to our mental health. It’s why loneliness (the opposite of belonging) causes the same biological reaction as physical pain. 

The groups we belong to are also critically linked to our sense-of-self, a.k.a. our social identities. The shared norms and beliefs of our social identities have an immense pull over how we frame and navigate the world.

Belonging is the foundation for being. Without it, we are adrift, awash with anxiety and alienation.

Belonging is the foundation for being. Without it, we are adrift, awash with anxiety and alienation.

There are many places where we can feel a sense of belonging. We can belong at home or in our online or spiritual communities. Or we can feel a sense of belonging at our workplace, something increasingly desired by young Americans. The term now saturates office-culture parlance.

But most importantly, we can belong to a Place. That’s Place with a big “P” – not just the physical setting, but the people, culture, neighbors, language, climate, and ecosystems. It’s a term commonly used in environmental psychology, which has been spelunking the caverns of our Place-Identity relationships since the 70s.

Our childhood places give us our first-Place belonging and have a special role in our identities. It often manifests in a special pride in our hometown or neighborhood, and an understanding that a core part of who we are is linked to where we grew up. I know this is true for my small East-coast hometown.

But we grow up, and we move, have kids, and get new jobs. And many of us end up somewhere else besides the neighborhood of our youth.

And as it turns out, two-thirds of us don’t feel a sense of belonging there. And that’s leaving us with a collective case of uprootedness.

The good news is that we can cultivate place-belonging as an adult, wherever we are. 

This happens by getting involved in your neighborhood or place-based community. By making connections with others who live nearby. Doing something to improve it or bring people together. Putting down roots. A block party. A tree planting. A community garden.

I’ve seen this in action through my work as a landscape architect facilitating community-driven placemaking projects. Place-belongingness blossoms when people come together to envision and shape the place where they live. It is especially powerful when it manifests in the physical construction of shared space, such as renovating a park or playground.

So here’s my working theory: that cultivating place-belongingness is the only practical antidote to the social decline and polarization that is gripping our nation. The best I can tell, all the other solutions involve civil war, a massive spiritual awakening, or something else equally unreasonable.

So here’s my working theory: that cultivating place-belongingness is the only practical antidote to the social decline and polarization that is gripping our nation.

Interestingly, social science has shown that those with more “cross-cutting” social identities- that is being part of more diverse group compositions – are less likely to be politically polarized and better informed about current events. Our place-based communities fit that bill.

If we cultivate Place-Belongingness, we can draw down our dizzyingly high rates of loneliness, disconnection and anomie (one of my new favorite words).

If we re-knit our social fabric by re-grounding ourselves in our Place-based communities, we will also reduce our susceptibility to those polarizing and subsuming whirlwinds of national partisan identity and conspiracy theory. 

We can give people a sense of agency over their lives, and distinctiveness and status that comes from being an accepted part of a group. 

We can cultivate social identities based in Place.

And Places to belong.