Sense of Place in Ecologically Degraded Areas: The Case of Semi-Arid Nigeria

Sense of Place in Ecologically Degraded Areas: The Case of Semi-Arid Nigeria

Résumé en français

Le sens du lieu dans les zones écologiquement dégradées: Le cas deszones semi-arides du Nigeria

Le sentiment d'appartenance et les problèmes environnementaux ont faitl'objet d'une attention accrue ces dernières années ; cependant, lacompréhension de la dynamique du sentiment d'appartenance dans le cadre dechangements environnementaux progressifs est limitée. À l'aide d'un travail deterrain et d'entretiens approfondis, cette étude utilise une approchequalitative pour extraire les facteurs environnementaux importants des espacesouverts des communautés locales afin de déterminer dans quelle mesure ellessont prêtes à améliorer leur environnement au cours des processus dedégradation écologique des zones dans l'État de Katsina au Nigéria. Nosrésultats montrent que le sentiment d'appartenance des communautés estdynamique et complexe pendant la période de dégradation de l'environnement ;l'étude a également révélé que l'attachement à un lieu réagit aux changementsenvironnementaux, influençant le sentiment d'appartenance des communautéslocales dans les communautés rurales du Nigéria.

Nous soutenons quel'attachement au lieu réagit aux changements environnementaux et joue un rôleessentiel en influençant le sentiment d'appartenance des communautés locales.La dépendance à l'égard du lieu peut être un lien fonctionnel positif ounégatif, selon le contexte. L'étude a montré que les plantes peuvent aider lesgens à se sentir liés à leur environnement et à réduire les problèmesenvironnementaux, et que le gouvernement avait un rôle important à jouer dansl'évaluation des préoccupations environnementales. L'étude suggère que la priseen compte de la dynamique et du sens du lieu dans les zones de désertificationsemi-arides peut contribuer à améliorer la prise de décision et à promouvoir lebien-être de la communauté.

Sense of place and environmental problems have received increased attention in recent years; however, there is limited understanding of the dynamics of sense of place under gradual environmental changes. Using fieldwork and in-depth interviews, this study, employs a qualitative approach, to extract important environmental factors from local communities' open spaces to ascertain how prepared they are to improve their environment during the processes of ecologically degraded areas in the Katsina state of Nigeria. Our findings show that communities’ sense of place is dynamic and complex during the environmental degradation period; the study also revealed that place attachment reacts to environmental change, influencing local communities' sense of place in rural communities in Nigeria. We argue that place attachment reacts to environmental change and plays a critical role in influencing local communities' sense of place. Place dependence can be either a positive or negative functional link, depending on the context. the study found that plants can help people feel connected to their surroundings and reduce environmental issues. and that government had a significant role in assessing environmental concerns. The study suggests that consideration of the dynamics and sense of place in semi-arid desertification areas can help improve decision-making and promote community well-being.


Understanding the relationships between communities and their physical locations is critical for purposeful planning and design that reflects the actual values of the communities we serve (Anna et al., 2016). This considers concepts such as sense of place, the experience of place, and design as place creating. Studying these concepts can assist in determining which factors must be included while planning to sustain or strengthen community emotions for a location or to promote people’s desire to reside or experience that location. The idea of a sense of place encompasses all aspects of people's views and judgements of the environment (Shamsuddin and Ujang, 2008), such as connection, identity, and symbolic value, and can connect with environmental and social issues.

A sense of place incorporates all aspects of how people experience and perceive their surroundings on a spiritual, psychological, and cognitive level. As a result, individual, and sociocultural events occur due to the effects of physical environment encounters. The interaction between individuals and their environment, which serves as an inherent characteristic necessary for human life, was described as a sense of place in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Board, 2005). Physical aspects, activities, and interpretations all worked together to create a sense of place and character in people's perceptions of a location (Masterson et al., 2019). Although the idea has been used for a very long time in many different fields, it has just lately been acknowledged as an ecosystem service.

Literature Review

Scholars are increasingly paying close attention to the sense of place, which is a mental connection to place, as many rural communities attempt to operationalise it into knowledge of their environment. The primary component of a person's identity is space (Peau et al., 2022). Understanding the location allows man to gain knowledge. Man's mind contains mental images from various sources. His emotions may influence how he perceives his environment and how a mental image of the space forms. In this mental picture, identity is space. People can identify the space using their memories in addition to physical features. Mehraban et al., (2021) refer to a location's distinctive qualities that help people remember it and thus convey its personality as having a "sense of place." This sense of place, according to Mehraban et al., (2021) is based on a variety of elements collectively referred to as the "genetic makeup of a place," the main components of which are the location (including its physical and cultural environment), the associated products, and the community members. Those who have a close relationship with their environment, such as rural communities, may be extremely sensitive to environmental changes and react to changes in the physical environment and unfavourable feelings that come with disaster situations. Any type of environmental disaster, whether sudden, such as a flood or fire, or gradual, such as global warming and environmental degradation, changes the characteristics of a space and as a result alters daily life and cultural practices of the communities.

Sense of place considers not only actual environments but also intangible attributes (Dameria et al., 2020). It encompasses our associations with and perceptions of a location, including the reason for the location being significant to us and how it affects us. Our past as a society is shaped by our ties to and love for particular places (Nilson & Thorell, 2014). We all have fond memories of spending lazy summer days playing with our friends or relatives in the shade of a large tree o a neighbourhood park as children. We cherish the emotion the tree has given us and want to spread it to others. We can unwind and temporarily forget the stresses of daily living because we naturally feel safe, secure and relaxed. When we go to a natural location, it talks to us immediately.

As degraded ecosystems change, a better understanding of people-environment relationships may improve the understanding of human responses to environmental change. This is critical for inclusive and participatory policy and management strategies, as well as environmentally conscious behaviour (Gorge et al., 2022). Because of their particular ecological and geological conditions, some semi-arid regions are vulnerable to disturbance from irrational, intensive development. This causes the land to degrade through the process of desertification, which transforms a region that was once covered in vegetation and soil into a sandy landscape (Gidado et al.,2022). This has happened in several places, particularly in Nigeria's north-western region. The sustainability of semi-arid regions is still threatened by some issues, such as communities' lack of motivation for participation and challenges in consolidating rehabilitation successes despite active efforts by both the national and regional governments and the local authorities (Adenle et al., 2022).

Effective ecological management requires an understanding of the local population, their attitudes, emotions, and behaviours, as well as how these affect people-place relationships. Jarratt & Phelan (2018) argued that it is impossible to find long-lasting solutions to environmental issues without properly understanding the relationship between people and their environment. According to authors such as Dentzman & Burke (2021), environmental change can cause a significant impact on post-disaster reconstruction. The dynamic of the sense of place that local communities experience during gradual land degradation and restoration has not been adequately explored.

A mentality of environmental consciousness and sustainability is promoted by incorporating landscape designs that create a strong feeling of location. Finding a piece of home refreshes those who have been relocated from the countryside to the town or from a known environment to one that is very different. Protecting and promoting what is valuable to us becomes a focus in our lives (Turner‐Skoff, 2019). And finally, creating a feeling of location helps to bring people together in communities. People from various cultures share what appeals to them about a location, which sparks dialogue and fosters comprehension. This study takes a qualitative approach to investigate the effects of environmental changes on the open spaces of local communities and to determine how prepared the communities are to improve their environment.


Study Area

The North-west is one of Nigeria's six geopolitical zones, representing both the country's geographical and political regions. Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, and Zamfara are its seven states. It is predominantly Hausa in culture, but there are sizable minorities of Fulani and other ethnic groups (Jellason et al., 2019). Katsina State is located in Nigeria's north-western geopolitical zone and is known as the "Home of Hospitality." It covers an area of 23,938 sq. kilometres. It is located at a latitude of 11° 07' 49N' and 130 22 57" and longitude of 6052'03 East and 9902' East. The state borders the tropical grassland known as savannah to the north, and it has two major seasons: rainy and dry (Gidado et al., 2022).

Field Observation

Field observations were conducted in Batagarawa, Danja, and Katsina local government areas, guided by an observation checklist. Analysis of field notes and pictures started as soon as a researcher entered the field, continued as interactions happened, and culminated when the researcher assessed the significance of those interactions and descriptive notes. Data processing was done in three phases: networking, coding, and interpreting which is the most appropriate method as presented by Thunberg and Arnell, (2021).

In-depth Interview

Face-to-face, in-depth interviews with community leaders were conducted between April 15, 2022, and May 2, 2022, as well as between June 1, 2022, and June 14, 2022, including weekdays and weekends. Purposive sampling strategies were used to identify potential interviewees, with the assistance of district heads. The interviews were conducted in nine (9) rural communities across three (3) locations. All of the participants were men over the age of thirty (30), with the majority(86%) falling between the ages of 50 and 70. They all have a primary school education, and only 29% are self-employed. They all speak Hausa as their first language, and only 29% are fluent in English. The fact that the majority of participants (71%) have more than 20 years of leadership experience in the community is another notable feature. Every participant inherited their leadership skills from their parents, suggesting that, as shown in Table 1, their parents had also served as community leaders before them.

Table 1: General descriptions of in-depth interview subjects

The majority of participants in the interviews were middle-aged and elderly, making them familiar with environmental change and how it affects people-place relationships. All of the participants are male, reflecting traditional leadership in Northern Nigeria. (Ali, 2019; Ifekwe et al., 2019; Igwubor, 2020). Having prior experience in community leadership is important for this study, as Hausa is the participants' native tongue and interviews was conducted in this language to ensure clear communication, and later transcribed and translated to English for analysis.


The Environment of North-western Nigeria

The study area is part of the Savannah vegetation found in northern Nigeria, characterised by dispersed short green grasses with few trees that grow no taller than 15 metres. As shown in Table 2, the site inventory of the research area showed that as you approach further north, the grass, shrubs, and trees get shorter and more sparse, short deciduous trees with thick bark, as well as short, dense grasses, are scattered across the environment. Acacia, date palms, silk cotton plants, and baobab are among the most popular plant species, while neem tree, mango tree, and gmelina are examples of trees that have become naturalised due to their characteristics.

Table 2: An inventory of native plants characteristic of Northern Nigeria

The vegetation consists of indigenous trees, but careful examination shows that as one approaches any town, the abundance, and arrangement of such vegetation changes to give the feeling of being at home, which backs up what has been said by (Dambatta & Aliyu, 2012; Danjuma & Yakubu, 2017; Oni, 2001; Rabiu et al., 2013). Entering communities usually creates sentiments of serenity and connection, according to research participants' statements, which are corroborated by Figures 1 and 2. After a long trip away from home, seeing a tall standing silk cotton (Rimi) tree about one kilometre distant makes one feel at home. This nostalgic feeling does not just affirm a place of identity but creates feelings of tranquillity and a sense of belonging. (Respondents 1 & 2).

Figure 1: Tall standing silk cotton and Baobab tree at about a one-kilometre distance make one feel at home (left) and Figure 2 (right) Neem trees positioned along the road creates an avenue planting. This welcomes you to the community while also acting as a bus stop, affording commuters shade before buses arrive. This exemplifies how to employ landscape design elements to improve the overall feeling of the location (Source, Authors).

Communities, according to one of the responses below, use the presence of vegetation to establish a sort of boundary between two communities. African ebony (Kanya), Mango (Mangoro), and camel's foot(Kalgo) trees with a shallow well for water serve as demarcation between the two communities in most cases. These trees offer a resting space and a chance to dust off the fatigue of the journey and make plans for the family you will soon meet. As one approaches a town, neem trees are seen planted in the form of an avenue; this arrangement continued until one has passed the community, which is linear in nature. (Respondents 2 and 5).

A large Gutta-percha (Gamji) tree usually marks the location of the community's assembly ground, where residents congregate under its broad canopy to share activities and foster a feeling of community. Along with being used to stop erosion on farmland, the "kunth"(Gamba) and “Vetiver Grass” grasses were also used to delineate the borders of various farmlands, corroborating the study by Na Allah et al., (2020).

In summary, the study revealed that employing plants as landscape components helps people feel more connected to their surroundings. These plants are made up of many species that are either indigenous to the area or have a lengthy history of adaptation. As indicated in Table 3 below, these plants may be categorised according to street definition, landmarks, community focal points, and the overall impression of a village, town, or location.

Table 3: Plants that contribute to sense of place in Northern Nigeria

Environmental Degradation

This research mainly identifies two environmental issues: erosion, and over-exploitation of natural resources, as shown in Table 4 below. These issues have an impact on local communities in a semi-arid area of northern Nigeria.

Table 4: Environmental challenges related to open spaces in the semi-arid region

The studied region has the following environmental issues: erosion (as shown in figure 3 and4), with its direct impact on the areas where it occurs, as well as negative off-site effects in areas that receive the eroded material through dust storms that can travel long distances from their source; sand accumulation; over-exploitation of natural resources through overgrazing of livestock in one area which degrades plant and soil resources by reducing vegetation cover and trampling the soil surface. These environmental issues have been directly and indirectly linked to the area's climatic conditions, as attested by Azare, et al (2020); Gidado, et al., (2022); James et al., (2018); and Olagunju, (2015).  

Figure 3 (left) shows how erosion is removing nutrients from soil and topsoil, increases water runoff and causes the death of new plants. Figure 4 depicts how erosion is removing trees from roadsides, causing a loss of the character that these trees offered (Source, Authors)

There were bare open areas everywhere. The testimonies of the interviewees made frequent mention of the environment's vulnerability and fragility. People have worked hard to repair the landscape since the 1980s when the effects of desertification became obvious everywhere. Community leaders are always warning residents about the dangers of felling trees. Non-governmental organisations gave seedlings for community planting. It took five years to see the favourable effects of this rigorous exercise. (Respondents 2 and 6).

Such unpleasant sensations, along with the high-intensity utilisation of community spaces in these degraded environments, resulted in an accumulation of poor experiences with the location. This made some community members feel helpless and resentful, and compelled them to flee the area where they resided, weakening their feeling of affiliation and emotional security to the area, which affected how they saw themselves:

What do you think about this place? There was nothing but suffering and agony. Only this kind of animosity can be experienced when we no longer feel a part of our local communities. I warned that if things stay as they are, communities in the future will become disoriented and lose their sense of belonging to their places, and there will be nothing but pain and suffering. (Respondent 6).

In summary, two environmental issues: the geological process of erosion caused by high winds and surface run-off, and the depletion of resources due to deforestation and overgrazing. The degraded communal spaces hindered sociocultural activities, leading to the loss of distinctive character and an accumulation of negative experiences. This made some community members feel powerless and bitter, eroding their sense of belonging and emotional stability.

Environmental Governance

According to the research, environmental governance encompasses the following principles, which people in the semi-arid area of northern Nigeria use to control and adjust to their local spaces: involvement; receptivity and efficacy; and efficiency. The United Nations, as represented by UNEP, recognises these values (UNEP, (2017).

The research identified state government, local government authority, community leaders, and community-based organisations as active participants in the administration and governance of the rural area. Community leaders connect the community to the government and other stakeholders while inspiring and persuading community members to support the effort, which is also evident in Abdulmajid et al., (2021). According to the study, community-based organisations were created by communities, and since their members are chosen from the same community, decision-making, and implementation have become simple (Dentzman and Burke, 2021). The study also revealed that the government had a significant role, which was shown to be effective in assessing the number of environmental concerns in rural surroundings in the study area, which is consistent with Osawe & Magnus, (2016).


The study demonstrated the dynamics and complexities of how environmental deterioration affects locals' sense of place. The local physical environment and community spaces that they use within northern Nigeria are being affected by sand accumulation, erosion, and exploitation, which promotes the generation and setting of boundaries for a variety of place meanings and experiences. Environmental degradation hastens the negative change in people's sense of place, resulting in feelings similar to some aspects of nostalgia (distress caused by an environmental change affecting people connected to their home environment), whereas environmental governance promotes people's positive sense of place. Environmental governance fosters people's good feelings of self-worth. The physical environment constrains the breadth and degree of change in experience and meaning, allowing present good and poor or ambivalent sensations to coexist. The findings contribute to our knowledge of the connections between progressive environmental change and a sense of place.

This study demonstrates how strongly place attachment responds to environmental change and the critical role it plays in influencing local communities' sense of place. This conclusion lends some support to earlier research that highlighted the beneficial effect of location dependency on place identification (Shamsuddin and Ujang, 2008; Ujang, 2012). It also implies that people's reliance on the location where they reside and forge their sociocultural identity is not always a sign of success; rather, it could be a poor functional decision made because there are no other options. Therefore, although people become emotionally attached to a location because they are drawn to it, they can also become emotionally attached to a place due to neutral or unfavourable contextual variables (Ujang, 2012). Place identity and affiliation are negatively impacted by this negative place reliance.

The study found that using plants as landscape components helps people feel more connected to their surroundings, creating a sense of place and reducing environmental issues, and the government has a significant role in assessing environmental concerns. The study suggests that consideration of sense of place in semi-arid desertification areas can help improve decision-making and promote community well-being.


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The authors thank the TETfund Nigeria and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria Nigeria, for sponsoring the study.