In academic circles, “sense of place” refers to the subjective and emotional attachment people have to a particular geographic location, shaped by their personal experiences and cultural associations. Drawing on this definition, Front Porch developed the Sense of Place program: a six-part series that allows new and established residents to explore together how they experience their community and to share what they value and want to keep – and what they want to change.
Senior Director for Resident Experience Rebecca Johnson created the program to support residents’ connection to the community and to one another. “We feel a sense of place but don’t necessarily articulate it,” says Johnson. This program allows residents to gather over time “to capture in your words why you feel as you do.”
Each Front Porch community has its own unique geography, Johnson explains. “When we hear the word geography we think, ‘mountains, landscapes,’ which is certainly part of it,” she says. “But geography is also everything that humans build. When we wrote the program, we were intentional about discussing both the physical and social aspects of geography.”
Sense of Place provides a safe environment for people who may not normally speak up in the community to address concerns. “Sense of Place is outside of the committee or council structure,” says Johnson. “Sometimes residents are looking for a new way to share their voice, a less formal way beyond the surveys and the committees that are already in place.”
“I marvel at people who have the ability to come forward and speak their thoughts,” said one resident participant at Friends House in Santa Rosa. “It doesn’t come as naturally to me, but after listening to others, I feel I can talk like that. I feel comfortable here. I feel I’m in the right place.”
Jeannie Pressey, executive director of Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa says that Sense of Place is “an additional opportunity to gain insight from the residents on what’s working well and what they would like to see improved.”
Unlike a resident survey that provides a quantitative snapshot of the community at a moment in time, Sense of Place collects qualitative information that “puts the how, why, and what together in one place,” explains Mary McMullin, chief advancement officer for Front Porch. “A survey will tell us you think your community is great. Sense of Place allows us to understand why you think it’s great. It helps us identify rather than guess about the true community that’s here.”
Because residents were speaking directly with someone in person or on Zoom “instead of simply filling out the boxes on a survey, I feel that they were more comfortable in sharing their viewpoints,” Pressey notes. “And their views were clearly communicated as opposed to checking a box that says ‘are you satisfied? 1, 2, 3.’ You get some context on what people are trying to say.”
The program was open to any residents who wanted to participate, and a range of residents chose to join. “Having new and long-term residents in the same setting was critical,” Johnson says. She notes that newer residents who may have only experienced their community in the wake of the COVID pandemic with its lockdown protocols have a very different perspective than long-term residents who can recall and explain a community’s traditions. Meeting together gave residents a broader perspective on what community feels like based on their individual experiences.
Johnson compiled insights gathered during each session into reports for each participating community’s executive director, incorporating resident feedback, key questions, and recommendations for follow-up programs. Mark Nitsche, who became the executive director of San Francisco Towers during the Sense of Place pilot program, read the reports as a way to became familiar with the community. They allowed him to “really listen to what people are saying,” he recalls.
“People believe the ED is the last word, but it’s collaborative,” Nitsche says. Sense of Place allowed residents “to be a voice for the community and how you want to see community going forward. The program builds a sense of awareness, a sense of hope, and a sense of belonging.”
After testing the program as a pilot project at three Front Porch communities in 2022, Sense of Place is preparing to launch in more communities this year and may later be developed for use beyond the Front Porch system. Johnson is also gathering a working group to develop a new program called ATLAS, designed specifically for the new resident experience.
“Sense of Place is an influencer in decision making,” Johnson says. “It’s a platform for prioritizing the things that mean the most to residents, and one of those priorities is how residents, especially new residents, develop a sense of belonging and attachment in community. ATLAS is our natural next step.
“I’ve learned so much from the resident participants by leading this program. Each community is unique, with its own sense of place. This program has helped me to understand at a deep level what’s important for residents in their particular community. I can’t wait to discover more as we move forward with Sense of Place.”