Shared shorelines, shared meanings?: Examining place meaning in Puget Sound (extended abstract)

A 2021 article in the journal Applied Geography examines perceptions of shorelines in the Puget Sound region. A community survey described in the article showed that local residents preferred undeveloped shorelines to shorelines with armored structures such as seawalls and bulkheads. 

Timber pile bulkheads at Ledgewood Beach on Whidbey Island. Photo: Washington Department of Ecology (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Timber pile bulkheads at Ledgewood Beach on Whidbey Island. Photo: Washington Department of Ecology (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Extended abstract

Marine shorelines are distinct places that provide a diverse range of ecosystem services or benefits to local communities. Such benefits include local foods, economic opportunities, recreational activities, therapeutic blue spaces, and sense of place. Shoreline benefits have partly contributed to a global increase in coastal populations, including in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, where all twelve of the region’s counties have experienced population growth over the last decade. Coastal population increases have simultaneously increased pressures on and modifications of the region’s shorelines. Modifications are exemplified by hard shoreline armor, including seawalls and other forms of coastal infrastructure. This increase in armor illustrates the global pattern of “growing concrete coasts.” Such infrastructure and increased pressures negatively impact the very ecosystem services communities rely on or benefit from. This study examined communities’ place meanings of shorelines in the Puget Sound region and the extent to which shoreline change plays a role in their meanings. This study was implemented through on-the-ground intercept surveys with cognitive mapping activities in four Puget Sound counties, including Clallam, Island, Pierce, and Whatcom. An interactive cognitive mapping activity, that included the use of a card selecting and sorting exercise, focused on the question “What does the Puget Sound’s shoreline mean to you?” The intercept survey also included a photo selection question focused on respondents selecting an “ideal” and “least ideal” shoreline (shoreline preference) from a scale of shoreline types ranging from most hard armored shoreline to most natural shoreline. A total of 54 residents participated in the intercept surveys, representing all four counties. Overall, the findings indicate that residents imbue a multitude of meanings with an emphasis on shoreline naturalness. For example, respondents most frequently selected “nature” (Whatcom, 92%; Island, 75%), “wildlife” (92%, Clallam), and “peace” (Pierce, 69%) as shoreline place meanings. Shoreline meanings were also influenced by place-based factors, like place of residence and shoreline property ownership. Shoreline place meanings are powerful, reflecting communities’ larger sense of place, which in turn informs their place attachments and place identities, but also place-based behaviors and preferences. Place meanings also reflect that people-place relationships matter when it comes to shoreline management, as place meanings may help understand how residents may react to proposed or expected shoreline changes, whether deemed positive or negative. For example, place meanings may spark different responses to place change, including coastal infrastructure installation or removal, among other shoreline projects or management strategies. Such findings and studies offer much to coastal planning, management, and restoration, as residents’ place meanings could be assessed prior to a project or plan and be used in engagement, outreach, and education focused on fostering a sense of place and support for a given restoration effort. Based on the overall responses, the majority of which emphasized shoreline naturalness, this study suggests that residents’ place meanings, among other factors like financial investment, would likely respond positively to shoreline armor removal and reduction efforts. 


Trimbach, D. J., & Biedenweg, K. (2021). Shared shorelines, shared meanings?: Examining place meaning in Puget Sound. Applied Geography135, 102559.

View the full paper (external link)

About the Author: 
David J. Trimbach and Kelly Biedenweg, Human Dimensions Lab, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Oregon State University