(CNN) — In 2018, Lucy Ruthnum moved from England to Hamburg, Germany, where she struggled to fit in.
"Hamburg is a very insular place," she said. "If you don't speak fluent German, it can be very difficult, and it's not a supportive environment for those who are learning." Ruthnum grappled with finding her place in this new setting, in a culture she says felt impossible to penetrate.
It was quite different from her upbringing in Norfolk, England, an area she says she loves.
In spite of her fondess for Norfolk, Ruthnum left England to be with her partner, who was from Hamburg, and when she spoke to him about her issues in this new place, he recognized them, too. And Ruthnum said she met many other expats who agreed.
From their perspective, the people living in Hamburg wanted nothing to do with outsiders.
What Ruthnum experienced was a concept called "place attachment," which points to the complicated relationships people have to where they live.
The places people grow up shape who they are, making it tough to grapple with a new identity when they move. Much of how people understand the world and fit in it with it comes from these places, too.
When Ruthnum moved from England to Hamburg, she struggled to fit in. People's connection to their cities can affect how they treat outsiders — and often, not for the better — according to a concept called place attachment.
Courtesy Lucy Ruthnum
Personal identity and geography
Put simply, personal identity and geographic location are inextricably linked. "Where we grow up can be a matter of choice or chance, but where we live is very much tied to our identity," said Dr. Zamira Castro, a psychologist based in Florida.
Place can be as important to a person's identity as anything else — their profession, religion, relationships — and this creates a profound attachment to the city itself.
"Place attachment is this idea that people become attached to places in the same ways they become attached to people," explained Dr. Krista Paulsen, a researcher and associate professor at Boise State University who studies urban sociology. "Those attachments become important parts of how we organize our lives."
Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, a pioneer researcher in place attachment, has said the concept goes beyond primal territorial behavior, writing that people "respond to space and place in complicated ways that are inconceivable in the animal world."
Like getting attached to a person, place attachment can lead to both good and bad behavior. It explains why people take it personally when their neighbors move away in droves. When people live in a city that's a popular place to visit, place attachment can make them proud of that fact. On the flip side, it can also lead to resentment to tourists and outsiders.
It's why some people mused, "Is New York City dead?" during the pandemic, and others rushed to the city's defense, in spite of an extreme drop in tourism, canceled events and closures.
An almost deserted Times Square looks markedly different than the bustling area pre-Covid-19.
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
Place attachment also explains why people feel resistant to move to the suburbs or even to a different neighborhood within their city. It also explains homesickness.
"I didn't know how much New York was a part of me until I left," said Gina Rattan, a director who moved to Maine after Broadway shut down in March. "My connection to New York was deeply tied to my own independence," she said.
Rattan, who was seven months pregnant at the time, left the city for health concerns but has found it difficult to adjust elsewhere. Place attachment and place identity lead people to grieve the cities they've left behind because it feels like losing a part of themselves.
"We kind of expect the places we lived to just be there," Paulsen said. "It's like they continue to be there for us in our minds, and we expect them to continue to be there for us in reality."
Part of this attachment has to do with the social aspect of living within a community, Castro points out. "You want to protect your group from outside threats. You get defensive when it feels like your group is being attacked," she explained. "A lot of that is evolutionarily hard wired, but then some of it is influenced by modern concerns, like politics and values."
People practice social distancing in Domino Park in Williamsburg during the coronavirus pandemic.
Noam Galai/Getty Images
These markings of a place — politics, values, food, history, landmarks — become meaningful symbols of a person's own identity when they live in that place. "People choose particular kinds of neighborhoods because they believe those neighborhoods either reflect their identity or it's an identity they aspire to," Paulsen said.
Problems arise when place attachment goes to the extreme end of the spectrum. Paulsen said an attachment to cities and neighborhoods can make people see newcomers as a threat — they don't want the places they know and love to change.
This is what Ruthnum experienced as a multiracial expat living in Germany. "Hamburg in particular was very unfriendly and unwelcoming towards me," she said.
While xenophobia is different from being attached to (or proud of) the place you live, taken to the extreme, place attachment often brings out xenophobic and racist behaviors. "There were several times when they would call me racist names or threaten me in German," Ruthnum said.
Place attachment also explains why visiting a destination will never be the same as living in it.
Like any complex emotional bond, it takes time to get attached to a place, so visiting a city will always come with a degree of limitation. "And in some ways that's just fine," Paulsen said. "But it means that the tourist's experience of the place is going to be very different from the resident's experience, or even a visitor who's staying with family or friends who are more connected to that place."
A few tourists visit St Mark's Square under Italy's semi-lockdown on November 7.
Because people become so attached to their cities and neighborhoods, watching those places change can provoke unfamiliar feelings, Paulsen's research has found. This can happen when neighborhoods experience gentrification, for instance, or when tourists no longer fill the streets.
The environment or landscape changes, giving the city an entirely different energy.
"But it's really anytime a neighborhood changes so much that it's no longer the place you understand and value," Paulsen said. "I imagine it's what New Yorkers experienced during the pandemic."
As people left and many of the city's landmarks closed down, it was undeniably hard for New Yorkers to experience what Paulsen calls a "symbolic dislocation."
An absence of tourists in Paris has the potential to change the energy in the city.
Kiran Ridley/Getty Images
This happens when people can't use or access places in the same way they're accustomed to using them. Alexis Woody, a PR professional living in New York during the early days of the pandemic, said the streets were eerily quiet at that time as tenants moved out and tourism declined. "It was disheartening to see the city shut down," she said. " It was heartbreaking to think some of my favorite local spots would never reopen their doors."
It's not just New York — from Paris to Athens to London, many popular destinations have seen a sharp drop in tourism.
When residents are used to seeing tourists snapping photos on their beaches or filling the streets of Times Square, it can be jarring to see those places empty.
Obsessed with identity
Perhaps people feel a strong sense of identity with their cities because our culture is obsessed with identity in the first place, Castro argued. "There's a lot of theoretical discussion about how modern society is so focused on identity," she said. "That obsession can be unhealthy."
Social media can be helpful for people struggling with an identity crisis after a move.
"Finding a way to connect with the city you left behind is a good way to cope," Castro said. Following accounts from your hometown, neighborhood or city can remind you of that part of yourself, for example. There might also be newspapers, blogs, food or songs that immediately transport you to certain places. They can make you feel at home in your new home.
But mostly, it takes time. Whether you're coping with a big move or getting used to your current city's changes, it's only natural to feel a bit of an identity crisis.
Ultimately, it takes time to get used to losing a sense of attachment to your place, wherever it is and however it's changed.
People often feel superior about the cities, towns or neighborhoods they live in because these places become an integral extension of themselves.
Like any kind of attachment, bonding with the place you live can play out in harmful ways.
But taken at face value, place attachment is simply an emotional connection we create with the geography around us. "We will always identify with the places that made us," Castro said. "We carry home with us wherever we go. It's part of who we are."
Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and journalist based in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter