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New Instructor Focuses on Great Lakes Water Conservation and Place Attachment

Posted Oct. 18, 2010

Great Lakes residents have a very strong emotional connection, or a high level of place attachment, to the Great Lakes region, based on the research of one Kent State University's newest instructors with the help of his mentor.

special feature dunbar INVERSE
Michael Dunbar

Michael Dunbar started his research as a graduate student in the spring of 2009. He found that Ohioan's "place attachment" begins with the strong bonds they have from building memories with a particular location or resource. For example, residents may remember a family vacation to Cedar Point, Kelley's Island or simply swimming in one of the Great Lakes.

"People have memories attached to the Great Lakes," Dunbar says. "They identify with the Great Lakes, they use the lakes for recreation and of course many depend on the water supply. After you've built an emotional bond and can recall images in your memory, you inherently want to protect that site."

Dunbar grew up in Ohio, but got the idea for his research after living in Arizona for seven years. In Arizona, he saw many public service announcements on television encouraging the conservation of water. When he returned to Ohio several years ago, many international organizations were at that time raising awareness of impending water shortages.

Throughout his research, Dunbar noticed that many residents of the Great Lakes don't fully understand why the water resources of the Great Lakes region are being threatened; however, those citizens are sure that individual lakes belong to the Great Lakes region, and they won't easily share rights to their freshwater.

The NOVA Group, a Canadian company, was the catalyst for bringing the Great Lakes as a natural resource into the consciousness of many residents in the region. By applying for, and ultimately receiving Canadian federal governmental approval to export fresh water to Asia, the NOVA Group proved to legislators and residents that the Great Lakes were not protected from internal and external pressures to treat water as a commodity.

"The resident's passionate response goes beyond the value of water as a commodity to the fact that the Great Lakes play a role in the lives and memories of the region's citizens," Dunbar says.

Even with this awareness, Dunbar noticed that many Ohioans still take fresh water for granted and treat it as an inexhaustible resource. But at the same time, the threat of diminishing a community's water supply and impacting their economy causes a very strong reaction from the residents.

"Through casual conversations I began to notice that citizens of the region may not know where their water comes from," Dunbar says. "But they were very passionate about not further compromising the Great Lakes as a resource of water."

Dunbar defended his thesis in July 2010. As a result of his research, he found that the Great Lakes residents' opposition to water diversion has more to do with taking away something residents view as their own, rather than losing the freshwater resource.

Even though the residents feel this way, Dunbar noticed they still wash their sidewalks and driveways with water, rather than sweeping.

Department of Geography Professor David Kaplan played a large role in helping Dunbar through his thesis and defense.

"Dr. Kaplan started out as my mentor and is now a very good friend," Dunbar says. "I think his ideas, support and guidance must be never ending because I certainly tried all three."

Dunbar's knowledge and experience are now being shared with students at Kent State, where he is currently teaching two geography classes.

"I can honestly say the best thing about Kent State is the instructors and staff that actually care and go out of their way to help and support you, "Dunbar says. "I am very proud to be a graduate, and now an instructor, at Kent State."

By Allison Brookes