In Europe, flooding is identified as one of four key risks that are expected to become more severe with climate change (Bednar-Friedl et al. 2022). It is a natural hazard whose cause, and the severity of its consequences, is inevitably linked to human interactions with the natural environment. Flood risks are exacerbated, not only by the increase in precipitation and sea level rise that comes with climate change, but also by urban development, and the drainage of wetlands for agricultural purposes (Hall et al. 2014). Across Europe, local authorities are increasingly seeking to manage new and exacerbated flood risks through engagement with stakeholders (Begg 2018). Stakeholder engagement can be understood as a collaborative social process where the purpose is to find a collective solution to a certain problem (Thaler and Levin-Keitel 2016). It involves communication and dialogue with stakeholders with the purpose of gaining acceptance for public policies and increasing participation through voluntary actions (Renn et al. 2011). Citizens, in their capacity as homeowners, are increasingly expected by local authorities to participate in flood risk management, establishing them as a central stakeholder group in addressing flood risks (Snel et al. 2020).

In Denmark, local governments have a long tradition of citizen engagement in flood risk management (Baron 2020; Nielsen 2022; Sorensen et al. 2018). However, findings from Denmark and across Europe show that the process is both difficult and far from a straightforward path to success (Porter and Birdi 2018; Thaler et al. 2019; Thaler and Seebauer 2018). These challenges—along with a general sense of urgency in adapting to climate change—mean that scholars are increasingly interested in understanding what motivates citizens to engage in flood risk management (Kuhlicke et al. 2020), along with related issues of environmental conservation and sustainability (Masterson et al. 2017a).

Place meanings, as part of the theoretical construct of sense of place, are proposed as a way to understand how people experience climate and environmental changes, and how this shapes their motivation to engage in adaptive behaviour (Masterson et al. 2017a; Stedman 2016). They are a particularly promising way to understand what shapes place-related behaviour, as how people interpret and describe place is influenced by social values and norms embedded in the context. In our research, we ask the question of how place meanings shaped second homeowners’ experience of an extreme precipitation event in the southernmost part of Denmark in 2011 that led to flooding, and how this informs their arguments and reflections concerning future flood risk reduction measures in their community.

We base our findings on an explorative, qualitative case study. As place meanings are formed through experiences with place (Stedman 2016), it seems fitting to approach the topic using a method that centres on the study of experience, namely narrative inquiry (Clandinin and Rosiek 2007). While a narrative approach to the study of place change is not novel in itself, see for instance Masterson et al. (2017b), qualitative approaches are still seen as underutilised in the study of how place change is experienced (Manzo and Carvalho 2020). In particular, the present article aims to illustrate how qualitative and reflexive approaches can provide a deeper understanding of how place meaning shapes, and is shaped by, place experiences and inform discussions on citizen engagement in climate change adaption through a (bottom-up) perspective from citizens themselves.

We begin by introducing the conceptual and theoretical framework, which mainly draws on research on sense of place. The next section presents the case in question, the case study area and a flood event in the area, which is explored in the narratives. Then, we present the materials and method. Our results are outlined in the following section, while we end with a discussion of the findings and their implications for flood risk management, along with some conclusions.

Place meanings and engagement

Sense of place research is a diverse field, and there are different conceptualisations of the elements that shape people’s sense of place (Lewicka 2011). Following Masterson et al. (2017a), we understand sense of place as encompassing two concepts—place attachment and place meaning—which are interconnected, but distinct analytical constructs. Place attachment describes the emotional bonds between people and a place and is often divided into place identity, which describes a psychological dimension of one’s self-identity in relation to a place, and place dependence, which is an instrumental function reflecting the attachment to livelihood-related activities. Here, we focus on place meaning, which, in contrast to attachment, looks at how individuals and groups give meaning to a place. Place meaning has both a descriptive component (e.g. what is this place?) and a more interpretive component (e.g. what does this place symbolise?). Thus, it is less about the strength of an emotional bond, and more about the qualitative nature of the place experience.

Sense of place—and place meanings—as a theoretical approach is often described as subjectivist, with a focus on how individual emotions and cognitions are formed in relation to place (Stedman 2002). It is well established that people’s emotional and cognitive relations to place shape their behaviour (Devine-Wright 2009; Stedman 2002). We care for places that reflect our values, and this can influence how we assess certain actions related to those places, making them more or less attractive. However, it is also important to note that what we value and interpret as meaningful in a place is shaped not only through individual processes, but also according to social conventions and norms (Masterson et al. 2017a; Stedman 2016). Thus, both individual and social processes inform how people give meaning to place. This is relevant, as research on behavioural responses to flood risks (such as protection motivation theory) has been criticised for insufficiently taking into account how social norms influence both threat appraisal and self-efficacy (Kuhlicke et al. 2020; Seebauer and Babcicky 2020). Place meanings might offer additional support for a context-sensitive interpretation of how both individual and social processes shape motivation to engage.

Despite the seemingly common-sense link between people’s emotional bonds to place, and their willingness to engage in place protective and adaptive behaviour, numerous studies emphasise that their responses to perceived place change or threats are difficult to predict (Lewicka 2011; Masterson et al. 2017a). This is also seen in how people’s experience of natural hazards and environmental risks affects their coping behaviour (Bonaiuto et al. 2016; De Dominicis et al. 2015). While place meaning might not offer more certainty, in terms of predicting behaviour, it can offer an understanding of why certain behaviour might be perused in the context, by highlighting what it is that people find worth protecting, and how change is experienced in relation to those meanings (Masterson et al. 2017a). As Stedman (2016, p. 897) notes, “People do not simply engage in places they are attached to; their particular forms of engagement rest on place meanings they hold dear and perceive as threatened”.

However, people do not necessarily perceive place or place change in the same way, as place meanings vary. And, therefore, people might not have the same understanding of what is worth protecting, and what protection measures might be best-served to upholding a particular place meaning. Given the challenge of finding ways to motivate citizens to engage in climate change adaptation actions, local governments might want to recall Thoreau’s comment, “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life” (Thoreau 2012, p. 78), as this seems to be a fitting explanation of why homeowner responses to good governance efforts are difficult to predict. However, rather than reacting “by labelling of opponents as irrational or ignorant”, or by framing opposition to climate change adaptation using the Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) concept, Devine-Wright (2009, p. 437) describes a more edifying approach. Specifically, the latter study understands reactions to planned place change as a form of place-protective action that is based on the urge to avoid place disruption and defend the collective or individual values inherent in place meanings.

Therefore, we find it interesting to explore the role of place meanings as a mediating factor in how people experience place change, and which, as a consequence, might speed up or slow down reactions to place change (Masterson et al. 2017a). We use this understanding of place meanings, as being formed through social and individual experiences rooted in place (Masterson et al. 2017a; Stedman 2016), and reactions to perceived place change (as a form of place-protective action) (Devine-Wright 2009) in a qualitative case study of a climate-related flooding event in a small second home area in the southernmost part of Denmark.

As Van Patten and Williams (2008) note, recreational areas and second homeowners provide a germane opportunity to study the dynamics of how place meanings form, through people’s interactions with the natural environment. Nevertheless, studies of second homeowners’ sense of place remain few and far between. This is somewhat surprising as, especially in relation to climate change adaptation and renewable energy technology (RET) projects (such as near shore wind farms), second homeowners are an increasingly important stakeholder group (Hjalager et al. 2022). The research that is conducted suggests that in regards to local area development plans second homeowners are more concerned about the quality of the local natural environment compared to permanent residents (Farstad and Rye 2013; Pitkänen et al. 2013) as they value short-term desires and the place as “an escape from everyday life” (Stedman 2006, p. 201). Similarly, in Denmark, studies of homeowners’ perceptions of prospective local RET projects have found that, as a stakeholder group, they voice more reservations than permanent residents, which have led to calls for a more in-depth understanding of what lies beneath this stakeholder groups reactions to prospective place changes (Johansen 2019).

Case presentation

The case study is part of a larger research project that explores local perspectives of how remote and rural local communities in the Nordic countries deal with climate-related hazards. The case study area is located in the southernmost part of Denmark, on the island of Falster. While it is socio-economically as well as geographically a part of the rural periphery in Denmark (Baron and Petersen 2015), it is also one of the most vulnerable areas in Denmark with regard to climate change and the risk of flooding (Krausing et al. 2017). The landscape of Falster is shaped by water—and human efforts to control water. The land is low lying, and large parts have been drained and reclaimed from wetlands and the sea over the centuries. Today, parts of the land are below sea level and protected from the sea by dikes that run along large stretches of the Baltic Sea coast. Water pumps are active and continuously drain the reclaimed land for agricultural production, as well as for recreational purposes such as second homes (Baron and Petersen 2015).

The empirical study focuses on a second home area located in Guldborgsund Municipality, north of the town of Gedser and approximately 140 km south of Copenhagen. The case area holds approximately 1100 second homes. The area presents itself as a typical Danish summerhouse area (Knudsen 2022). It is located along a two-kilometre-long coastline with white sand beaches. It is separated from permanent housing areas. The first efforts to develop and drain the area can be traced as far back as the 1860s, when 80 km2 of land was drained. The main development of the second home area began in the 1960s and 1970s when local private landowners sold off marginal land prone to waterlogging, or with poor water absorption. This development is shown in Fig. 1, where the arrow marks the place of the case study area. Part of the second home area is located on an old seabed at an elevation of − 1 to − 2 m below sea level (Guldborgsund Kommune 2011). Today, the area contains a mosaic of different drainage systems, which, for houses in the most low-lying areas, provide inadequate drainage in prolonged periods of rain.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Maps from year 1776, 1947 and 1999 showing the development of the case area. © Styrelsen for Dataforsyning og Effektivisering

Second homes are an important source of tourism revenue for the local government, but the second home areas are also historically developed on the most flood-prone and low-laying parts of the land (Hjalager et al. 2022). In Denmark, approximately 20% of second homes will, in 2070, face at least one flood-related risk due to climate change (using RCP 8.5)—and in the municipality where the case study area is located—it is as high as 62% of second homes (Hjalager et al. 2022). This makes second homeowners a stakeholder group that is growing in importance for municipality planners with regards to flood risk management and climate change adaptation efforts. However, as mentioned in a comprehensive mapping of the climate change risks to Danish second homes (Hjalager et al. 2022), engaging second homeowners in adaptive actions is seen as a challenge that lacks informed approaches.

Whereas other parts of central Europe are mainly concerned with river floods, coastal and pluvial floods are the main concern in Denmark. Stakeholder engagement becomes central in the management of pluvial flood risks, because large-scale protection measures are less effective (compared to coastal and river flood risks) and because expansion of existing sewer and drainage systems are often financially out of reach of the budgets of local governments beyond larger urban areas (Forrest et al. 2021). Furthermore, on open land, comprehensive solutions are likely to be dependent on the consent of individual landowners, as governments “cannot implement any measures on private properties without consent of individual landowners” (Snel et al. 2020, p. 6).

The risk of pluvial flooding in Denmark was highlighted during a series of cloudbursts that hit Greater Copenhagen in 2011, whose severity has been attributed to climate change (Matte et al. 2022). The event was the costliest natural disaster in Europe that year (Beredskabsstyrelsen 2017). The same weather phenomenon hit the remote southern part of Denmark and the case study area. Combined incidents of cloudburst and heavy rain led to a coupled rain event, and severe flooding of agricultural land and second housing areas (Guldborgsund Kommune 2011; 2014). The case area was the epicentre of this weather event and was severely impacted by floods, when extremely heavy rainfall fell on 21 and 22 July 2011, and again on 6 August 2011. It is estimated that the quantity of water that had to be diverted was approximately 10 times greater than the volume of water the drainage system had been designed for (Guldborgsund Kommune 2011).

The event created an important reference point for the local government in their climate change adaptation plans (Kommune 2014); the case area is now identified as vulnerable to flooding and included in the municipality’s climate change adaptation plans, which under Danish law, it is required to develop. As a consequence, it became a priority for the municipality to initiate flood risk management initiatives with local landowners and second homeowners in the area. As mentioned by two municipality planners—and informants to the research—in an article on the event “The heavy rain incident in 2011 gave a valuable insight into the scope and urgency of the problem, and clarified the need for cooperation with, and the engagement of stakeholders and citizens in general. Only together can we take on the task and find the best solutions among many” (Krabbesmark and Lysholdt 2012, p. 56).

As part of the municipality’s work on implementing its climate change adaptation plan (Guldborgsund Kommune 2014), it attempted to engage second homeowners in initiatives to pilot technical solutions to improve surface drainage in particularly vulnerable areas in the case area, with funding provided by the municipality. However, as noted by local government planners during interviews for this research, much to their frustration, they have had difficulties gaining engagement from the second homeowners in their initiatives to collectively reduce flood risk in the years after the flooding event.

In our research, we use this flooding event as an entry point for exploratory field work. The case was chosen as it can be seen as an example of how vulnerability to climate change in small remote communities is connected to human interactions with the environment, and furthermore, how experience of a climate-related hazard subsequently forms second homeowners’ perceptions of place, the meanings they connect to place and how this informs their attitudes and behaviour in relation to adaptive actions beyond their private property. We see this case as illustrative of other second home areas developed on reclaimed and flood-prone land that are likely to be faced with climate change, and thus, the findings from this case study are likely to be applicable to other similar cases (Flyvbjerg 2006).

Materials and methods

Our research was conducted between October 2021 and November 2022. In the exploratory phase of the fieldwork (October 2021 to June 2022), various stakeholders were interviewed. Twelve semi-structured interviews were held with managers of local fire and emergency services, municipal employees with responsibility for environmental planning and climate change adaption, local water authorities, the local water pump association, as well as board members of second homeowner associations in the municipality. In addition, relevant documents were identified and reviewed. After the identification of the case area, a workshop was held in April 2022 with seven second homeowners to discuss their experience of the 2011 flooding. The workshop participants were identified by the homeowner association and selected to represent the various ways the flooding affected the second home area. The results of this work informed the interview themes used in the next phase of the research (June 2022 to November 2022), where second homeowners were interviewed using a narrative approach. It is this part of the research that mainly informs this article.

Narratives of place

We acknowledge that place meaning, as well as sense of place, is an elusive concept and, when operationalised in qualitative research, can easily become a daunting exercise of trying to study everything and everyone in relation to a place (de Wit 2013). However, we find that a narrative approach to interviewing and analysis is both methodologically relevant, as well as conceptually fitting. By studying narratives, we can gain insight into the sensemaking or interpretive process that is central to the way place meanings are shaped, and shape place-related behaviour.

We understand a narrative as a story that people tell about a specific event or experience. We take inspiration from Clandinin and Rosiek’s understanding of the methodology of narrative inquiry, as an approach that centres on the study of experience in which we, as researchers, ask questions about the consequences of those experiences (Clandinin and Rosiek 2007). Labov and Waletzky (1967) considered that a narrative contains two functions: a referential, the retelling of an experience in a temporal sequence, and an evaluative function, which refers to making sense of that experience and often communicating it with a specific personal interest and social context in mind. As such, narratives can be seen as the result of a sensemaking process where individuals or collectives convey their understanding of the experiences they go through in life, in relation to social conventions or norms, which shape their opinions and perceptions of the relevance and meaningfulness of certain actions (Weick et al. 2005).

Our narrative interviews centred on the experience of the 2011 flood event, and an interpretation of how place meanings influence, and are influenced by, second homeowners’ experience and evaluation of the event, and how this shapes their actions and motivation to engage with collective flood risk management initiatives. We define this retelling of the experience of a place-specific event as a place narrative.

Narrative interviews with second homeowners

Semi-structured interviews were conducted in the case area from 2 to 7 June 2022. Narrative interviews were structured around three themes. Orientation and place meanings explored how second homeowners described the place and what they valued in the place. Place experience focused on their experience of the flooding event in 2011, and their reflections and actions with regard to the event, and, finally, place change asked about the homeowner’s perceptions of how the place had changed, and their reflections on the need for flood risk reduction measures in the place.

Interview participants were purposefully selected. We sent out information about the research project to second homeowners in the case area via email, through the local landowners’ association. This information specifically stated that we were interested in homeowners who owned a summerhouse in the area in 2011, and who had experienced the 2011 rain event personally. By interviewing second homeowners who had experienced negative consequences of the 2011 extreme rain event in their community, and on their own property, we assumed that they would be able to reflect on individual and collective adaptive actions relevant to flood risk management in their community. Approximately 25 households responded, and, of these, 12 were interviewed (based on availability to participate, and being present in the case area on a public holiday). Interviews took place in the second home of the participant, and time was allocated to seeing the place that had been flooded. Being able to see and ask questions regarding the person’s physical surroundings was seen as a beneficial aspect of the qualitative interview, as it could deepen the understanding of the place for the researcher. As such, this fieldwork improved our understanding of the context, which subsequently informed the critical reflexive approach to interviews and the analysis.

The 12 interviews lasted between 45 and 90 min, and were recorded using a mobile phone. Five interviews were conducted with both husband and wife being present and active. In all, 17 second homeowners participated, nine men and eight women. Participants were aged between 45 and 80, and all but three were retirees. As a reference, it should be noted that the average age of summerhouse owners in Denmark is 60 (Knudsen 2022); however, there is no data available on the demography of the second homeowners in the area.

Analysing place narratives

The following steps were used in the analysis phase, post-interview.

First the interviews with second homeowners were transcribed by research assistants using a transcription guide.

Secondly, each transcription was “read and worked” individually (Coffey and Atkinson 1996). In this process, the interview was analysed and structured by the researcher, following the narrative structure given in Labov and Waletzky (e.g. orientation, complication, evaluation and resolution) (Labov and Waletzky 1967), and rewritten as a complete narrative. In our analysis of these complete narratives, we looked for both how place meanings were used in the retelling of the experience of the 2011 flooding, and, specifically, how place meanings were used in arguments to support behaviours in response to the flooding, and reflections concerning future adaptive behaviour and place change.

Thirdly, after each interview had been analysed individually, qualitative data analysis software (NVivo) was used to conduct a thematic analysis that looked at all of the narratives, and identified patterns of common and divergent themes. This was then used to construct dominant place narratives, which illustrate different types of place meanings, and how they shape place-related behaviour, as presented in the results section below.

Finally, second homeowners’ narratives were presented and validated in a workshop in November 2022 with stakeholders: local authorities (municipality environmental planners) and board members of the landowner association, as well as second homeowners. The participants at the workshop confirmed the understanding of the narratives developed through the research.


In this section, we present the narratives of second homeowners. Firstly, we present and interpret how second homeowners describe the place, and the descriptive and symbolic meanings that emerge from the narratives. Secondly, we illustrate how the respective place meanings found in the two dominant narratives inform behaviours in response to the 2011 flooding event. Finally, we look at how place meanings shape reflections on the future of the place, and motivation and attitudes towards climate change adaptation and flood risk reduction in the case area.

The names used in the quotes below are pseudonyms, and the quotes have been translated from Danish to English by the research team.

Unfolding place meanings: “a quiet and peaceful place … ”

When we first analysed the narratives, we found a very uniform description of the place. Initially, descriptive expressions of place meanings emphasise features such as peacefulness and quietness. The descriptions that come across in the interviews give the impression of a place that is valued by the homeowner for its quietness, and as a place of continuity. Few homeowners refer to changes in their description of the place.

It […] is probably the most peaceful place. It is not like in Marielyst where there is a lot of hubbub, discos and a main street. Here there isn’t. And people come here for exactly that, to seek peace and quietness. There isn’t so... It is a very peaceful place. (Second homeowner L).

When asked to describe the place, second homeowners would do so with reference to neighbouring summerhouse areas, which are referred to as being “louder” (such as Marielyst, or places on the northern Danish coast). It is also common that, in their presentation of the case area, they note that property values are lower in comparison to neighbouring areas.

It is the place for those who want it to be quiet and tranquil. The prices are not as high as up in Marielyst. The property broker says it’s the wrong postcode. But there are some who like it that the houses are not so big, and that there is peace and quiet. (Second homeowner A).

However, when describing their first encounter with the place, and their reasons to buy their second home, different narratives emerge. Here, we find the narrative of the “sojourner” and the “pioneer”, as two dominant narratives. The reason for these differences in the narratives can, to some extent, be linked to differences in the duration of the homeowner’s experience of the place, but also the values and symbolic meanings that the place has for them.

The “sojourners” narrative resembles that of the temporary visitor or tourist, which we would expect to find in a holiday home area. The place is valued as a place to withdraw to, away from the hassle of everyday life. It holds the symbolic meaning of a place of retreat and sanctuary, and a place that is undisturbed and undemanding. This narrative was noticeable among homeowners who were new to the area, or who mainly used their home as a weekend retreat.

The “pioneers” narrative, on the other hand, dominates among second homeowners who have had a connection to the place since it was first developed, as children of parents who bought their houses in the area when it was first developed in the 1970s—the area’s “pioneers”. In their interviews, these homeowners often take pride in the self-built elements of their houses, showing, for instance, how they used local second-hand materials (e.g. old railway tracks as roof battens). The place was often described almost as if the narrator themself had claimed the land. It symbolised a place that they were connected to through family, and as a place that was inherited.

There are similarities between the two dominant narratives, and their boundaries are not clear-cut, as we find elements of both in most interviews. However, when the interview turned to the homeowner’s experience of the interconnected rain event in 2011, the two dominant narratives that emerged revealed differences in their awareness of the environment (e.g. the area being reclaimed wetland), and how place meanings were used in reactions and reflections on the flooding, as we will try to illustrate below.

Place experiences of a hazardous event: the “Venice of the north”

In the narratives, none of the homeowners portrayed the place as vulnerable to flooding until the focus of the interview turned to their experience of the 2011 flooding event. Here, we found variance in the narratives regarding how the physical environment and its natural history are used to give meaning to the place, and what caused the flooding. The “pioneers” would often, in their retelling of the event, refer back to historic flooding events that had impacted the area.

We bought our first holiday home in 1978, and there we actually ran into a natural event. Because we bought it in 1978, and the winter of 1978–1979 was the worst we’ve ever had. We couldn’t come down here for four months. (Second homeowner B).

Furthermore, the “pioneers” would argue that the vulnerability of the place was due to the land being reclaimed wetland with a history of flooding. This is shown, for instance, in the quote below, where the reference to “Pack Lake”, in the retelling of the 2011 event, refers to the name of the drained wetland upon which the summerhouse area had been developed.

We got a lot of rain. In a very short time. And then some of the landowners pour their rainwater into the sewer and then the sewer gets blocked. And there’s not just that... this is called Pack Lake, and it should never have been developed into a second home area. There was always water here in the winter. But there was someone who had to make some easy money. (Second homeowner A).

In the narrative of “sojourners”, the flooding comes as an unexpected event.

It was the first summer I had it. It was horrible. It really terrified me. I thought, God, what have I bought? (Second homeowner H).

“Sojourners” see their holiday home suddenly change into the “Venice of the north”, as one homeowner described it. Unaware of the history of the area as a former seabed and wetland, their sense of place and the meaning they attach to the place is challenged by the flooding.

No, no. It was a big secret. Well, maybe we could have figured it out ourselves. But you know, you also have that crush when you find a place that just fits what you have been looking for. Perhaps we should have thought about why there were reeds in the blackberries, and why there were reeds in our lawn out here. But we didn’t. We were blinded and in love, and got a lot for our money, we think. (Second homeowner G).

Response to the flooding

Most of the homeowners who were interviewed took action in response to the flooding. Either alone and on their own property, or by engaging in collective efforts through helping neighbours and local authorities to avoid damage from the flooding to houses and roads. However, here again, the two dominant narratives diverge with respect to how reactions and place meanings are connected.

Their prior experience with the flooding of the place also means that “pioneers” often actively engaged in the response to the flooding, and emphasise this in their retelling of the event. They reacted in different ways—from calling local politicians, to taking measures to drain water away from their own ground, or by helping local water authorities to pump water away from public roads.

Yes, the municipality was phoned and told that now they bloody well had to pull their finger out and get on with it. […] ... and then someone came down here and he could see that something was horribly wrong. (Second homeowner A).

“Sojourners” responded more passively, cutting short their stay, moving back to their permanent residence, and waiting for the water to withdraw, before making subsequent improvements to mitigate flooding risk on their own property (e.g. raising the ground or house, and improving drainage).

Well, you couldn’t do anything, it didn’t make any sense to ask someone to come and remove the water, where the hell were they going to divert it to? (Second homeowner D).

Perspectives and reflections on the risk of floods: “they were actually caught with their pants down”

As 10 years have passed since the flooding, the interviews provided many homeowners with a time to look back and reflect on the event, consider lessons learned, and their consequences for their present experience of the area, as well as the future of the area.

Here, the experience of the event, and how it was dealt with, shapes reflections on the present situation in the area. “Pioneers” see the event as part of a string of events that fit into their narrative of place. They experience a problem that they successfully cope with, as they have done before and, for them, their experience of the place remains unchanged. On the other hand, “sojourners” are more critical in their assessment of the possible recurrence of flooding events. When asked if they thought an event such as the flood in 2011 could happen again, they were also more critical with regard to their ability to manage the situation.

[Then] we would drown again; I can say that right away. Yes, I think so, because they haven’t done anything about the drainage pipes, nothing has been done. (Second homeowner I).

The “they” that are referred to are local authorities, and it is a common element in both the “sojourners” and the “pioneers” narrative that it is mainly local authorities that are the ones who have to draw lessons from the 2011 flood—not private landowners themselves.

I think, they now have the experience from 2011. (Second homeowner C).

I think those who were supposed to maintain the canal have probably learned a lesson. (Second homeowner H).

We have a feeling that they were actually caught with their pants down. There is no doubt about that. They had done nothing for many years, and I think they probably found out. (Second homeowner B).

The narratives can be interpreted to reveal that a degree of trust exists within the community regarding the local authority’s ability to draw lessons from the event and, consequently, improve the flood risk management of the place, by improving the maintenance of a main canal that drains water from the area. However, the same narrative can also be interpreted to suggest that homeowners do not see themselves as sharing collective responsibility for flood preparedness and mitigation beyond their own private property.

From our interpretation of the narratives, we find that place meanings in both the narrative of the “pioneers” and the narrative of the “sojourners” can be mobilised to challenge engagement in community-level solutions. The “pioneers” do so with reference to meanings linked to the place, as a place they have “claimed” and have the right to self-manage. In the “pioneers” narratives, there is often a strong reaction to initiatives, as noted above, from the municipality, in addressing the vulnerability of the place.

They had some solutions and one of these solutions was, in my eyes, completely crazy. They were going to dig a ditch along the road and lead it out into the canal. […] And who should provide the land? It was us who should provide the land […] it was completely crazy. (Second homeowner F).

And they can’t, what’s it called … explain and no-one knows or can make an honest account about how it works and where it’s leading to, so we damn well won’t have anything dug down our road. (Second homeowner A).

The “sojourners” responses also use arguments that are illustrative of the symbolic meanings that emerge from their narrative, with reference to the place as a place to “escape from everyday life” (Stedman 2006:201).

We talk about other stuff [than the 2011 event] if we talk to someone. But it’s not that kind of place, the summerhouse area. It is interesting. It’s like where people go to be allowed to be in peace. So you don’t feel so obliged. That is probably the thing... You are not committed in the same way. You take care of your own […]. Or you make sure to protect yourself. […] ... So, summerhouse life is a bit of a fun life, whereas, for example, where we live at home, we feel more obliged to our neighbours.’ (Second homeowner C).

Thus, it seems that both place narratives hold the potential to contest engagement, either as a voiced concern by “pioneers” or as a passive abdication of responsibility by “sojourners”.

Not in our lifetime

Finally, it is clear from the narratives of the 2011 flooding that homeowners do not refer to the event as connected to climate change. Seldom did homeowners themselves mention climate change. In most narratives, it is only an afterthought triggered by the researcher’s questions.

[…] we thought it was like, it was a 100-year event. So, it was just unusual. But we didn’t connect it at all with the... the awareness that we have now about climate change, not at all. It was just something peculiar. (Second homeowner C).

Though I can see that one has to be careful, we don’t do anything special for it, that is. Now we are also at an age where it is like ‘it probably won’t be in our lifetime’ we say, right. But then, what will it be like in my daughter’s and son-in-law’s time, who will have to live with this afterwards, the story does not tell, […] they must find out when it happens. (Second homeowner F).

We plan to build an extra room. Yes, it may be stupid. When you think about the future of the area. But we think that it can give us a little more quality of life to have a longer living room and an extra room, and a slightly larger terrace. We have thought about that. You cannot base your whole life on the fact that in 50 years it will be under water. It doesn’t work like that. (Second homeowner L).

In the last part of the interviews, the storyline in the two dominant narratives would again converge and return to place meanings used to describe the place as a place of continuity. When asked to reflect on whether the place had changed in his/her perception after the 2011 event, one homeowner replied:

No, no, no. I don’t think anyone today would say that. And that hasn’t made it harder to sell the houses. Not at all, not at all. (Second homeowner F).


The narratives show commonalities and coherence in the way the place is described. However, when explaining their experiences of the 2011 flood, place is mobilised in two distinct ways, which can be interpreted as two different narratives that draw on different place meanings in their reasoning, as shown in Table 1. The “pioneers” place narrative is shaped by their experience with the place through the generations. They have lived or experienced the area since its development in the 1970s. The place meanings that are expressed through their narrative show a connectedness to the place as a place of inheritance. They are connected to the place through family. They expect to stay, and that their children will inherit the summerhouse. The 2011 event is explained with reference to other, larger historical natural disasters or events in the area (a flood in 1872, and flooding from snow melt in the 1970s). They reflect that the event has not changed the place, but confirm it as an area that is historically exposed to natural events that citizens deal with—with the support of local authorities. They rebuild or improve their houses as a response. They are active in the response to the 2011 event. They call the municipality’s mayor. They engage in pumping water from their own property and public roads.

Table 1 Summary of the two dominant narratives in the case study

In the “sojourner” narrative, place meanings are linked to temporality as, for them, the place resembles as a place of retreat, as found in other studies of second homeowners (Stedman 2006). The place might be chosen due to its attributes, as “pioneers” did, but there are elements of chance in how the place was chosen. The 2011 event was a surprise that heightened their awareness of the vulnerability of the area, a former wetland and seabed. They react passively, waiting for the water to withdraw, and in some instances, make improvements to their houses (if it is technically possible). They consider selling their houses as a response. They do not feel obliged to engage in collective actions beyond their own property.


Place meanings and perceptions of place change and stability

The use of place meanings and narratives of place, as in our research, may be a promising explorative approach to understanding engagement processes at the local level, as it can lead to the emergence of nuances and perspectives that provide a more informed understanding of local communities’ reactions to climate change adaptation plans. The two narratives that can be constructed from our research offer insights into how place meanings shape people’s experience of climate change events, and, subsequently, their motivation to engage in climate change adaptation. Our case study offers a deeper insight into the place meanings found among what is often seen as a homogenous group. Our findings are similar to other Scandinavian studies of second homeowners (Tuulentie and Kietäväinen 2020), and show that this stakeholder group can hold a wide diversity of place meanings—ranging from that of the casual visitor to the permanent resident.

However, it is important to note that the dynamic element of place meanings and sense of place, namely, how they are shaped by experience and with time, is only indirectly captured by our research, as the study was not longitudinal. Nevertheless, narratives of a past event can offer an indication of how place change is perceived. In the present study, the place was portrayed more as a place of continuity than a place of change. And the flooding in 2011 does not seem to have altered this. In fact, the event is framed as water-under-the-bridge in most narratives.

The 2011 event does not seem to have fostered motivation to engage in flood risk reduction and climate change adaptation measures among the studied second homeowners. This might be because the window of opportunity to mobilise citizens closed a few years after the event. Or because its severity, and that it was experienced as a single event and not as a string of events, was insufficient to change risk perceptions and self-efficacy, and thus homeowners’ motivation, as pointed out by Seebauer and Babcicky (2020) in a study of homeowner experiences of floods in Austria.

However, our study could indicate that place meanings provide a complementary explanation, and a deeper understanding of second homeowners’ reactions. Our findings illustrate how place meanings shape their place experience, together with the arguments they use to justify their engagement in adaptative actions. Hence, homeowners seek to defend the dominant meanings found in place narratives, which emphasise the place as a place of stability and continuity (that they have a claim to), and as a retreat. Our findings indicate that the place meanings that emerge from the narratives, which emphasise continuity, the need to be autonomous in dealing with problems on one’s own property, and freedom, can be mobilised to argue against engagement in collective flood risk management measures. In turn, and as Masterson et al. (2017a) suggest, place meanings may be a mediating variable that can be rigid and slow to change in response to environmental events. As the urgency to adapt to climate change increases, our case study may highlight the value of understanding place meanings as a qualifying factor in stakeholder engagement processes.

Place meanings and citizen engagement processes

Brehm et al. (2013, p. 13) suggest that “Understanding place meanings can help managers to communicate more effectively with audiences by helping to illuminate connections between meanings, issues of concern, and ameliorative actions”. Consequently, we would argue that local authorities should be conscious of the place meanings found in homeowners’ narratives, as “pioneers” and “sojourners” might be motivated by different arguments to engage in collective actions. We would also argue, based on our case study, that if the need to react to climate change is to be considered an argument for engagement; then, as pointed out by Snel et al. (2020), there needs to be a better conceptualization of how locally experienced changes are affected by global climate change. The narratives show that although the “pioneers” initially engaged in the response, and dealt successfully with flooding on their own property, in the aftermath, they were not motivated to engage in collective efforts to reduce flood risks at the community level. And they did not share the local authority’s concern and framing of the 2011 flooding as illustrative of a natural hazard that could become more severe with climate change.

Other authors (Chapin and Knapp 2015; V. A. Masterson et al. 2017a) have pointed out that shared place meanings can hold the potential for consensus building and collective actions, and thus underpin successful transformation processes. Therefore, we would like to draw attention to the finding that the place meanings expressed in the narratives contain several common elements that could be used to build collective capacity. The place is valued for much the same reasons across all homeowner narratives: continuity and the picturesque landscape, and these elements could be linked to efforts to motivate second homeowners to engage in climate change adaptation. However, we would also like to add a note of caution, namely that in the context of a stakeholder engagement process, the differences in perceptions and place meanings that may emerge are not seen as an obstacle, or labelled as an expression of NIMBYism (Devine-Wright 2009), but rather are seen as a valued contribution to a dialogue where a diversity of voices feeds the creative process of finding collective solutions.

Many summerhouse areas in Denmark were developed in the 1970s on marginal agricultural land and reclaimed wetland (Hjalager et al. 2022), and our results may help to understand the findings of quantitative research, which reports that second homeowners are more protective of the place than permanent residents (Johansen 2019), and inform future attempts to engage second homeowners in climate change adaptation.


By using narratives to examine second homeowners’ place meanings, the present research shows how different place meanings can coexist within a stakeholder group that is often seen as homogeneous. Furthermore, it highlights how certain place meanings can function as a deterrent for citizen engagement in adaptive actions. Both groups of second homeowners (those whose place meanings can be likened to that of a temporary visitor, or as a permanent resident) are able to mobilise their sense of place to contest engagement in local authorities’ flood risk reduction initiatives.

This could be an important lesson for local authorities’ communication and engagement efforts, as climate change threatens recreational areas in reclaimed wetlands across Europe. Citizen engagement is not a given fact. Local authorities that are stepping up their efforts to prepare for, and mitigate flood risk through citizen participation, could take note of stakeholders’ (such as second homeowners) understanding of place when initiating flood risk reduction measures based on stakeholder engagement.