How to foster hope among university students in sustainability education

by Sanna Stålhammar

A sense of hopelessness and eco-anxiety has spread amongst youth in recent years. Increased information and dystopian scenarios related to the climate and ecological crisis paired with no immediate solution leads to feelings of grief, anxiety, stress, and despair about the future. These negative emotions do not systematically translate into positive collective actions. In a recently published paper, we investigate the idea of hope as a generative force for pro-environmental action, and uncover strategies for fostering constructive hope amongst university students.

The idea of hope as a motivator is an understudied topic, and has been subject to criticism among environmental activists, like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, given their motto: “Hope dies, action begins”. While this criticism refers to hope as a source of inaction, or a type of blind optimism, the study instead draws on the idea of ‘constructive hope’, defined as a form of hope leading to sustained emotional stability and proactive engagement through both individual and collective actions. The study examines, through interviews, how students enrolled in university programs related to global environmental challenges perceive and experience the role of education for fostering constructive hope.

The findings are presented according to four characteristics of constructive hope: goal setting, pathway thinking, agency thinking, and emotional reinforcement. The study shows how students perceive the importance of: collaboratively constructing and empowering locally grounded objectives in education; reinforcing trust in the collective potential and external (private and public organisations) actors; raising students’ perceived self-efficacy through practical applications; teaching different coping strategies related to the emotional consequences of education on students’ well-being.

We provide practical recommendations to encourage and develop constructive hope at multiple levels of university education (see table below), including structures, programs, courses and among students’ interactions. Practitioners should strive to connect theoretical learning and curriculum content with practice, provide space for emotional expressions, release the pressure from climate anxiety, and to foster a stronger sense of community among students. Overall, higher education institutions need to take actions to prevent hopelessness amongst students, and to engage with emotional and proactive aspects of sustainability in order to support a sense of hope that leads to action.

Recommended approaches to foster constructive hope and proactive engagement in university programs related to global environmental problems

Vandaele, M., & Stålhammar, S. (2022). “Hope dies, action begins?” The role of hope for proactive sustainability engagement among university students. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 23(8), 272–289. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-11-2021-0463

Bio

Sanna is a post-doctoral researcher at SLU, working in the VIVA-Plan project. She is an interdisciplinary sustainability scientist interested in the social dimension of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Her doctoral research (Lund University) draws on critical social science perspectives and examines approaches for values and valuation of ecosystem services and biodiversity. She is passionate about exploring plural ways of knowing nature and strives to develop inclusive approaches for knowledge integration and transformative governance beyond anthropocentrism.

The relationship between values and knowledge in visioning for landscape management: relevance for a collaborative approach

by Andra Milcu

In conflict prone environments, such as multifunctional landscapes, where people with different stakes do not necessarily agree on how to manage their relationships with nature, it is challenging how participation in decision-making is organized to achieve better sustainable outcomes. The scholarship is currently divided into two strands: 1) the scientific advancement of concepts and frameworks for explaining how diverse knowledge systems inform more inclusive environmental decisions and 2) the advancement of diverse conceptualizations of values of nature to inform shared resource management futures. While both strands focus on embracing plurality, little theory has been developed for clarifying the interactions between values and knowledge in inclusive decision-making processes. In this context, we originally thought of our study as collecting individual baseline information on knowledge and values, and also as a way to prepare participants for future facilitated group interactions. In addition, our manuscript is drawing on the relational perspective in sustainability science to also explore the relationships between values and knowledge in the ‘controlled’ situation of envisioning ideal landscape visions. We collected information about the individuals’ core values, what values they assign to the landscape, their knowledge, and their visions for integrated landscape management. To prepare the individuals for future participatory settings we also asked about participants’ expectations of such settings, and encouraged reflexivity regarding their values and knowledge. We asked reflexive question about their values and the vision they created, about the knowledge they drew upon for creating the vision, and about how they see the relationship between own knowledge and values. The study unfolds three modalities in terms of how values and knowledge relate to form visions of nature: linked and not necessarily connected (modality I); mutually reinforcing (modality II); intertwined (modality III).

The paper aspires to contribute to the understanding and organisation of pluralistic and collaborative decision-making settings by acknowledging the importance of different forms of knowledge, as well as of different types of values. Recognising the interlinkages between values and knowledge may assist in creating more fair decision-making spaces. When striving for inclusive decision-making spaces, it is helpful to keep in mind that values and knowledge may be seen by participants as inseparable. Surfacing individuals’ values (including core ones) and knowledge prior to deliberation may lead to more inclusive decision-making settings, by balancing the representability of different value orientations or knowledge systems. We also found out that in the view of participants, consensus should not be the sole end point of collaboration and it is important to build social spaces for addressing differences and tensions in constructive ways. Based on participants’ feedback, reflecting on one’s knowledge and values, including one’s core values, although difficult, increases the depth of decisions.

Bio: Andra-Ioana Horcea-Milcu is a sustainability scientist and thinker. With a background in exploring social-ecological systems and experience in place-based transdisciplinary research, she is interested in leveraging the potential of knowledge co-creation to co-generate change in real-world contexts. Within this process, her main focus is on the role of core human values as leverage points for sustainability transformation. Through her boundary work, she aspires to contribute to managing the science|society interface, and to reframing sustainability in terms of core human values and empathetic relationships. Andra completed a PhD at Leuphana University of Lueneburg, and a postdoc at Helsus, the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science. Andra is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) values assessment and transformative change assessment.

The epistemic dimension of human-nature connections: What and why?

Viola Hakkarainen

Knowledge processes such as creation, exchange and application are in many ways central to transformations towards sustainability. They create the baseline for organizing research and ecosystem governance. Knowledge processes manifest in interactions between and within different people such as researchers, policy makers and residents in diverse contexts and scales. However, perceptions of what is valid knowledge, how it should be produced and who is a credible knower vary between different people. These epistemic (knowledge and belief related) views are linked to different worldviews and reflect different ways of being in the world.

I define the epistemic dimension of human-nature connections as follows:

i. the ways our knowledges and perceptions of different knowledges shape our relationships, motivations and actions toward nature including decision-making concerning it

ii. the ways in which knowledges and perceptions of knowledges are shaped by nature

iii. the processes behind how different knowledge claims related to decision-making about nature are being justified at and across different scales and interfaces in knowledge interactions (Hakkarainen, 2022 p. 25)

The epistemic dimension enables recognizing the epistemic plurality that is inherent to what it is it to be a human in this world and interact with other people. It draws on the relational and situated views of knowledges.

Knowledges are shaped by being in the world. Our knowledges shape the world.

Why is it important to consider the epistemic dimension in sustainability science and ecosystem governance?

One of the key questions in sustainability science is how to reconcile diverse ways of knowing in planning and implementing sustainable futures. Sustainability science has adopted many approaches to collaborative knowledge production. What they hold in common to succeed is the need to recognize epistemic plurality to be able to navigate power dynamics in such knowledge processes.

If the epistemic plurality is not recognized and navigated in different knowledge processes, they can lead to conflicts or exclusion of some ways of knowing and epistemic domination of some views. Just sustainability transformations require including many voices and views to ecosystem governance. This also requires being attuned to political nature of knowledge processes.

To conclude, we need to find ways to foster inclusivity in both in sustainability science and ecosystem governance to be able to foster processes towards more just and sustainable futures. The epistemic dimension of human-nature connections adds to recognition of the plurality which ideally contributes to collaboration, understanding and communication. The focus on the epistemic dimension helps shed light on subtle beliefs and perspectives and point out missing and marginalized voices.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Viola is a postdoctoral researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) where she studies sustainability education in higher education institutes. Having a background in sustainability science, Viola’s focus is on knowledge processes, collaboration and inclusivity that can support just sustainability transformations.

READ MORE

Hakkarainen, V. (2022). Towards inclusivity in ecosystem governance: The epistemic dimension of human-nature connections and its implications for sustainability science. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Helsinki] http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-51-8004-9

Learning to be reflexive

Katri Mäkinen-Rostedt

Critical consciousness and enhanced mutual understanding (Armitage, 2011) are built through social learning, i.e., deliberative learning in collaborative or participatory settings. Inclusivity and reflexivity are key tightly coupled elements of this kind of learning process. Inclusivity embraces greater plurality in how we conceptualize and understand the world, and reflexivity implies critically assessing our own assumptions and positions as part of the world. This means that inclusivity as an aim in organizations, projects and governance requires questioning of normative beliefs, positions, and power relations. Similarly, associating a demand to ‘be reflexive’ in research projects insinuates that people become aware especially via social interaction with others, either fellow researchers or non-academics, of their own and other’s assimilated beliefs and values.

Our recent study on the “real-world” learning pathways that occurred during the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services IPBES Values Assessment process revealed how individual’s understandings change in transdisciplinary processes due to social interactions and increased reflexivity. We learned that one of the main catalysts for any learning path towards reflexivity in the IPBES context was the experienced diversity of perspectives. Diversity appeared in different ways during the process: diversity was experienced in contexts (political, organizational, historical, cultural) and in the expressed values, worldviews, disciplines, and knowledge. Whether individuals had gained new knowledge, better cooperating skills, changed their understanding or received better awareness of other’s thinking, it was all enabled through social interactions.

Hence, organizations which want to support inclusive knowledge creation processes should invest in developing their mechanisms for both individual and group -level learning. Organizational practices that can support learning pathways to reflexivity can include, for example, systematic evaluations of different learning outcomes and various cooperative practices such as guided questions, active listening, or real-world labs. Because inclusivity adds a plurality of views and meanings during the process and of the process, it is equally important to keep the learning processes open. Open processes embrace the process rather than the outcome, accepting that some of the outcomes of the process might also be negative and unpredictable (Hakkarainen et al., 2020).

 

This writing is based on the manuscript currently under review.

About the Author

In spring 2021 Katri Mäkinen-Rostedt spent four months in the Human-Nature Transformations Group as a Senior Project Manager. She worked, e.g. with IBPES-related research project on expert’s understandings on multiple values of nature and supporting the group with project planning activities. She is a Ph.D. Candidate at Tampere University. Her PhD project concerns the use and construction of expert knowledge in global environmental governance. Her current interests include social network analysis and various knowledge creation practices (such as co-production of knowledge) used in different international and regional science-policy interfaces. You can follow Katri on Twitter or ResearchGate.

References

Dale, A., Armitage, D., 2011. Marine mammal co-management in Canada’s Arctic: Knowledge co-production for learning and adaptive capacity. Marine Policy, 35(4), 440–449. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2010.10.019

Hakkarainen, V., et al., 2020. The other end of research: exploring community-level exchanges in small-scale fisheries in Zanzibar. Sustainability Science, 15(1), 281–295. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00750-4

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Implementing Nature-based Solutions in the EU: opportunities and obstacles

Francesco Venuti

Green wall in Turin, Italy. Credits: Eugenia Castellazzi

In the last few years, the term ‘Nature-based Solutions’ (NbS) gained momentum in sustainability literature as an ‘umbrella’ concept encompassing measures able to address many issues related to both climate change mitigation and adaptation (e.g., enlarging carbon sinks, enhancing biodiversity, protecting from extreme weather events consequences etc.). NbS even attained a formal acknowledgement from several institutions, with the European Commission defining them as ‘actions inspired, copied or supported by nature’.

Notwithstanding these endorsements and the mounting evidence of NbS’ positive benefits in tackling various environmental challenges, the implementation of these solutions in the European Union (EU) is still relatively limited, as national and local decision-makers seem to prefer business-as-usual approaches. The reasons lying behind this fact can be grouped into two broad categories, namely legal and non-legal.

The latter range from the erroneous perception of NbS as prohibitively expensive interventions to the lack of a longer-term perspective on the part of the political establishment. Moreover, in the field of NbS, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach is not desirable. As a matter of fact, NbS must be adapted to the local social context and tailored to the site’s morphological conditions in order to deliver their whole range of ecosystem services.

From a legal perspective, one can observe a certain degree of misalignment between the indications given by the EU and the opportunities provided by the majority of Member States’ legal systems. For instance, NbS are mentioned 20 times within the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change (SACC) and an entire section is dedicated to their promotion. NbS represent one of the three priorities of the EU systemic approach to climate change adaptation, hence the Union’s support is primary and explicit.

On the other hand, national legal systems often do not incorporate the regulatory preconditions necessary for NbS scaling up. For instance, limitations in building codes combined with the lack of provisions for the sustainable utilisation of stormwater can reduce the opportunities for building green roofs. Bureaucracy combined with low environmental standards impedes the dynamic recovery of green areas. Unclear provisions on the allocation of responsibility in public projects that affect property rights hamper green and blue infrastructure development.

These are just some examples of practical issues that national and local authorities face when implementing NbS. The EU endorsement of NbS is certainly an important step and will help to change the attitude towards these actions. However, Member States must strive to adjust their regulations in order to facilitate NbS employment. Only then it will be possible to maximise NbS benefits, realise the objectives of the SACC and thus accelerate the transition towards sustainable development.

About the Author

Francesco is a PhD candidate at the University of Eastern Finland. His PhD project focuses on the legal feasibility of implementing urban nature-based solutions across European cities. The main research areas addressed by his project are conservation of urban biodiversity and improvement of climate change adaptation. Francesco is interested in analyzing the main legal challenges that hinder nature-based solutions implementation and scaling-up within the European Union. He received his LLM in Environmental Law and Sustainable Development in 2021 from the University of the West of England.

References

European Commission (2015) Towards an EU Research and Innovation policy agenda for Nature-Based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities: Final Report of the Horizon 2020 Expert Group on Nature-Based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

European Commission (2021) Forging a climate-resilient Europe: the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change. COM (2021) 82 final <https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52021DC0082&from=EN>

Notes from the field: researching the stability of visions and values for protected area management during the global COVID-19 pandemic

Veronica Lo

Photo: Veronica Lo

Two years ago, colleagues and I were corresponding about the exciting work we were undertaking in the beautiful Sierra de Guadarrama National Park, Spain. Under the ENVISION project, we had completed a first round of interviews with community stakeholders to understand perceptions of landscape changes and their drivers, and how they might be integrated into protected areas management to deal with current and future change. Little did we know that a seismic change was coming – a global pandemic would put a monkey wrench into all of our respective research plans and thwart any future attempts for our international team to meet in person.

Of course, research meetings seemed like frivolous concerns in the overall picture as the pandemic has carved its devasting path across the world, measured in deaths, severe illness, and impacted livelihoods and economies. We were lucky to have our lives and livelihoods intact, but the same could not be said for the community we were targeting. The mountainous Sierra de Guadarrama National Park stretches across the two autonomous provinces of Madrid and Castilla y León. Madrid, the location of the nation’s capital and the most populous province in Spain, was the most affected area in one of the countries hardest-hit by the first wave of the pandemic.

Still, we thought it was worth asking: what happens to a vision for management when a wildcard event like a pandemic occurs? Scores of literatures now demonstrate the contribution of green spaces and protected areas to our physical and mental health and well-being. There is growing evidence of how people have valued green spaces during the pandemic for outdoor recreation and social bonds (e.g. Day 2020; Ugolini et al. 2020; Xie et al. 2020; Korpilo et al. 2021). Understanding how patterns of use, values for nature, and visions for management shift for protected areas when faced with global shocks can help policymakers and stakeholders learn from these events and create adaptive management plans.

Our research design also required adaptive management, and rather than follow-up with in-person interviews as planned, we conducted a virtual workshop one year later, in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic, to elicit stakeholder values, perceptions of landscape change and visions for park management. In a region scarred by the pandemic, we had to carefully choose how to pose our questions in order to prevent further trauma. We did this via posing sensitive questions in an individual follow-up survey rather than in an open deliberative setting.[1]

Our research yielded interesting results. Pre-pandemic, we found that stakeholder values and perceptions of landscape changes were strikingly similar across different types of visions. Differences in stakeholder visions for management were instead largely shaped by the varying importance placed on different drivers of change.  Mid-pandemic, those values and visions for management were largely stable, with values being re-affirmed in some cases. Where values changed, they shifted towards an appreciation of the park as a means to realize values of outdoor recreation and social bonds during periods of lockdown which restricted activities in enclosed spaces outside of homes. There were more pronounced changes regarding perceived drivers of change in the national park. These varied with different phases of the lockdown period, including the observed recovery of nature from tourism when visits to the park were restricted, and, on the other end of the spectrum, mass tourism and mountain recreation when lockdown policies were lifted.

Our findings reinforce the importance of adaptive and inclusive management of protected areas. Integrating local and traditional knowledge and stakeholder perceptions of changes and drivers can enhance management strategies, such as using local knowledge of controlled grazing practices to reduce the risk of wildfires. As it becomes clear that the pandemic is far from over and continues to restrict indoor gatherings and re-introduce lockdown policies, it would be prudent to more strongly consider how to manage parks with varying fluxes of visitors and their resultant impacts on biodiversity and natural and cultural features.

Lo, V. B. P. G., López-Rodríguez, M. D., Metzger, M. J., Oteros-Rozas, E., Cebrián-Piqueras, M. A., Ruiz-Mallén, I., March, H., & Raymond, C. M. (2022) How stable are visions for protected area management? Stakeholder perspectives before and during a pandemic. People and Nature. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10292

[1] See Santana et al. 2021 for insights on qualitative sustainability research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers María D. López-Rodríguez, Miguel A. Cebrián Piqueres, and Veronica B.P.G Lo (L-R) enjoying a walk in the gardens of the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, at the foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains.

About the Author

Veronica Lo is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden. From January 2022, she will be a post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. She will also continue as a valued adjunct in the Human-Nature Transformations Research Group, University of Helsinki.

Funding

This research was funded through the 2017-2018 Belmont Forum and BiodivERsA joint call for research proposals, under the BiodivScen ERA-Net COFUND programme, and with the funding organizations the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (FORMAS), University of Helsinki, and PCI2018-092958/Spanish Research Agency (AEI), in addition to the financial support of the Spanish Research Agency (RYC-2015-17676) and Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities (IJCI-2017-34334).

References

Day, B. H. The Value of Greenspace Under Pandemic Lockdown. Environ Resource Econ 76, 1161–1185 (2020).

Korpilo, S. et al. Coping With Crisis: Green Space Use in Helsinki Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities 3, 99 (2021).

Santana, F. N. et al. A path forward for qualitative research on sustainability in the COVID-19 pandemic. Sustain Sci (2021) doi:10.1007/s11625-020-00894-8.

Ugolini, F. et al. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the use and perceptions of urban green space: An international exploratory study. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 56, 126888 (2020).

Xie, J., Luo, S., Furuya, K. & Sun, D. Urban Parks as Green Buffers During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Sustainability 12, 6751 (2020).

Reflections on urban sustainability and transformations from npj Urban Sustainability

Upon recent appointment as a editor of npj Urban Sustainability, Professor of Sustainability Science Christopher M. Raymond contributed to a blog post on urban sustainability and transformations. Coming after the close of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the piece focuses on how to address interconnected issues of climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemics and social inequality. As Prof. Raymond and co-editor Prof. Vanesa Castán Broto write, “supporting inclusive conservation in cities, resilience, and just transformations toward sustainability will require scientific advances at the interface of plural valuation, environmental justice and intersectional critiques of inequality.”

See the full blog post at: https://www.nature.com/npjurbansustain/editors-perspective-urban-transformations

 

Biodiversity loss is a threat to humanity

Professor of Sustainability Science Chris Raymond has investigated how biodiversity can be taken into consideration in urban planning. Taking environmental considerations into account often requires a balancing act. In Helsinki too, infill construction is planned for green areas to avoid increasing traffic to the city.

“It’s not only about whether or not to build something, but how to build it and how nature will be interwoven with the buildings. Higher buildings, for instance, may preserve land for nature.”

See the full article at: https://www.helsinki.fi/en/news/biodiversity-loss/biodiversity-loss-threat-humanity

The Urgency for an Urban Imaginary

Sara Zaman

At first glance, attaching the word “imaginary” to the urban, and as a consequence, to the concrete notions of macro-level urban planning and micro-level architecture, may seem like unwieldy theoretical jargon at best. At worst, it risks that we do not take urban planning seriously, as practical design of land use is perceived as a fantastical worldbuilding exercise. And yet, it is exactly in the realm of the imaginary that individuals and communities envision their future, based on experiences that are shared (or critically, sometimes not shared).

The development and popularization of the imaginary as relevant for urban planning took place over the course of the 20th century, during which time urban theorists such as Michel de Certeau noted the disparities between the goals of urban planners and those of everyday residents of urban spaces (Linder and Meissner, 2019). Citing that urban planners focused heavily on the visual of the city, and what remains visible from a top-town perspective, de Certeau (and later Lefebvre) argued that this privileged position stifles the senses and perspectives of everyday street life, such as sounds and smells (ibid.). The urban imaginaries in these cases have the power of defining which shared memories take precedent when deciding upon shared goals for the future.

Some argue that we indeed suffer from a limit to modern social imagination, and that society’s ability to envision a better future is constrained by crisis narratives (Mulgan, 2020). Mulgan presents some practical consequences of not nourishing the ability of people to envision a better future, as individuals’ perceived and real lack of agency circumscribes the critical mass necessary for positive change to take place. In the context of urban planning, this often means that certain powerful discourses fill gaps where bottom-up movements do not take place (for example, that of the techno-centric utopian smart city, or the ability of businesses to mend urban social problems) (Cardullo and Kitchin, 2019; Grossi and Pianezzi, 2017).

What means do we have to move forward, as researchers and individuals both urban and rural? On top of the Sisyphean task of transforming our relationships with nature in the face of ongoing climate disasters, a global pandemic, local and international inequality, the urban and social imaginary also seems to be a keystone that cannot be ignored. However, the potential for the urban imaginary to radically alter the way cities unfold, while addressing justice, social inequalities, and environmental degradation, is too great an opportunity to pass up. Social representations are at once imaginative and performative (Zanoni et al., 2017); the perception of the academic as someone focused on scholarly output limits the potential for alternative practices. Expanding the boundaries of how urban residents perceive themselves in the city and their autonomy to create change can aid in a co-created urban future. It is hoped that we can begin to re-imagine a city, and world, that operates based on community needs.

References

Cardullo, Paolo, and Rob Kitchin. “Smart urbanism and smart citizenship: The neoliberal logic of ‘citizen-focused’smart cities in Europe.” Environment and planning C: politics and space 37.5 (2019): 813-830.

Grossi, Giuseppe, and Daniela Pianezzi. “Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?.” Cities 69 (2017): 79-85.

Lindner, Christoph, and Miriam Meissner. “Introduction: Urban imaginaries in theory and practice.” The Routledge Companion to Urban Imaginaries. Routledge, 2018. 1-22.

Mulgan, G. “The Imaginary Crisis (and how we might quicken social and public imagination).” UCL Science, Technology, Eengineering & Public Policy Working Paper Series (2020).

Zanoni, Patrizia, et al. “Post-capitalistic politics in the making: The imaginary and praxis of alternative economies.” (2017): 575-588.

New survey out for just carbon-smart green spaces in Helsinki – please respond!

Oriol García-Antúnez & Jussi Lampinen

An ongoing survey directed to everyone living in Helsinki welcomes responses regarding your important green spaces and attitudes towards advancing carbon sequestration and storage in cities. Take the survey at mpt.link/hiiliviisas

Allotment garden in Aino Ackté Park, Pohjois-Haaga, Helsinki. Photograph: Ninaras, CC BY 4.0

By 2035, the city of Helsinki has the ambitious goal of becoming one of the first carbon-neutral cities in Europe. For that to happen, not only will the city need to cut emissions, but to also increase carbon sequestration and storage within the city borders. Do you think urban vegetation could be a possible way of achieving this? Urban green spaces are among the avenues towards carbon-neutrality that both the European Commision and the city of Helsinki have considered. Indeed, in both policy and research, the design and management of urban green spaces are suggested to be a cost-effective climate change mitigation strategy. 

However, while most of us know from school that plants turn carbon dioxide into biomass that can enter the soil via litter decay, this seemingly simple idea gets more complicated when elements of design and management of green spaces are included in the carbon equation. The way in which different vegetation types, design parameters and management regimes affect the flows and storages of carbon in urban green spaces is what CO-CARBON, a project funded by the Strategic Research Council (SRC) operating in connection with the Finnish Academy, is trying to find out. 

A further complication is that urban residents use green spaces in many ways. A 15-year-old teen does not expect the same from a park as, for example, a family with children or a retired couple. To advance carbon sequestration and storage in green spaces we will need to change the way in which we design and manage them. This will inevitably bear consequences not only regarding the physical appearance of green spaces, but also the social contexts and valuation through which residents view them. This is where working package 3, Envisioning just urban green infrastructure, of CO-CARBON, and a recently published survey directed at residents of Helsinki, come into play. 

In WP 3 of CO-CARBON, we focus on questions such as which of the current social values associated with green spaces will be lost, and which new ones will emerge from transformations aiming to advance carbon sequestration and storage? In addition, we aim to identify whose values and recreation experiences will be affected, so as to elicit possible injustices in the way costs and benefits of urban green space transformations are allocated among city residents. We believe it is essential to hear the voices of all user groups, and especially of those who are generally underrepresented or even excluded from decision-making processes, such as youth.

Let’s say we want to relax the management of forest remnants to promote carbon sequestration and storage and biodiversity. While for some, this forest remnant could be perceived as lush, wild and pleasant, others could find it messy, unappealing, dangerous and even inaccessible. This kind of variation in how green spaces efficient in CSS or high in biodiversity are valued by urban residents with different socio-economic backgrounds is among the core themes of an ongoing survey in Helsinki. Photograph: Julian Nyča, CC BY-SA 4.0

Social acceptability of new policies aiming to advance carbon-smartness in urban green spaces is also a central piece of our WP and the new Helsinki-scale survey. For example, we seek to explore how acceptability varies according to the spatial scale in which transformations are targeted, and how residents prioritize the different co-benefits we get from urban green spaces. Additionally, we are delving into public understanding of the role of urban green infrastructure in climate change mitigation. We are interested in discovering how people understand carbon sequestration and storage in the context of urban green infrastructure, and where in the city they locate these phenomena spatially. Literacy on ecological processes is the first step towards building public capabilities for informed individual acceptability judgments and behaviors, and it is a key prerequisite for a happy, resilient and functional society.

Thus, if you live in Helsinki, please help us co-create just and sustainable urban green spaces, and take our 20-minute survey at mpt.link/hiiliviisas

The survey welcomes responses in English, Finnish or Swedish until mid-October 2021. Thank you for your effort!

About the authors

Oriol is as an environmental biologist and nature manager passionate about the interactions between humans and the physical environment. Having recently defended his master thesis at the University of Copenhagen about barriers hindering wildlife friendly gardening, his research interests revolve around social barriers and levers of sustainable transitions in semi-natural and urban socio-ecological systems.

Jussi is a conservation ecologist with a broad interest in biodiversity conservation, human-nature relationships and navigating these two towards sustainable futures. His research topics include the conservation problematics of grasslands and their species, urban floristics and, more recently, urban green spaces from a social-ecological and environmental justice point of view.

Both of the authors have been working for CO-CARBON since early 2021.