Research Summary

Doing to being: farming actions in a community coalesce into pro-environment motivations and values

Encouraging pro-environmental values and behaviors through urban farming

Environmental Education Research

People in the world’s growing urban centers are increasingly disconnected from food sources. Urban farming, an example of practice-based environmental education (EE) has become popular in some cities. Research shows that information-based EE is not sufficient to change environmental behaviors. Instead, studies suggest, taking part in activities (practice-based EE) can encourage changes in attitude, heightened awareness, and connection to nature; this approach may facilitate behavior change. In this study, researchers explored how participating in an urban farm may have led to changes in individuals’ values and pro-environmental behaviors.

Practice-based EE may have a greater ability than information-based EE to influence pro-environmental behavior change. The researchers specifically took interest in a person’s individual motivation that drove pro-environmental action in a person’s life beyond the practice—in this case, urban farming. The researchers were intrigued by situations where people still developed this motivation even when the practices started out of practicality or when there were social impediments to the actions. Embodied cognition theories indicate that participating in a practice may impact motivations and values. Research indicates that community-level practice-based learning, also referred to as community-based EE, may have a transformative effect on participants. Farming is a type of community practice, meaning that it is undertaken by groups of people

The study was conducted at an urban farm in Mumbai, India. The farm was located in a highly urbanized area and was run by an organization called UF that has two farm locations in Mumbai. The farm was started by a group of environmental activists and functions through a large volunteer base, and included mentorship and apprenticeship programs. While volunteers on the farm ranged from ages 10 to 70, the five primary participants in the study were in their 30s and 40s, pursuing diverse careers and with differing lifestyles (i.e., family lives, hobbies, routines, etc.). The researchers crafted five case studies (one for each of the participants) by collecting data from three sources: 1) messages from a WhatsApp group (a messaging platform used internationally) that included discussion among the volunteers, 2) field notes from observations on the farm, and 3) interviews with each of the participants. The authors read and analyzed the data for common themes regarding the participants’ experiences, values, and motivations, among other concepts.

The study found that participants learned and became motivated to act more pro-environmentally throughout many areas of their lives as a result of the work they did on the farm. The researchers identified 5 overarching themes from the data, each of which uniquely contributed to the participants’ experiences and the transformative nature of participating in the urban farm. These themes demonstrate how participants saw a change in their values through community-based environmental experiences, which then led to pro-environmental behavior change.

Theme 1: This theme explored the participants’ initial motivations to join the farm. None of the participants were motivated explicitly by caring for the environment, but rather desired to spend time outdoors, cared for the aesthetics of plants, were concerned about nutrition, or felt nostalgia, among other reasons. Regardless of their original motivations, the authors concluded that all of the participants cared deeply for the environment and behaved pro-environmentally as a result of their experience on the farm.

Theme 2 : This theme focused on participants enjoyment in improving at the tasks as well as having a sense of responsibility for their work. The participants reported increased confidence, which allowed them to grow plants on their own. They also discussed enjoying sharing their knowledge and skills with younger and newer participants on the urban farm.

Theme 3 : This theme discussed the importance of community interactions to encourage learning. Through apprentice-like relationships and feedback from peers, the participants’ reported feeling more motivated to keep learning and practicing.

Theme 4 : This theme found that the participants reported increased concern for concepts and issues that they had not thought about before. For instance, participants indicated having a greater appreciation for the interconnectedness of many environmental and ecological systems.

Theme 5 : This theme looked at connectedness to nature and values associated with the tasks at hand. The researchers posed the idea that some actions have certain values towards nature embedded within them. For example, participants enacted frugality and re-usability after they saw the required inputs for successful farming.

A number of limitations exist for this study, such as the small sample size and narrow demographics of the participants (particularly the limited age range), the location in Mumbai, and the unique farm structure. Another study undertaken in a different location and/or cultural context would potentially produce different results.

The authors recommend that community-based and practice-based environmental experiences be implemented more broadly to influence participants’ pro-environmental behaviors and attitudes. They argue that these educational experiences can help people think broadly about environmental systems, rather than looking just to solve individual problems. The researchers mention an apprenticeship-like model as a dynamic way to disseminate knowledge.

The Bottom Line

Practice-based and community-based EE may encourage pro-environmental behavior change. This study of explored the experiences of five participants of an urban farm in Mumbai, India. The findings indicated that, regardless of why they began volunteering at the urban farm, participants became more motivated to adopt pro-environmental behaviors. The authors attributed this outcome to participants’ feelings of responsibility and ownership for tasks at the farm, unique interactions with community members, and increased exposure to new perspectives and concepts. The authors recommend that EE programming should include practical experiences that influence values and motivate participants to adopt pro-environmental behaviors in their daily lives.