Research Summary

The Environmental Commons in Urban Communities: The potential of place-based education

Place-based stewardship education in urban communities promotes knowledge, skills, and motivation needed for sustaining common-pool resources

Frontiers in Psychology

The concept of the “environmental commons” (EC) which frames this paper consists of two elements: “(1) the natural resources and systems on which life depends, and (2) the public spaces and processes in which people work together to determine how they will care for those resources and for the communities they inhabit.” References to these two elements were analyzed in students’ reflections on what they learned from participating in place-based stewardship education (PBSE) projects in their urban communities. PBSE is defined as “experiential education about the natural environment in the local community.”  Local place, in the context of PBSE, is not only a source for learning, but also a community to which students can contribute by applying what they learn.

Students in grades 4-12 participated in a variety of PBSE projects organized by the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS), a regional network of school-community partnerships. These projects included such stewardship activities as the implementation of permaculture practices in growing food on the school grounds, installation of a bioswale in a local park, the removal of invasive species in local bodies of water, the design and creation of water filtration systems, and the development of an urban community garden. While the projects differed by addressing environmental conditions in the local communities where students attended school, they shared a common set of practices: ecological observations; data collection and analyses; working in teams of students, teachers, and community partners; and presenting results in public venues.

After completing their projects, students were asked to write a letter to the SEMIS Coalition expressing their ideas on why the project was important, what they learned, how the community benefitted, etc. Students’ responses (N = 205) incorporated the two key elements of environmental commons. In reference to the first element -- natural resources and systems on which life depends --the majority of students articulated ways in which humans benefitted from their projects; approximately half mentioned benefits to other species or living systems, as well. Approximately 25% of the students referenced generativity – that is, the legacy of their work for the future.  In reference to the second element – collective orientation – one-third of the students indicated that collective action was imperative for solving environmental issues, 50% expressed feelings of collective efficacy, and over one-third felt increased attachment and identification with a broader community. Students’ responses also referenced elements of groups that make them effective in sustaining common-pool resources (CPRs) – i.e., resources that provide benefits to everyone but can be depleted if overused. These elements include proximity to the specific CPR, the strength of members’ identification with the team and its goal of sustaining the resource, and dynamics within the group that enable members to know one another and to build trust.

This study supports the use of the PBSE model in helping students become aware of the natural environment in an urban setting and developing the motivation and skills for effectively addressing related ecological issues through collective action.