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Understanding and managing the impacts of transience in student-led university food gardens

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University student-led food gardens are increasingly used to facilitate learning fostering pro-sustainability attitude and behaviour change. However, they are led by a transient student population, which impacts how they operate and the benefits they provide. This study undertakes the first explicit and empirical inquiry into how students’ transience impacts student-led food gardens, and how these impacts might be addressed to maximise the gardens’ benefits. I investigated this through an action research study, using a quantitative systematic literature review to assess the benefits of ‘sustainable university community gardens’ (a proxy for ‘student-led food gardens’) and take stock of what is already known about the impacts of students’ transience on these gardens. I used a case study of the United Kingdom’s National Union of Students’ Student Eats student-led food growing scheme to understand how transience impacts the participation dynamics of the student-led food gardens, and the ways in which they are vulnerable to students’ transience, drawing on interviews, participatory workshops, photovoice, a fishbowl discussion, and a research diary. This data was used to create a causal loop diagram and assess the vulnerability of the gardens using Biggs et al.’s (2012; 2015c) resilience principles. I found the student-led food gardens operated in a vulnerable state because of the impacts of students’ transience. Paradoxically, transience both increased and decreased problematic participation, while exacerbating friction and power asymmetries between students and staff, underrepresentation of long-term stakeholders, lack of monitoring slow variables, and a lack of tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty. In spite of this vulnerability, evidence suggested the gardens provided opportunities for building sustainability competencies. Actions were taken to address the negative impacts of students’ transience and build resilience into the gardens. These fed into the recommendation that a portfolio of strategies is needed to address the immediate challenges of problematic participation, and build social-ecological memory in the gardens.
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... These principles will be explained in greater detail in turn in the section Applying Resilience Principles to Sustainability in Universities. Previous attempts to work with these resilience principles have demonstrated that their application can become highly complex (Clarvis et al., 2015;Laycock Pedersen, 2019), due in large part to the large number of potentially relevant variables in any given context (Laycock Pedersen, 2019). Other scholars using the resilience principles have narrowed their analysis by focusing on only two or three of the principles (e.g., Kummu et al., 2020;Röös et al., 2021), which means important connectivity between variables can be missed. ...
... The literature on resilience has been critiqued for a lack of operationalisation of the concept (Biggs et al., 2012;Laycock ...
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Universities have an important role in moving society towards a more sustainable future. However, this will require us to repurpose universities, reorienting and refocusing the different university domains (education, research, campus, and outreach) towards sustainability. The governance structures and processes used to embed sustainability into the activities and operations of the institution are critical to achieving the required transformation. Our current university systems which are seen as contributing to socio-ecological system unsustainability are resilient to change due to slow variables such as organisational and sector-wide prevailing paradigms and culture. Therefore, to repurpose a university requires us to destabilise our prevailing system, crossing a threshold into a new stable system of a 'sustainable university' across all its domains. This paper utilises an adaptation of Biggs et al. (2012) resilience principles for the governance of social-ecological systems to provide a framework to consider aspects of university governance for sustainability that can be utilised to repurpose universities towards sustainability, and destabilize unsustainable elements of the system. This paper draws out examples relating to sustainability governance within universities with regards to the four principles of (i) managing diversity and redundancy, (ii) managing connectivity, (iii) managing slow variables and feedbacks, and (iv) encouraging learning and experimentation within the context of complex adaptive systems. In this article, we have shown that using resilience in a non-normative way is possible (to decrease resilience of an unsustainable system), and that it can also be valuable to help understand how to shift organisational governance towards a particular end-state (in this case, university governance that advances sustainability). This paper provides an example of how to operationalise resilience principles of relevance to the resilience literature as well as providing a practical framework to guide higher education institution governance for sustainability.
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