Back-alley sustainability and the role of environmental education

Source:  - careers in urban agriculture

Source: – careers in urban agriculture

Here’s another ‘old’ paper that resonates more today than it did when it appeared in the very first Volume of a very valuable journal “Local Environment” in 1996. What is interesting to note is that the neighborhoods in Detroit where the action research reported on took place have been transformed quite a bit: abandoned houses – often crack houses back then – have been torn down and the vacant lots have, in some instances, been ‘reclaimed’ by nature or converted into productive land for fruit and vegetables (see “Detroit Agriculture”). Perhaps, in a very modest way, educational initiatives like the one described in this paper have contributed to this transformation, although a question today is to what extend the Detroit schools take part in this transformation and whether schools are able to ‘localize’ their curriculum and educational processes to allow for this. Below you find the abstract of the paper which can be obtained in full by clicking on the reference at the end.


Environmental education can be a catalyst for sustainable development in local communities as long as it is recognised that communities have different challenges and needs. From a perspective of social change and sustainable development, environmental education can be broadly defined as the process that enables students and teachers to participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of educational activities aimed at resolving an environmental issue that they themselves have identified. What an ‘environmental issue’ is, then, depends on the perceptions and earlier experiences of the learner as well as the context in which education takes place. An illustration of such a participatory approach to environmental education is provided by the case of Pistons Middle School in Detroit, Michigan where teachers, students and outside facilitators combined action research and community problem solving.

Source: Wals, A.E.J. (1996). BackAlleySustainabilityWals 1996
Back-alley sustainability and the role of environmental education. Local Environment, 1 (3), 299-316.

Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development

“Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development” is the third journal paper I co-authored with former Master students and colleague at Wageningen University Natalia Eernstman who is currently a PhD student at Falmouth University/ London School of Arts in the UK. The first two – related papers focused on the introduction of IFOAM organic labelling schemes and the (negative) impact therof on indigenous farming practices in the North-East of India: Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. (2009) Interfacing knowledge systems: introducing certified organic agriculture in a tribal society. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 56(4), 375-390 and Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. (2009) Jhum Meets IFOAM: Introducing Organic Agriculture in a Tribal Society. International Journal of Agriculture and Sustainability, 7(2), 95-106.

This new paper – based on Natalia’s PhD-work – is quite different in that it explores the utilisation of dialogic practices, site-specific theatre and a project conducted in a British village to generate processes of “context-based meaning finding”. It concludes that Education for Sustainable Development essentially starts with and revolves around re-embedding sustainable development in life and the act of living, engaging people in place through processes in which communities yield their own, context and time specific interpretations of sustainable development. The paper was published in ‘open-access’ journals Sustainability and can therefore be downloaded and shared for free! One interesting feature f the paper is that the some of the conversations with the participants in the study as they took place during walks in through the land(scape) can be accessed and hear. The editors insisted the links to the date were put in the notes in the end instead of as hyper-links in the text – which is regretable in my opinion. But here they are the links to the two excerpts provided (which make more sense when engaging with the full text first): “in the woods” (with Natalia narrating first about how she engaged the participants and used “walking” as a way to dig for meaning) and “on the bridge”

The full paper reference is: Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. “Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development”, Sustainability 2013, 5, 1645-1660; doi:10.3390/su5041645 It can be downloaded HERE. sustainability-05-01645