Urban agriculture, social cohesion and environmental justice

Dr Chiara Tornaghi

The project aimed to investigate emerging forms of urban agriculture in the UK, how it is expressed as a social practice and how it can inform policymaking. Urban agriculture includes a wide range of practices, such as food-growing in public spaces, housing estates, brownfields, rooftops, window sills and parish greens, and raises many controversial and potentially unjust dynamics which lie unexplored.

The project used a mixed methodology, including desk research (to identify key policy documents, literature, and instructive case studies), exploratory questionnaires (issued to council officers and landless people), semi-structured interviews (with policymakers and food growers), meetings and informal conversations (with council officers and urban agriculturalists), and action research through the construction of a social platform (a series of learning events co-designed with participants) on urban agriculture.

The research was designed around four linked objectives:

  • to analyse emerging urban agricultural practices in the UK
  • to understand, specifically, how urban agriculture can exclude or include groups of people (equity, socio-environmental justice, poverty alleviation, participation)
  • to identify the policy challenges that urban agriculture raises
  • to create a social platform that brings together different stakeholders to inform and produce policy.

Ethical process

The project raised a number of ethical questions prior to the start of the grant, and during the phase of data anonymisation. The appropriate University Research Ethics Committee provided a favourable opinion for the research to progress.

Research field access and trust-building: Phases of the research raised the risk of intrusion and exploitation of vulnerable people, such as low-income groups or stigmatised communities. Access to field work and site visits were negotiated with local gatekeepers including community representatives.

Gatekeepers sought and obtained consent from the community or circulated information regarding the research project. No photos or videos were recorded until after interviewees’ participation was agreed.

Disclosure of confidential information: Interviewees and participants were invited to the social platform or asked to take part in videos, podcasts and other types of dissemination. Initial ethical reflection suggested that information about illegal activities, such as ‘guerrilla gardening’ or sale of produce on the black market, emerging during the interviews or conversations raised the risk of identity disclosure and potential legal action. The researchers’ ethical approach was to avoid the risk of identification for the research participants, and two strategies were planned:

  • a verbal code of conduct for participation in the social platform
  • measures for identity protection for video and audio interviews (such as changing names and not showing faces) for the dissemination tools.

Research participants’ emotional wellbeing: The interviews or activities of the social platform might have been upsetting for participants that experienced forms of social or environmental exclusion and injustice. Policymakers who were invited to the activities of the social platform were also at risk of feeling pressurised to provide a policy solution beyond their control or will. This was addressed by selecting the material of discussion and informing the participants in advance of the clear nature, goals and topics which might emerge from the conversation. 

Data anonymisation: During the preparation of data for archiving to the UK Data Service (UKDS) it became evident that anonymising data to guarantee the privacy of the participants was problematic, jeopardising confidential information. This was due to a number of reasons, including high media visibility, very specific projects which could be identified from interview transcripts, cross-referencing of public policies and events in the interviews, and identified sites in photos and videos. We worked successfully with the UKDS to ensure we satisfied their requirements for the depositing of research data. 

Lessons

  • Careful assessment as part of the project plan is required of the degree to which research material can be anonymised when specific case studies are selected for research.
  • The project recognised the importance of the researcher-participant relationship and the empowering and mutual learning dimension of this relationship, as well as the importance of active-listening by the researcher within the relationship.