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Chapter Two: Reframing the Sustainability Research Agenda

With over a decade of interdisciplinary research, training and policy development, the Sustainable Places Research Institute has made a particular impact in understanding in the following areas: Food, Land and Security; Developing Interdisciplinary Research Skills; Society and Ecology; Understanding Risk. This section highlights some of our contributions in these areas.

2.1 Food, Land and Security

Safe and equitable access to food resources remains one of the major challenges of the 21st century. By looking at the whole food system we enhanced understanding of what makes the system unsustainable and how we can increase food security by improving access to food for everyone.

The way we eat and how our food is produced must change to feed the growing global population without further exceeding the limited resources provided by our planet. The scale and complexity of this challenge means it can only be tackled by looking at the food system as a whole and its cumulative social and environmental impacts, by bringing together different perspectives and disciplines. By considering impacts and concerns at a place scale, we see how activity at the global scale creates local impacts and can reveal interconnections between different policy arenas and levels of governance.

We investigated what makes the current system unsustainable, and why bold ideas for change have failed to be widely adopted. Working with farmers, food retailers, and rural and urban communities, our place-based research explored innovative new ways of addressing these challenges. By working with local activists and groups, the Institute has contributed to and led scientific debates and policy development on rural development, land-use and food systems. This has shaped political agendas in Wales, the European Union and internationally.

Case Study

Transforming and Growing Relationships for Improved Nutrition and Sustainability

This collaborative research explored whether a regional-based UK food system can provide healthy and sustainable diets and impact on household food culture. This case study focussed on finding solutions to the key processes that lead to food insecurity and unsustainable food production – particularly the global processes driving increased agricultural production, such as specialization by farmers towards a small number of products, increased distance between consumers and producers of food in the supply chain, homogenization of the supply of food as the food system becomes more global, and concentration of power in a few key actors.

We worked to reconnect consumers and producers, thereby supporting a deeper understanding of how these relationships shape consumption and production practices. By focussing on two regions with different local farming practices, East Anglia (dominated by arable and horticulture) and South Wales (dominated by pastoral systems), our research uncovered the importance of forging place- and landscape-based connections between producers and consumers (and other producers) in developing more sustainable practices. Our place-based approach highlighted the importance of understanding how landscapes and their ecology, agricultural practices, and household food culture can together inform best practices to promote a food system that can feed future generations healthily and sustainably.

2.2 Society and Ecology

The global threats of climate change and biodiversity loss present major policy challenges. Our pioneering work has shown how society and ecology are strongly coupled – where changes in either will lead to complex consequential impacts.

Up to 83 percent of Earth’s land surface has been altered by human activity, such as land use change, climate change, and the introduction of new species, so that it is significantly different from its pre-human state. Work within the Institute focussed on how social processes and ecological systems are so strongly linked and how they co-evolve. Recognition of intertwined socio-ecological systems allowed us to consider sustainable development not as a simple product but as a process that emerges through feedbacks and interactions operating across systems.

Recognising the strength of the relationship between society and nature informed a more nuanced set of questions about approaches to conservation management.

Case Study

Ecological Restoration and Novel Ecosystems

Globally, ecological restoration has taken on a new significance in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss. Despite its growing importance, the social sciences have paid limited attention to the study of ecological restoration, policy, and practice, and the field had been largely dominated by the natural sciences. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, our research showed that social science engagement can contribute to a better understanding of how to govern restoration, and take account of uncertainty, complexity and adaptation in the system when using classical governance tools, such as regulations, financial incentives, and market schemes, such as certification, and accreditation. Our research has also looked at the institutional and regulatory barriers to restoration and how these can be overcome.

As the use of restoration grows, it is increasingly likely that it will give rise to social dispute and be brought into conflict with a variety of environmental, cultural, economic and community interests. Addressing this, we uncovered how power relations and vested interests influence ecological restoration outcomes and how these can be identified and addressed. This also helps to build new criteria for evaluating the social success of ecological restoration, which can operate alongside traditional ecological criteria.

Case Study

Coastal Zones

Globally, coastal zones are often areas of rapid economic development. This development disrupts existing patterns of relationships within social-ecological systems. Our work examined the role of governance in addressing threats to these systems. Specifically, we looked at the threats to marine ecosystems in the Yucatan peninsula from tourism development, overfishing, poor water management and climate change. This led to new ideas about how to develop an integrated approach to coastal zone governance, ensuring that land use planning and tourism developments take account of marine ecosystems vulnerabilities and the needs of local inhabitants. The research found that coastal zones raised several governance challenges, with institutional flexibility, broad participation, multilevel governance, and adaptability identified as critical conditions for promoting sustainability.

In the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, coastal zones are managed by the federal and local government, but locally based civil society organizations, environmental non-government organizations and local business associations are playing an increasingly important role. This collaborative arrangement between state and civil society is due to high levels of environmental awareness, particularly with respect to water pollution, and the lack of government capacity. The collaboration has resulted in the sharing of data and resources, improved implementation capacity and enhanced regulations. This ‘hybrid’, public-private governance contributes to integrated approaches to coastal zones but can also risk state retreat from its public responsibilities and duties.

Case Study

Engaging with Nature

A greater proportion of people are now living in urban areas, reducing their contact with nature to lower rates than in the past, and the character of this contact has changed to recreational ‘consumption’. Engagement with the natural world improves human physical and mental health, while also playing an important role in shaping social, cultural, and ecological values.

Our human connection to special places, such as national parks or landscapes, is assumed to generate positive and protective relationships, yet individual understanding of the ecological and cultural value of places may be partial or superficial, resulting in harmful or damaging impacts of human activities. To understand the problem better, our research work in Wales, the UK, New Zealand and Malaysia has explored the ways in which various users of ecologically protected spaces engage with and understand natural landscapes. We investigated how people use these landscapes, how they think of themselves in relation to the landscape (recreational users, residents) and their understandings of the risks associated with the overuse of nature and natural landscapes.

The research found that encouraging people to be consumers of landscapes through sport and leisure activities can mean people underestimate their impacts on the natural environment or even intentionally damage it in the prioritization of individual well-being. There is a need to take account of how nature is thought about differently by different groups and in different places as it is often dependent on gender, ethnicity and social position.

Case Study

Welsh National Parks

National Parks in Wales have two duties; conservation and societal well-being. Working with the Brecon Beacons National Park, one of three national parks in Wales, we explored how engagement with protected landscapes, which has traditionally excluded young people and marginalised communities, could be understood, and improved. Our research led to funding for new well-being and social engagement programmes for the Brecon Beacons National Park. These provided new opportunities for the use of the Park by diverse communities for health and well-being and for increased accessibility.

Case Study

Sage Handbook of Nature

The comprehensive three volume Sage Handbook of Nature, edited by Professor Terry Marsden, with contributions by researchers from the Institute and international colleagues, captures how our work has contributed to a new understanding of human relationships to nature and the environment. The Handbook combined understandings of nature, the environment and natural processes held by different sciences, and which were brought together in the Institute, and shows the intimate relationship to social, economic and governance processes. Areas covered in the three volumes include implications of sustainable development for future food, water, and energy systems, and for human and planetary health, combined with a consideration of social inequality, gender, rurality, urbanism, risk, resilience, and adaptation.

2.3 Understanding Risk

Globally, rare, large events, such as earthquakes, can have a devastating impact, particularly in developing nations. Our work on uncertainty and social innovation helps to inform more resilient approaches to risk.

Extreme events, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides place a devastating toll on human lives, critical infrastructure, and ecosystems, particularly in developing nations where major population centres are clustered in areas of high seismicity and exposed coastal regions. Mitigation of the risks of these extreme events involves both better understanding of their driving factors and their uncertainties as well as an understanding of the potential responses of communities and governments to these shocks. We have examined how people understand uncertainties of large, rare events, and considered how communities might become more resilient to these events.

Case Study

Communities and Resilience

Through research, partnership, and consultancy we have substantially contributed to the work on place-based community resilience in various international settings. The work has emphasised cooperation and dialogue between public actors and civil society to develop practical tools, guidelines, and incentives.

In Lesotho, we worked with local tribes displaced from their ancestral lands by large-scale infrastructure projects who had been struggling for their rights and compensation for decades.

When the global COVID-19 pandemic prompted regulatory measures such as social and spatial distancing, we worked with stakeholders in Nepal, Jordan and South Africa to develop an understanding of how such measures proved challenging for people living in vulnerable situations and deprived conditions. Our research showed that housing design, household conditions and local neighbourhood dynamics played a key part in supporting the well-being of communities.

The research training and experience offered by the Institute has helped to develop a new generation of sustainability researchers. These researchers are comfortable moving across the boundaries between disciplines and working collaboratively with colleagues from different research backgrounds. They are experienced in engaging with communities and respecting local forms of knowledge and experience. They have a desire to make a positive difference, going beyond theory and impacting on policy and action on the ground. They have also championed the importance of looking at sustainable development as a series of interconnected processes rather than separate events.

2.4 Developing Interdisciplinary Research Skills

In addition to our Research Fellows, we have hosted 32 doctoral students, numerous international visitor placements, two Sêr Cymru Fellowships, a Newton Ungku-Omar Advanced Fellowship and five Marie Curie Fellowships. Our staff have gained promotions to academic appointments with Cardiff University as well across the UK and globally. We have also hosted a number of Distinguished Visiting Fellows, such as Matthew Quinn (Welsh Government), Dr. Karin Beland-Lindahl (Luleå University of Technology), Dr. Rachel Simon Kumar (University of Auckland), Dr. Paul Sinnadurai (Brecon Beacons National Park) who have supported the development, training, and global reach of the Sustainable Places Research Institute.

“As a researcher focusing on the intersection between sociologies of food, consumption, sustainability, and the environment, PLACE provided a platform from which to explore questions related to these themes in novel and interdisciplinary ways. With the support afforded by the team at PLACE, I developed the intellectual resources I needed to develop this research agenda, and to take it forwards in independent and collaborative ways. The research culture – not least its encouragement of collaboration across natural and social sciences – and intellectual home provided by PLACE has been instrumental in shaping  my academic career to date.”

Dr Jessica Paddock, Research Associate 2010-2014

“In 2014 I was fortunate enough to spend 4 months at Cardiff University’s Danau Girang Field Centre as part of my PhD looking into the impact of oil palm plantations on the functioning of the Kinabatangan River in Borneo. The Kinabatangan was an incredible place to work as each day I was able to head out onto the river and explore its banks, trek through the rainforest, and dig lots of holes. In my time at the centre, I lived and worked alongside some of the most dedicated and passionate researchers I’ve ever met. It was a fantastic opportunity, not only to collect data for my own project, but also to engage with projects and subjects I would never have had the chance to experience otherwise.

"Despite all the hard work, the tropical heat, the dirt, the insects, the mosquitos(!), having no electricity, no outside contact, and all the other inconveniences of living in a jungle – it was one of the best experiences of my life and I would happily to do it all over again.”

Dr Alex Horton, PhD student 2014-2017

“I worked at the Institute from 2016-2018 as postdoctoral researcher, which provided a strong foundation for cementing my career, from an early career researcher toward developing independence and to specialise in a particular field. It was a very supportive space, offering a chance to meet like-minded social scientists, with excellent mentors from a variety of backgrounds, and important networking opportunities. I have continued to maintain my connections to the Institute over the past 3 years through the writing of academic papers, and in order to brainstorm new and evolving research ideas. I found my time at the institute to be a creative and exploratory space to build my confidence and engage in a diversity of research projects across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Seychelles. This gave me experience needed to secure my current position as a Senior Conservation Scientist with the RSPB today.”

Dr Natasha Constant, Research Associate, 2016-2018