Multifunctional outdoor environments that promote health and sustainability
– a study of collaborative processes for strengthened ecosystem services in the city
During 2016-2020, researchers at Jönköping University conducted this development and research project in collaboration with, among others, Region Jönköping County and Riksbyggen. The project was carried out with the support of Formas.
The global urbanization trend presents community planning with major challenges. How can urban environments be planned so that they become resistant to the effects of climate change, growing population pressure and the need for areas for new construction? Densification of cities and expansion of buildings and traffic systems risk happening at the expense of health and well-being, not least for the children. Vegetation in cities is important for several reasons. On the one hand, it improves air quality, regulates temperature and air currents and regulates soil water levels. There are also positive relationships between proximity to green areas and experiencing good health. Studies of children indicate that staying in nature-like environments affects hormone levels, motor skills, mobility, and concentration. Opportunities to grow food for own consumption stimulate children's interest in eating different kinds of vegetables, fruits and berries, for health issues and for sustainability issues. Despite an increased interest in urban cultivation, there are still few children who have access to school gardens and cultivation opportunities in their immediate environment. Important reasons why school gardens are rare are that adults find the maintenance burdensome and that it is difficult to cope with the maintenance in the summer. Access to easy-to-maintain nature-like growing environments that stimulate recreation, well-being, play, movement, aesthetics and learning needs to be developed and studied as a component of a sustainable urban growing-up environment and living environment.
The project, purpose and research questions
Region Jönköping County has started a research-based improvement project to develop multifunctional urban preschools with enhanced ecosystem services for health and sustainability. An example that the region has introduced in its systematic improvement work with multifunctional outdoor environments has been forest gardens. Forest gardens are perennial growing systems with vegetation in several layers. They are designed to be robust, resistant to disturbances, and easy to care for and maintain. They are also planted to generate both subsistence ecosystem services - fruits, berries and edible leaves, supporting ecosystem services - protection from UV light, improved air quality, water regulation and carbon sequestration and cultural ecosystem services - recreation, well-being, opportunities for play, movement and learning and they contribute to community in the local environment. Forest gardens have the potential to act as catalysts to engage people in inclusive, health-promoting and sustainable activities.
We studied the design and implementation of the region's improvement work to investigate the importance of preschools' work with multifunctional outdoor environments in promoting ecosystem services and thus health and well-being in both the short and long term. Our research questions were:
- Which ecosystem services are developed, prioritized and maintained by the participants during and after the improvement work and how is this done?
- How does the participating children's, preschool staff's and local residents' work with the preschool's outdoor environments develop during the period?
- What types of social and logistical obstacles occur during the improvement work?
Through several sub-studies, we followed both the results and the social process. In collaboration with Riksbyggen, 15 ecosystem services were assessed at each preschool, before and after the intervention. The assessment of ecosystem services has been able to be used by the preschools in their work to strengthen and develop ecosystem services in the local environment together with the children.
We carried out observations in preschool yards to see the impact of the new opportunities in the outdoor environment. We used conversational walks with children in preschool yards and in the immediate environment to find out how children experience different outdoor environments, what they use them for and how they would like to develop them. Future workshops with children in pre-school class and above have contributed knowledge about children's preferences when it comes to schoolyards. Questionnaires and focus group interviews with preschool teachers and local residents provided answers both on how the multifunctional environments are experienced from the perspective of adults and on how the methods of carrying out improvement work can be developed.
Cooperation and dissemination of results were ventilated and discussed continuously between the participants in the improvement work with the aim of developing both the environments and the methods in the improvement procedure. The results were disseminated at dissemination seminars, lectures, in teacher training and at research conferences.
Almers, E., Askerlund, P., & Samuelsson, T. (2023) The Perfect Schoolyard for Future Children: Primary School Children’s Participation in Envisioning Workshops. Children, Youth and Environments 33(1), pp. 101-121 10.1353/cye.2023.0002
Askerlund, P., Almers, E., Tuvendal, M., & Waite, S. (2023) Growing nature connection throughgreening schoolyards: preschool teachers’ response to ecosystem services innovations. Education 3-13. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03004279.2022.2148485
Lecusay, R., Mrak, L., & Nilsson, M. (2022) What is Community in Early Childhood Education and Care for Sustainability? Exploring Communities of Learners in Swedish Preschool Provision.International Journal of Early Childhood 54(3), 51-74. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13158-021-00311-w
Almers, E., Askerlund, P., Samuelsson, T., & Waite, S. (2021) Children’s preferences for schoolyard features and understanding of ecosystem service innovations – a study in five Swedish preschools. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 21(3), 230-246. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2020.1773879
Kjellström, S., Andersson, A.-C., & Samuelsson, T. (2020) Professionals' experiences of using an improvement programme: Applying quality improvement work in preschool contexts. BMJ Open Quality 9(3):e000933 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjoq-2020-00093