Agroecological Transformations in Urban Contexts: Transdisciplinary Research Frameworks and Participatory Approaches in Burlington, Vermont

KEY WORDS: Urban Agroecology, Participatory Action Research (PAR), agroecology principles, transformation


Historically, agrifood systems have been perceived mostly in the realm of activities and policies in rural areas (Wiskerke 2015). Consequently, the potential role of city-regions in developing innovative sustainable food systems has been largely ignored (Sonino 2009). Through integration into the urban fabric and urban ecosystems, urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) confront particular socioeconomic and environmental constraints and offer opportunities that set them apart from rural agriculture. This results in UPA filling a distinctive multifunctional1 role. UPA intersects with food security, public health (physical and mental), community-building, redevelopment and restoration of distressed areas, economic opportunities for low-resource neighborhoods through microenterprises, and the broader spiritual and identity-related benefits of connecting with place in meaningful ways (Lovell 2010).

In this chapter, we assess the potential of agroecology to provide a series of benefits to human and environmental health in urban and peri-urban contexts. Specifically, we explore what differentiates urban agroecology from urban agriculture. According to Vaarst et al. (2017 p. 4), food systems that follow the principles of agroecology call for “resilience, multifunctionality, equity, and recycling of resources... (and offer) significant options for impacting sustainable development in city regions.” Using commonly accepted principles to explore the multiple dimensions of agroecology (environmental, social, political and economic) we hope to provide “...a more holistic framework than urban agriculture to assess how well urban food initiatives produce food and promote environmental literacy, community engagement, and ecosystem services” (Siegner et al. 2019 p. 557). Grounding our research in agroecological principles, we explore the ways these spaces, actors and systems interact, in order to better understand how urban agroecosystems can be designed to support urban farms and gardens that achieve these diverse ends (Altieri et al. 2017). Parallel to this work, we evaluate the effectiveness of community-based participatory action research to assess the relative importance of, and interactions between, the environmental, social, political and economic elements of our partners’ work within urban and peri-urban contexts.

Participatory Action Research (PAR), is an approach to collaborative inquiry in which researcher and non-researcher partners (e.g. farmers or community organizations) engage in an iterative process of research, reflection and action, with the goal of addressing mutually identified issues of interest (Mendez et al. 2017). The PAR process described in this chapter integrates agroecology (defined for this purpose as the combination of ecological science with other academic disciplines and knowledge systems to study food systems (Mendez et al. 2017)); eco-landscape design (which incorporates ecological principles and values to urban and landscape design (Lovell 2009)); and cultural ecosystem services (the nonmaterial benefits that people derive from ecosystems, which can include spiritual importance, cultural heritage and psychological well-being (Milcu et al. 2013)). By drawing from these academic fields and integrating these perspectives with the knowledge and experience of our selected local partners, we set out to assess what differentiates urban agroecology from urban agriculture and how design choices can optimize these benefits. As a by-product of this process, we also hope to observe whether this type of PAR process serves as an effective mechanism for amplifying agroecology as a relevant option for food systems transformation.

In summary, the goals of this project are to:

  • • assess the potential of agroecology to provide a series of benefits to human and environmental health in urban and peri-urban contexts,
  • • explore what differentiates urban agroecology from urban agriculture,
  • • understand how urban agroecosystems can be designed to support urban farms and gardens that achieve these diverse ends, and
  • • evaluate the effectiveness of community-based participatory action research to assess the relative importance of. and interactions between the environmental, social, political and economic elements of our partners’ work within urban and peri-urban contexts.

In this chapter we will address the above-mentioned goals by defining our context and the framework that we are using to guide this research, providing brief descriptions of our community partners and their work, explaining our transdisciplinary PAR process, and then sharing an overview of the research we have conducted to date with one of our community partners. We will close with observations about what we hope to improve upon and pursue as this research continues to evolve.

Geographic and Research Context

We explore the above themes and topics using a case study of Burlington, Vermont. USA. where we have been engaged in agrifood systems work for over a decade, as scholars, researchers, and practitioners. Burlington is a small city located in the northwestern portion of the state of Vermont, on the shore of 150-mile-long Lake Champlain. Vermont is a predominantly rural state, where 78% of the land is forested (Lovell et. al 2010). Agriculture and tourism contribute significantly to both the character and economic viability of the state. Long, cold winters and a relatively short growing season impact the types of agricultural activities that are viable. Dairy continues to dominate the agricultural economy, but recent years of prices at or below the price of production are contributing to a decrease in the number of dairies across the state. With a population of around 43,000. Burlington is Vermont's largest city. Burlington is economically diverse, but relatively racially homogenous; 85% of residents self-identify as white ( 2019). However, waves of refugee resettlement have contributed to increasing racial diversity within the city.

Some Vermonters joke that the best thing about Burlington is that it is so close to Vermont, hinting that its urban feel sets it apart from the traditional conceptualization of the state’s culture and rural identity. However, Burlington’s contributions to the state match recent trends where small- to mid-sized cities are rapidly growing, both in the US and in other countries (Forman 2008). These cities often have distinct and strong ties to their rural hinterlands (Arnosti and Liu 2018), and maintain more connected and cohesive local urban food movements, including diverse forms of urban agriculture (Bricas and Conare 2019). Vermont is recognized as a leader within the farm-to-table movement (Benjamin and Virkler 2016), and boasts a strong tradition of successful food activism. Recent efforts include passing the 2016 GMO labeling law and Migrant Justice’s “Milk with Dignity” campaigns, among others. In addition, a network of local organizations and universities support research and a growing movement to strengthen food systems and agroecology studies in the region. As actors within Burlington’s foodshed, who also work internationally, this research team was drawn to exploring what urban agroecology looks like in our own context and what potential it offers for strengthening our local agrifood system. Our case study offers a framework and research process to guide future participatory and transdisciplinary work in urban agroecology.

An Urban and Peri-Urban Agroecological Framework

We sought to investigate the potential of urban and peri-urban agroecology by using established agroecological principles, combined with insight from ecological design and cultural ecosystem services. This approach offered a scaffold for identifying key factors to achieve more sustainable urban food systems.

Additional considerations included optimizing ecological agricultural production, urban sociopolitical dynamics, urban policies, planning and regulations, as well as a desire to deepen our understanding of the environmental implications of and for food production in urban settings (McClintock 2010; Newman and Jennings 2008; Peters et al. 2009). By structuring our examination of these diverse dimensions in ways that explicitly include stakeholders (farmers, gardeners, community stakeholders, decision-makers, etc.), we plan to facilitate the development of a set of scenarios that allow participants to envision “...a wide range of societal and environmental effects...for each scenario” (Nassauer et al. 2007: p.47). We hope that this allows our partners to see themselves, their work and their broader context in potentially new (and transformative) ways.

Agroecology - Definitions and Principles

As agroecology becomes more widely recognized across the globe, what it means[1] and what it represents has also become more contested. In 2018, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) crafted 'the internationally agreed definition’, which states that ‘‘...agroecology is an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food systems” (FAO, 2018). A few years earlier, civil society participants in the 2015 International Forum on Agroecology produced the Nyeleni Declaration, in which they provided a clear outline of expectations for agroecology, specifically for its peasant constituency. This declaration is overtly political, and explicit in stating that one of the motivations for articulating their position is to prevent the cooptation of agroecology. In addition to emphasizing the central role of smallholder farmers and social movements within agroecology, the Nyeleni Declaration calls for solidarity between urban and rural populations as necessary for (re)establishing responsible production and consumption patterns, prioritizing shared benefits and exploring viable models for shared risks (Nyeleni Declaration 2015).

Drawing from its ecological roots, agroecology has been structured around core principles since its early beginnings. Initially, the principles were ecologically oriented and based on experiences in rural environments, as seen in the key earlier texts of the field (e.g. Altieri 1987; Gliessman 1998). As research and development have embraced the notion that there are no ‘recipes’, but rather that all studies and initiatives need to be adapted to specific contexts, interest in better understanding and applying agro- ecological principles has grown. According to Patton, "An evidence-based effective principles approach assumes that while the principles remain the same, there will necessarily and appropriately be adaptation within and across contexts in implementing them” (Patton 2017 p. 200). Victor Toledo describes agroecology as something that started as an alternative science, but has evolved into an emergent practice and innovative technology that includes social, cultural, and political movements (Toledo 2012). Other authors working with different agroecology frameworks go as far as to name agroecology as a new “knowledge paradigm” (Shiva 2016). Numerous agroecology frameworks proposed in the past decade have incorporated principles within both their conceptual and applied expositions. The FAO adapted the notion of agroecological principles by identifying 10 agroecology 'Elements’ (FAO 2018), which align well with the five principles for its Sustainable Food and Agriculture approach (FAO 2014). The Nyeleni Declaration includes key principles and values (referred to as pillars) for agroecology; these are distinct from other lists of agroecological principles because they articulate who should be involved and mechanisms for how change needs to happen (Nyeleni Declaration 2015). In 2018, the CIDSE[2] network published a document that attempts to clarify and align previous interpretations of agroecology from a variety of actors within the movement (CIDSE 2018 p. 3). The result is a list of 15 agroecological principles that cross economic, political, social and environmental domains and aim to articulate “...what agroecology is and what it is not in order to gather political support, for the discipline to flourish, to avoid co-optation, and fight against false solutions” (ibid.).

There is almost no published work that critically analyses the use of principles in agroecological research and applications. As the field evolves, agroecologists are starting to recognize the importance, potential, and need for critical examination of these principles (Bell and Bellon 2018). Given the increasing interest and popularity of applying principles frameworks in different contexts, this has become an important area of inquiry in agroecology work (see the forthcoming special feature on ‘Principles-based approaches in agroecology’, in the journal Elementa). One of the key questions to ask when using principles is: how can we best compare information collected across multiple contexts? In theory, principles allow us to use different, site-specific indicators, which would allow for comparison of the principles across contexts. However, this type of comparative analysis has been rarely done in practice, and it remains to be seen whether these comparisons are valid. Rural contexts remain the predominantly cited examples of agroecology principles in practice. However, recent work recognizes the relevance of agroecology beyond rural contexts, and a growing number of studies focus on the unique relevance and expression of these principles in urban areas (Tornaghi and Hoekstra 2017). Our understanding of the diversity of approaches in agroecology and the various interpretations of its principles has informed both our definition of agroecology and selection of a specific set of principles for this study.

How We Conceptualize Agroecology

The research team for this project represents a wide range of disciplines and life experiences. It includes scholars from the fields of agroecology, urban landscape design and cultural ecosystem services; multiple NGO partners; and both graduate and undergraduate students, affiliated with several programs within the University of Vermont. This question of what agroecology is, and what it looks like when expressed in urban contexts, is one of the foundational questions for this project and remains at the heart of our study. We appreciate that there are multiple interpretations of what agroecology is and how people engage with it; for us, it is inherently transdisciplinary and participatory (Mendez et al. 2017). When we refer to transdisciplinary, we mean moving beyond just the intentional valuing and integration of different academic disciplines, to also incorporate different forms of knowledge and knowledge systems (e.g. indigenous, local, practical/empirical). Agroecology provides us with a framework to better understand the complex systems and interactions that comprise our agrifood systems in order to work toward transforming them to be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is “ epistemological stance that values knowledge produced from lived experience as equal to that produced in the academy and, in so doing, expands traditional notions of expertise” (Torre 2014 p.l). This combination of perspectives and knowledge types creates a platform for stakeholders to feel joint ownership of the process and results (Hovmand 2014). It rejects historical power dynamics among ‘researchers’ and ‘subjects.’ In PAR, research and nonresearch partners investigate, reflect, act and/or investigate again through iterative cycles. Because PAR projects increase community members’ access to, and ideally motivation for, taking part in research processes (including design, execution, analysis and results dissemination), the approach supports articulation of problems and potential solutions outside of ‘hegemonic definitions’ (Dlott, Altieri and Masumoto 1994).

This approach is especially appropriate for agricultural inquiries, and even more so for the context- specific inquiries that are central to agroecology. Drawing out the questions, perspectives and insight of multiple actors is central to PAR, considering the often tacit and obscured nature of critical agricultural knowledge and expertise (Milgroom et al. 2016). Researchers and farmers, along with other stakeholders, in diverse contexts, can benefit from processes that work to find ways to combine knowledge and articulate lessons. In this way, learning can be made explicit and accessible to wider audiences. This can serve both to foster connections among people who might not otherwise interact, and to reestablish awareness about food production and agricultural systems among urban populations. In Burlington, for example, urban and school gardens are a place where gathering and sharing across cultures is encouraged, and when those spaces can also include inquiry and dialogue around issues, the seeds of PAR can be sown.

Our Conceptualization of PAR

As a function of the relationships that develop, and the mutual curiosity and knowledge that emerge from PAR. the processes themselves are often difficult to describe in terms of discrete phases. The research cycle depicted in Figure 14.1 represents a generic PAR cycle. The notable change from our previous visualizations of PAR processes is that instead of depicting isolated moments for reflection, the reflection process is integrated with research and action throughout the cycle. The nodes then become moments to pause for making decisions around where effort and attention should be directed and how to move forward. The graphic applies for the project as a whole (as we aggregate findings about the expressions of agroecological principles across the sites, and engage in collective research, reflection and action), and also individually to each organization as they independently move through this process. An example of this process with one of our partner organizations is described later in the chapter.

  • [1] See the collection of definitions of agroecology on Biovision’s Agroecology Info Pool, representing various organizationsincluding perspectives from governmental entities, civil society and the research community:
  • [2] The abbreviation CIDSE stands for the organization’s historical name, originally in French: “Cooperation Internationalepour le Developpemcnt et la Solidarite” which can be translated as International Cooperation for Development andSolidarity (Accessed 10/31/19)
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