Arbres Urbains – Colombes ©Grewdoline Grandin

27-04-2023 / hannes.schwaiger

Using Photo-elicitation to explore the human health and well-being impacts of NBS

In REGREEEN we’re carrying out photo-elicitation focus groups with members of the public in Paris, Aarhus and Velika Gorica, using photos of street trees and other NBS captured by our ULL partners. Photo-elicitation is a method of qualitative research that uses photographs as the basis for discussion. Photographs evoke information and memories that text and oral discussion do not, and researchers have found that it is not simply more information, but a different kind of information that is evoked from participants.

Arbres Urbains – Colombes ©Grewdoline Grandin

Although we are using this method to explore NBS in urban areas in general we are focussing on street trees. We have found it to be a particularly apt method for exploring urban residents’ experience and perspectives of street trees. In contrast to other NBS, the spatial scale and complex urban geography of single trees make it difficult to quantitatively investigate the ecosystems services (and disservices), they provide, and especially how these services translate into impacts on human health and well-being. A good example is the shading effect of street trees, which can be quantified, but this calculation tells us little about why a specific tree or group of trees becomes a place where groups congregate and socialise on warm summer days.

Cultural ecosystem services, that is, the contribution to well-being via non-material connections with street trees are phenomena that are also more appropriately explored using qualitative methods. Using photographs of areas known to focus group participants is an effective way of helping to transport them to these places and reconnect with feelings, and experiences they have had in-situ.

Street trees, perhaps more so than other NBS, appear to foster emotional connections with urban residents that cannot be simply attributed to non-cultural ecosystem services. Social conflict, in the guise of protest when trees are removed, and which in the most extreme cases has led to serious undermining of public trust and confidence in councils, is the most visible manifestation of this emotional connection. Trying to understand how and why people value street trees is an important endeavour and undoubtedly of interest to planners and decision makers involved in street tree programmes.

From a practical perspective photo-elicitation is also particularly suited to the type of multi-site exploration we are conducting for REGREEN, we use the photograph as a cultural tag that can be read by the knowing informant (the urban residents) and allows the interviewer to learn about a place without having to experience it themselves. By including some participants with professional knowledge and experience of managing street trees we hope to explore them in a balanced way, and give voice to both residents and planners.

We look forward to completing our research and sharing the results with our REGREEN partners later this year.

Key Reading:

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual studies, 17(1), 13-26.

Sheffield Street Trees Inquiry. (2023) Chair Sir Mark Lowcock KCB.

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