K307 Elsi

Of people and trees: exploring the spatio-temporal dynamics of urban and periurban dwellers’ social representations of trees.

(Oral and Poster)

Carole Vuillot
Marylou Dufournet
Anne-Caroline Prévot


Almost 40 years ago, Pyle [1] started to warn the scientific community about the progressive disconnection between urban dwellers and nature. This so-called "extinction of experience" may affect individual relationships toward elements of nature in the everyday life, such as knowledge, emotions, attitudes and practices. It may also affect social representations (SRs) of these elements of nature, i.e., collective elaborations "of a social object by the community for the purpose of behaving and communicating" [2]. In turn, varying SRs are linked with different prioritization in conservation policies.

Here, we explored the hypothesis of "extinction of experience" regarding such a valued component of urban nature (e.g. [3]), by characterizing individual relationships with, and social representations of trees, in varying urbanization contexts and for different generations of people, in Paris area (France). We computed a questionnaire comprising: (1) a free-listing task and three open-ended questions to elicit the SRs of "tree"; (2) closed-ended questions to evaluate individual relationship to them; (3) socio-demographic variables. We adminstrated the questionnaire face-to-face with 80 people from 8 to 93 years old in the city of Dugny, and online with 454 people from 18 to 85 years old living in urban and sub-urban areas. We analyzed the words elicited through the free-listing task with rank-frequency analyses to elicit the content and structure of the social representation. Individual relationships to trees were characterized using a multivariate analysis and a classification algorithm. We then extracted the main lexical worlds used by respondents from a lexical analysis of the open-ended questions. We showed three main dimensions in the social representations of urban trees: (1) trees are considered as key components of nature through their perceived function of providing oxygen, (2) they are perceived through an aesthetic dimension; (3) they hold important symbolic and affective representations. Multivariate analyses showed that urban people closer to trees associated them more frequently to their ecological functions. By comparing the SR of younger and older people in our sample, we studied the temporal dynamics of the social representations of trees. Combining qualitative and quantitative analyses allowed us to suggest a loss of autonomy of the concept of trees vis-à-vis the broader and less specific concept of "nature" that dominate the social representation, together with a decreasing association between trees and "forest" through time. These results invite us to question the ways to integrate trees in cities and sub-urban agricultural landscapes in a way that promotes physical and emotional experiences with trees.

[1] Pyle R.M. 1978. Horticulture 56: 64-67.

[2] Moscovici S. 1963. Annual Review of Psychology 14: 231-260.

[3] Vesely E.T. 2007. Ecological Economics 63:605-615