An Anthropocene Exploration: Recollections and Results from a New Master Student’s First Research Project on Urban Agriculture Activism and Education in South Korea

Master’s student, Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy, KAIST
Ilana Nichole Herold

For quite some time now, I have been interested in how to reconcile an understanding of the local and global scales of the multitude of crises on our Earth. What changes occur at the community level as our world becomes ever more interconnected and globalized? Is there a way or a need to connect these scales of human and nonhuman existence? It is my belief that planning for a more sustainable future requires globally-minded, but community-focused solutions to the environmental challenges we face. Specifically, I am interested in urban environments, and the human-nature connections that take place in urban spaces. Before entering KAIST, I was aware of the Anthropocene as a “proposed human-dominated global epoch”[i], an acknowledgment that humans have caused irreversible changes to the Earth’s geologic record.[ii] Likely attributable to my Environmental Toxicology background, I used to feel that essentially, we humans had really messed up “nature” and that it was our responsibility to somehow figure out how to cope (reverse seemed a bit of a stretch at this point) with the damage that we had done. Yet, at the same time, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was missing something, that there must be more to the story.

With this attitude, I enrolled in Professor Buhm Soon Park’s course entitled Survey in Anthropocene Studies. Frankly, I had no idea what I was in for. While I certainly didn’t figure out the missing piece to the puzzle of how to solve environmental crises, I now have some new theoretical tools in my belt that I can use to analyze the complex human-nonhuman interactions I previously had no words to explain. Particularly, the course introduced to me the “planetary” scale, which is difficult for humans to comprehend, but moves beyond thinking only in terms of globalization and into the consideration of humans as an agency “immersed in an Earth-world built by [humans] out of nature but constrained by it, enjoying our autonomy and power but increasingly up against an opponent that resists our autonomy and tightens the constraints.”[iii]

During the course, I focused specifically on urban agriculture (UA) in Korea, and how the practice of cultivation in urban spaces can be understood within the Anthropocene epoch. UA occupies a confused space in the Anthropocene, given that both agriculture and urbanization are considered major contributors to the Anthropocene predicament. Yet, at the same time, UA is touted as a way for urban citizens to connect with nature, battle food insecurity, and even contribute to lessening the burden of climate change. Through this brief article, I want to share with readers my first experience performing qualitative research and one part of the findings of that work.


My main field site was the Daejeon Metropolitan City Agricultural Technology Center in Daejeon, South Korea (대전광역시 농업기술센터; henceforth Center), with a particular focus on their UA and urban gardening education programs, and their community gardening site, called Care Farm. At the Center, I did an undisguised participant observation of a monthly special educational event, entitled “Making topiaries using air purification plants” (공기정화식물을 활용한 토피어리 만들기) and interviewed participants, including one Care Farm cultivator, as well as educators at the Center.

<Figure 1> Entrance to the Daejeon Metropolitan City Agricultural Technology Center

For the second part of the study, I aimed to gain a better understanding of the UA movement and UA policies in Korea. To do this, I first interviewed Professor Jae-Youl Lee, a geography professor at Chungbuk University in Cheongju, South Korea who performed in-depth ethnographic research using relational place-making and actor-network theory (ANT) to study an UA site in Korea and is well-published on the subject. Next, I engaged in a direct observation of the Seoul International Conference on Urban Agriculture (서울 도시농업 국제컨퍼런스; henceforth International Conference), a four-day Zoom event.

<Figure 2> Home webpage of the 2021 Seoul International Conference on Urban Agriculture

Conceptual Tool: Relational Values

Used mainly in the field of conservation science, the relational value (RV) concept has emerged in the past decade and is proposed as a third class of values for understanding human-nature relationships, in addition to intrinsic and instrumental values.[iv] [v] Intrinsic valuation implies valuing natural systems purely for their existence, while instrumental valuation refers to valuing natural systems based on their benefit to humans, exemplified by the case of ecosystem services.[vi] RVs, on the other hand, while somewhat difficult to define, include the valuation of responsibilities to humans, nonhumans and ecosystems, and encompass principles and notions people have of what makes a good life[vii] [viii] (see Table 1). Recently, researchers found that RVs resonate across diverse populations and may be more responsive to aspects of well-being such as connection to others and attachment to places[ix]. Given that UA systems are human-environment interfaces that contribute to individual, community and societal needs[x], and that the Anthropocene calls for a new understanding of human-environment relationships, using RVs to understand human-nature relationships may be more appropriate for the Anthropocene era. Through my project, I aimed to explore this potential in the context of UA in Korea.

Description1Nature has value, independent of peopleBeing in nature brings people a physical benefit, or satisfactionBeing in nature is a vehicle to connect with others; Care for land is fulfilling and helps lead a good life
Example of Value Statement2Nature has value in its own right, independent of human uses.It is important to protect nature so that we can have clean air and water.How I manage the land, both for plants and animals and for future people, reflects my sense of responsibility to and so stewardship of the land.
Example scenarioConservation biologist advocates for the preservation of an ecosystem with minimal human interference.The city planner elects to utilize box planters and green roofs to combat the urban heat island effect and protect residents’ health.Fisherman feels a responsibility to stop fishing during egg hatching season because this is his family’s tradition and he believes it is part of what makes a responsible fisherman.

1Based on Chan et al. 2016, Figure 1.

2Based on Klain et al. 2017, Table 1.

<Table 1> Examples of intrinsic, instrumental and relational values

Placing the researcher

     I enrolled in Anthropocene Studies knowing that I wanted to study UA in Korea, but truthfully, it was not so easy to build up the courage to get out and interview cultivators and educators right away. I knew I wanted to challenge myself to conduct research and interviews in Korean, but I worried about my abilities and if people would understand my motivations when I was still in the exploratory phase of my research myself. With that said, I am truly grateful to my wonderful 선배들 who encouraged me to go out and pursue my interests, giving me great tips and advice as I set out to conduct my research. As researchers, we strive to be neutral and not influence any of our interviewee’s opinions or the information they want to communicate with us. One of the biggest challenges I found is the difficulty of becoming somewhat of an “actor,” coming into a space and talking to people and letting them know about your interests. This can be especially true as a foreigner who can’t help but stand out a bit. For instance, at the educational event I attended, I was introduced as “the first foreigner to participate in one of the Center’s programs,” which made it a bit easier to introduce myself to fellow participants and ask about their motivation for attending the event, but also called additional attention to my presence. Other than Prof. Lee, I conducted all interviews in Korean, and I could tell that my interlocutors were sometimes conscious to not use overly difficult vocabulary, or would elaborate on concepts that might not need further explanation in conversations between two native speakers. Additionally, if I felt that I might miss something important, I would ask my interviewees to repeat ideas or speak a bit more slowly. While I do think that my identity as a foreigner impacted the way the cultivators and UA educators interacted with me and the questions they had, overall, I do not think that my identity or language barriers impacted the results of my work. I am very grateful for how accommodating my interviewees were and how patiently they explained their urban cultivation experiences.

Urban Agriculture in Korea and the Daejeon Agricultural Technology Center

Following a trend of “weekend farming” (주말농장),  practiced by urban residents on public plots outside city limits starting around the mid-2000s, UA within city limits also experienced a resurgence. In 2011, Korea passed the National Act on Development and Support of Urban Agriculture (UA Act) and within five years following the Act’s passage, UA participation in Seoul increased six-fold.[xi]The UA Act focuses on “community building” and supporting “nature-friendly urban environments.” Although Korea has a long and complicated history with agriculture, I make a distinction here in focusing on the UA movement that arose in the mid-2000s and has become a policy focus with the passage of the UA Act.

In 2020, the Seoul Urban Agriculture Expo was re-named the Seoul International Conference on Urban Agriculture, and shifted in focus from the local Seoul movement to UA’s global role, inviting “urban farmers around the world to join the dialogue of responding to climate change through farming.” The 2021 Conference I attended was entitled “Climate Farmers Saving the City and Earth.” According to the official website, “the programs of the conference this year were designed based on Cheonjiin (천지인, 天地人), the traditional philosophy in Korean that calls for the harmony of the sky (the heavens), the land (the Earth), and humans (the sentient beings)”. Therefore, each of the three days was themed around these three components, with speakers from Korea and one international speaker per day. The Conference was organized and moderated by key figures in the Korean UA movement. At the national level, UA civil society activists play a crucial role in UA promotion and policy-making. UA non-profits tend to operate in the middle ground between the government and individual cultivators, hoping to “design communities and nurture socially responsible behavior.” [xii]

In Daejeon, there are 29 community garden locations officially run by the district governments, serving 1,483 plotholders.[xiii] The Care Farm at the Center consists of 110 citizen plots and 30 plots set aside for cultivators with disabilities and their families. Residents can apply through a competitive lottery system, with about a 1:4 ratio of selection. How employees at the Center view their role and the role of the Center has a rich historical background because the Agricultural Technology Centers were originally established under Japanese colonial rule to improve agricultural technology in rural areas, and the UA education programs at the Center only began 11 years ago, aligning with the passage of the UA Act. There are 170 such Centers throughout Korea. During my interview with Prof. Lee, he expressed the opinion that the Centers lost some of their strength due to rural agrarian population decline. To protect jobs, Centers across the country have shifted their focus to UA education and community gardening programs. The Daejeon Center offers a 40-hour UA starter course, a 100-hour “expert track” that qualifies graduates to work in school gardens and community centers, and special programs once per month such as the one I attended. The Center employees I spoke with relayed their pride over the success of such programs in Daejeon.

<Figure 3> “Care Farm,” where I spoke with UA cultivators and educators

The conflicted role of UA: From locally-grounded relationships to planetary aspirations

     “I recently quit my job, so I have more time for hobbies now. Do you know ‘makgeolli’ (traditional Korean rice wine)? I’m also making my own makgeolli. All the plants I try to grow usually die, so I wanted to take this class and try again,” the woman sitting next to me at the topiary-making event, in perhaps her early forties, informed me. At every step of the topiary-making process, she tended to her plants carefully and expressed the hope that she would be able to care for them well once she took them home. Indeed, “relational values are not present in things but are derivative of relationships and responsibilities to them.”[xiv] In this case, the woman was deriving meaning from her responsibility to care for her new topiary, as compared to valuing it for its ability to protect her from air pollutants, as described to us at the beginning of the class.

     At the end of the class, the instructor had us go around and name our newly-planted topiaries. I was one of only three out of the 20 other women in the class who did not name their topiaries after a child, grandchild, or pet. I do not point this out to highlight the anthropomorphizing of plants, but rather to show again that RVs can connect people to nonhumans through other “preferences or principles about/based on meaning-saturated relationships.”[xv] If relationships with family are one of the most important parts of these women’s lives, and caring for their topiary makes them think of their family members, they are valuing these plants not for something that they can materially gain from them, but for the “meaning-saturated relationship” with the plant itself.

<Figure 4> My new friend from the topiary-making class, named “Suzy”

Still, instrumental values, associated with valuing nature based on its ability to meet one’s needs, appeared in cultivators’ motivations as well. This aligns with recent research that found RVs and instrumental values often exist together in agricultural systems.[xvi] My conversations with class participants at the Center, the Center employees, and Prof. Lee indicated that many urban agriculturists begin their practice to seek therapeutic or nutritional health benefits. Ms. Jang, the cultivator whom I interviewed after the class, began taking courses and cultivating a plot at the Center because of her interest in horticultural therapy and believes that cultivating can help ease stress levels. As with both RV examples above, the instrumental valuation urban agriculturists derive from their practice often takes place at individual, family, or community scales, and does not bridge over to concerns about larger planetary crises such as the desire to decrease carbon emissions or preserve biodiversity.

At the International Conference, a contrast emerged in the values expressed by the speakers, working at the local level, and those expressed by the Conference hosts and stated goals of the conference. While at both levels, RVs and instrumental values were expressed in tandem, the scale was different. For instance, cultivator Young-ran Jang explained the following in her presentation entitled Farming in Accordance with Nature, “It is much more effective to write my observations of nature in my immediate vicinity… the most important thing to notice is the changes in the place where you live…if not, you will not be able to properly observe the rhythm of nature.” According to the contents of her presentation, Ms. Jang valued her practice through the connection she felt to nature (relational value) and the health benefits (instrumental value) she experiences from her practice. The “nature” she connects with and values is the tangible nature she can touch and experience around her, not natural forces at the planetary scale, which indeed is a difficult scale for humans to comprehend.[xvii]

     Yet, based on the Conference title, the presenters and attendees were “Climate Farmers.” Value orientations have been used to explain conservation behaviors, and RVs offer a new perspective because they encompass sources of well-being that come from connecting with the natural system.[xviii] While many of the UA activists shared cultivation origin stories that were similar to those of the class participants I spoke to at the Center, their practice ultimately led them to care about the systems outside of their garden, and turned to ways in which UA can combat climate change or provide a healthier way of living for humans beyond themselves or their families. This was supported by my conversation with Prof. Lee, who told me he found cultivators do not typically begin their practice because of their interest in protecting nature or combatting climate change, but as they continue cultivation “they reflect and try to re-shape their lives to be friendlier to the earth. It’s not their motivation [for starting UA] but kind of a reflexive process.” In this sense, while RVs such as connections with loved ones and the land, and instrumental values such as mental or physical health benefits, coexist at the national level, they take on a different scale. Concern for family becomes a concern for humanity, concern for the natural systems in one’s garden becomes a concern for planetary threats, and the health benefits of cultivation are shared in front of larger audiences. On one hand, this broadening of values can create a chasm between the goals and motivations of UA activists and average urban cultivators. However, it also shows that, even if most urban farmers do not experience a consideration or concern for planetary changes, a subsection of the UA population in Korea does gain an interest in these issues, showing potential for the planetary scale to emerge as urban farmers continue their practice.

In sum, relational and instrumental values co-exist within the Korean UA movement from the local to national levels. Specifically, at the local level, these values appear more frequently as leisure, health and family connections, mediated through cultivators’ relationships with their plots. At the national level, similar values are expressed by individual representatives of UA practices, while UA activists and researchers find value in UA’s place in solving planetary-level crises such as the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Intrinsic values of nature are not expressed at either level, consistent with the fact that UA is a practice that aims to actively work with natural systems rather than preserve or passively observe them.

Discussion and Future Directions

I am fortunate to be able to continue this research through the Center for Anthropocene Studies here at KAIST. During the semester, my only interactions with UA activists in Korea were through their addresses at the International Conference and my interview with Professor Lee. To strengthen future work and understand the motivations and values of UA activists more fully, I will perform semi-structured interviews with key UA activists, whose contact information I was fortunate to obtain through Professor Lee. Further, I plan to interview more urban cultivators at the Center and attend more educational courses as an active participant. Essentially, I need more data to better understand the more-than-human knowledge structures and values involved in UA practices in Korea. My plan is to continue collecting data and synthesizing new findings throughout the Spring 2022 semester.

Living in the Anthropocene calls for a better understanding of human-nonhuman relationships and how humans consider and value the nonhumans around them. UA as a research target is highly relevant to the Anthropocene question, as urban agriculturists consciously choose to interact with the land through their practice. Farmers begin their practice with unique motivations, learn through and with the land and their communities, and derive different values from cultivation. Understanding these motivations, educational processes, and values could help inform UA policies that better support urban cultivators, and further understanding of how human-nonhuman relationships are formed and maintained through urban cultivation systems.

[i] Lewis, S.L., and Maslin, M.A. (2015), “Defining the Anthropocene”, Nature, Volume 519, pp. 171–80.

[ii] Crutzen, P.J. (2006), “The ‘Anthropocene’”. In: Ehlers E., Krafft T. (eds) Earth System Science in the Anthropocene. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

[iii] Hamilton, C. (2017), Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin.

[iv] Muraca, B. (2011), “The Map of Moral Significance: A New Axiological Matrix for Environmental Ethics”, Environmental Values, Volume 20, pp. 375–96.

[v] Stålhammar, S., and Henrik T. (2019), “Three Perspectives on Relational Values of Nature.” Sustainability Science, Volume 14, pp. 1201–12.

[vi] Klain, S.C., Olmsted, P., Chan, K.M.A. and Satterfield, T. (2017), “Relational Values Resonate Broadly and Differently than Intrinsic or Instrumental Values, or the New Ecological Paradigm”, PLOS ONE, Volume 12.

[vii] Chan, K.M.A, Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., Chapman, M., Díaz, S., Gómez-Baggethun, E., Gould, R. et al. (2016), “Opinion: Why Protect Nature? Rethinking Values and the Environment”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 113, pp. 1462–65.

[viii] Chan, K.M.A., Gould, R.K., and Pascual, U. (2018), “Editorial Overview: Relational Values: What Are They, and What’s the Fuss about?”, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 35, pp. A1–A7.

[ix] Klain, S.C., Olmsted, P., Chan, K.M.A. and Satterfield, T. (2017), “Relational Values Resonate Broadly and Differently than Intrinsic or Instrumental Values, or the New Ecological Paradigm”, PLOS ONE, Volume 12.

[x] Jones, K., and Tobin, D. (2018), “Reciprocity, Redistribution and Relational Values: Organizing and Motivating Sustainable Agriculture.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 35, pp. 69–74.

[xi] 「Masterplan of Seoul Urban Agriculture 2.0. 」,

[xii] Lee, J-Y. (2016), “Urban Community as a Contested Practice: A Gap between Ordinary Practices and Civic Advocacy Discourse”, Journal of the Association of Korean Geographers, Volume 51, pp. 269–81.

[xiii] 「공동체텃밭 조성사업」,

[xiv] Chan, K.M.A, Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., Chapman, M., Díaz, S., Gómez-Baggethun, E., Gould, R. et al. (2016), “Opinion: Why Protect Nature? Rethinking Values and the Environment”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 113, pp. 1462–65.

[xv] Chan, K.M.A., Gould, R.K., and Pascual, U. (2018), “Editorial Overview: Relational Values: What Are They, and What’s the Fuss about?”, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 35, pp. A1–A7.

[xvi] Jones, K., and Tobin, D. (2018), “Reciprocity, Redistribution and Relational Values: Organizing and Motivating Sustainable Agriculture.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 35, pp. 69–74.

[xvii] Hamilton, C. (2017), Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin.

[xviii] Klain, S.C., Olmsted, P., Chan, K.M.A. and Satterfield, T. (2017), “Relational Values Resonate Broadly and Differently than Intrinsic or Instrumental Values, or the New Ecological Paradigm”, PLOS ONE, Volume 1

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