The aim of this paper was to present the challenges and suggest solutions in online documentation on emerging topics in fields concerned with the territory. To reach this aim, we chose the topic of urban bioregions in Romania. Lack of scientific literature produced in Romania about urban bioregions proved that the topic was suitable to explore as to describe the research process. This research was conducted at the Faculty of Geography, Babeş-Bolyai University, in Cluj-Napoca. We established the following steps: to identify papers on the topic from the international literature; to make a selection of the most relevant ones according to the definition of the urban bioregion; to identify case studies in Romania, considering the case studies described in the international literature; to describe the challenges and solutions in the documentation process. The research material consisted of a detailed description of the documentation process realised on the topic of urban bioregions. Results showed that conducting research on an emerging topic required a flexible, innovative attitude in data gathering and assessment process, as well as knowledge from related research fields. Moreover, in this case, of researching urban bioregions in Romania, it was not recommended to limit the survey to academic research papers, but to consider further online sources.
Keywords: E-learningweb sourcesuniversity educationregional geographydevelopmentCOVID-19
In the study of Regional Geography, various types of regions are approached with students, both through theory and practice (i.e., case studies). Students’ competence level to identify specificity features of places and regions is crucial, especially when using online information for research on a certain topic (Magdaș et al., 2018). In this process, of identifying territorial specificity features and geographical processes, the professor’s supervision and feedforward is a key issue for increasing learning efficiency (Dulamă & Ilovan, 2016).
Similarly, to previous research, we started from the premise that the student’s level of competence in Geography was a key variable in the correct assessment of information quality and in information use (cf. Ilovan et al., 2018; Ilovan, 2019), besides access to valuable web sources on a certain topic. Student’s level of competence in the field is even more important if the approached topic is an emergent one. Therefore, for this research, we selected a student (the third author of this paper) based on his high competence level in Geography, demonstrated in previous face to face activities.
His strengths were the transversal skills (oral communication, critical thinking, good identification and processing of information, good use of bibliographic references) and the competences specific to geography: data interpretation (planning and landscaping for development); space / field orientation; a good understanding of geographical processes; analysis / description of a geographical system; field mapping; territorial planning and development; elaboration of geographical studies.
Another variable, besides the student’s competence level, was the topic. In comparison to prevalent topics in Regional Geography, we chose an emergent one in research and practice, at the international level and more so for Romania. The topic is the
Focusing on creating more resilient and attractive settlements, bioregionalism was defined by various traits, as it “represents a diverse flow of concepts and ideas” (Fanfani & Duži, 2019, p. 2). These concepts and ideas include that of urban bioregion, sustainability, participative processes, fair resource management, urban-rural reciprocity, governance, community, etc. Bioregions are generally defined as “areas that share similar topography, plant and animal life, and human culture” (Harris et al., 2016, p. 71). However, the definition of the urban bioregion is complex and not so easy to grasp in a quantitative framework, as it is “a community centred regionally polycentric - civic organization and willingness” (Fanfani & Duži, 2019, p. 2). The concept of urban bioregion was assessed primarily as a model to aspire to and work for than as an already achieved aim:
“a model of re-framing the local development according to a self-relied approach. Here, the urban bioregion is mainly featured as a ‘choral’ economic system (Becattini, 2015), based on the territorial heritage, the latter being conceived either as environmental endowments and social contextual skills and knowledge. In this way the urban bioregion is also aimed to set conditions for the unfolding of processes of endogenous and placed-based development, a multi-purpose model underpinned by circular (Fanfani, 2018) and import replacing economies (Jacobs, 1984)” (as cited in Fanfani & Duži, 2019, p. 6).
“[…] a bioregional shaped economic scheme, especially rooted on the creation of reciprocity relationships between the citizens, protection and valorization of the local resources and heritage, in the framework of urban-rural mutuality” (Fanfani, 2018, p. 66).
Local, regional and global scales intersect in an urban bioregion, as in any type of region. However, because the creation of an urban bioregion is considered a participatory, bottom-up process and due to the peculiar attention given to fair networking at the local level and justness in all societal dimensions (i.e. social, economic and environmental), the balance proposed and created within urban bioregions is therefore challenging in both practice and theory for all interested stakeholders and researchers as well:
“A balance based on fairness, local participative and deliberative democracy, communitarian resources management and relying on a local market that connects in a selective and active way to the global markets inputs” (Fanfani, 2018, p. 63).
To sum up, bioregions have been conceptualized as integrated socio-territorial systems that include several components (economic, political, agro-environmental and related to the living) (Poli, 2017) and may be the ideal scale at which sustainability can be established in urban planning (Harrill, 1999).
Concerning teaching practices, the concept of bioregions has been introduced in the curriculum in many universities and community colleges in the United States to improve the quality of undergraduate education (MacGregor, 2013) and is regarded as the best way to conceive a community in teaching the theory and practice of communitarianism either in class (Ingalsbee, 1992) or in field courses (Fawcett, 2005).
Starting from this emerging research topic – the urban bioregion – a concept which is not elaborated enough upon in Romania, we conducted research on the working procedure – online research only – of a master student at the Faculty of Geography of Babeş-Bolyai University, in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Also, the subject underlines the need for people’s continuous education for democratic societal practices and development, at various spatial levels, and for a contribution of universities to inclusive solutions (Albulescu & Albulescu, 2014, 2015).
Starting from the premises that this subject is emerging in Romania and that there are no studies conducted by Romanian researchers, we asked ourselves if in Romania there are areas that have the characteristics of a bioregion, which correspond to the descriptions in the specialized literature abroad. We also found that students, even at the master’s level, have difficulty documenting a given topic. For students to develop the competence of documentation and information processing, we proposed to a master student to look for information on this subject. The purpose of his documentation was to create a solid information base and, starting from this, to evaluate whether in Romania there is openness and tendency to outlining the concept of urban bioregionalism. The data acquisition was made under certain constraints: the more recent the chosen subject is, the more increases the level of difficulty, challenge amplified by the restrictive conditions faced due to the health and societal crisis caused by COVID-19.
The research questions of this study are the following: How can university students conduct research on emerging topics in science and practice related to the territory using only online resources? What are the steps they go through while searching for sources? How do they select the most relevant sources for defining and describing the urban bioregion? How do they identify case studies in Romania that fit into the concept of urban bioregions? How do they primarily process the results? How does the professor guide the student?
Purpose of the Study
The aim of this paper is to analyse the research strategies and the applied data processing methods, to present the identified challenges and solutions in online documentation on new or emerging topics in fields concerned with the territory. We discovered the lack of scientific literature produced in Romania about urban bioregions and this proved to be an adequate topic to explore in order to describe the process of researching it under what we considered restrictive circumstances: an emerging topic and only online documentation.
Presentation of the documentation strategy created by the student and of the results obtained by applying it
Our research showed that the student created a strategy for researching the topic only online. He created a data research structure, for synthesis and conclusions which entailed three stages:
(ii) The actual research included the following steps:
A second search, this time using the keyword “urban bioregion”, generated 40 answers, which, according to WoS categories, fall in the following: ecology (27.5%), environmental sciences (20%), and with 12.5% each agriculture multidisciplinary, environmental studies and evolutionary biology. Out of the remaining categories, the ones related either with the field of geography or with studies on the urban area included 5% (meaning 2 papers) of the generated results on the topic: biodiversity conservation, geography, regional urban planning and water resources. Other categories, selected according to the above, included only one such paper. It was the case of: construction building technology, demography, environmental engineering, and physical geography.
Here, the student identified one highly cited paper (121 citations), from the field of ecology and physical geography, published in 2016, in
The student concluded that, according to the WoS results, the topic of urban bioregion was present in the scientific literature of Australia, the U.S.A., Canada, the U.K., Germany and Italy and learned about the main subtopics approached: a change in attitudes and lifestyles that would solve the environmental crisis, environmental stewardship, environmental health issues, the sustainability of the built environment, partnerships for sustainability between the city and the hinterland, protection of farmland against urbanization, restoration of ecological services, conservation of natural heritage, healthy and fair urban bioregions supported by place-based social approaches, sustainable food systems, urban community gardens, eco-architecture, etc.
(iii) Analysis and selection of academic sources and texts from the Romanian scientific literature
Analysis of the strategy used by the student
One can see a staged learning process, using only information accessible online. This process was the most time consuming, as short but relevant information was extracted from each article. The student found that in some papers, the first pages were lacking useful information, whereas in some chapters there was a different approach to the topic that was relevant. As an example, the work of Hartel et al. (2014) was quoted, a study based on the perception of the importance of the natural environment for rural development. Although at first there was no specific link with bioregions, the analysis and conclusions of this article provided information on important aspects of the rural environment, in terms of both natural resources and socially, all in the context of rural development. This paper highlighted the importance of the natural environment as a resource, along with the social relations among citizens and their perception of the future. These aspects bring together the communities under a shared rural identity, which facilitates the drawing of common development objectives in connection with other communities.
From an overall perspective, the student categorized his documentation process as a real challenge in many ways. There were many aspects that imposed difficulties in collecting information, in synthesizing them and achieving an overall picture related to the concept of “urban bioregionalism” at national level. A difficulty arose from the fact that this subject was not sufficiently treated in the Romanian literature. The difficulty of the searches was accentuated by the complexity of the subject, through its connections with other concepts tackled by the scientific community, such as: population dynamics in relation to urban-rural environments, the issue of functional structure between urban and rural areas, urbanization in rural development, regional development strategies, the concept of metropolitan area, etc.
Student’s processing of the results identified in the Romanian mass media (online mass media and web pages of some initiatives and projects)
Using keywords such as the notion of urban bioregion and the economic and social relations of society, a series of subtopics were established (Table
The first topic had a general character (Table
The following topics were specific (sub-topics defined by the student), being based on the main components of the society and the economic and social relations between them: crafts, transport infrastructure, metropolitan areas, peri-urban agriculture, agricultural and agro-industrial parks, urban agriculture and reducing pressure on the rural environment (Table
“Contrasting specialized literature that touched on the subject and provided more information directed to general studies, which offered solutions or theoretical concepts, in terms of information found in the online environment, the situation was completely different. In the case of media articles, we can no longer talk about theoretical concepts or solutions, but of examples of good practice among citizens or local governments, all in order to encourage such initiatives. At the same time, we find a lot of information that keeps the society up to date with the big projects launched by the administrations to put pressure and enable their realization” (M. Marin).
Due to the fact that in the media the character of the information is completely different regarding the scientific topics touched (the media articles being more focused on mentioning concrete examples of good practice), and diversified, the searches were much more detailed, with many more topics and good results, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Starting from an emerging research topic that is not documented enough in Romania, we conducted a research on the way of working – documentation only online – of a M.Sc. student, at the Faculty of Geography, Babeş-Bolyai University, under the guidance of a supervisor. This survey showed that in case of emerging topics of interest, with scarce scientific research to the topic, the process of data gathering with abstract terms leads to little success. The survey of mass media and further online platforms showcased the existence of practical approaches on the topic of urban bioregions in the everyday reality, the presence of the phenomenon in the preoccupation of citizens, civil society and local administrations, but yet lacking the theoretical background and study of the subject by the academia in Romania.
The delay in researching this topic by Romanian academia needs and can be partly compensated by the international publications. For that, students need adequate language skills. In addition, students’ counselling by professors is a key issue for successful research due to students’ need for initial feedforward on the topic and permanent counselling during the research process. Moreover, in doing research about emerging subjects, one should take in account other scientific fields, which might approach and reflect the topic of interest.
The research process of emerging topics is time consuming. The students should develop competences of speed-reading. Further on, basics for online research, the access to required technology, working internet connections, and relevant scientific data bases, should be provided.
One limit of the study is that this research was conducted using only two languages: English and Romanian. It may be that more relevant results for the international perspective would have been obtained if more languages would have been used (French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.).
Even though conducting research on an emerging topic shows similarities with the conventional research process (using key words, extending or narrowing down search concepts, addressing connected topics, etc.), it requires a flexible, innovative attitude in the data gathering and assessment process. Further on, it became clear that, in this case, of researching urban bioregions in Romania, it is not recommended to limit the survey to academic research papers, but to consider further online sources, while keeping in mind a critical analysis of the identified and gathered data.
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Ilovan, O., Dulamă, M. E., Marin, M., Răcăşan, B. S., Egresi, I., Havadi-Nagy, K. X., & Mutică, P. (2021). Online Documentation For Emerging Subjects In Geographical Research: The Urban Bioregions. In I. Albulescu, & N. Stan (Eds.), Education, Reflection, Development – ERD 2020, vol 104. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 268-281). European Publisher. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2021.03.02.29