Environmental Learning and Behavior

In the San Francisco Bay Area

How connected are residents of California’s
Bay area to the place they live?

How do they learn about environmental topics?

What types of ‘environmental behavior’ do they undertake?

Learn more about the Environmental Learning Group »The “Environmental Learning in the Bay Area” (ELBA) project is a multi-year project investigating these questions; more generally, the project explores how, why, where, and when people learn about the environment, and what motivates them to act sustainably.

In 2013, as one component of this larger project, in 2013 Dr. Nicole Ardoin and her research team worked with a professional survey company to speak to 1200 residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. This interactive site shares results from this survey.

Survey Details

  • The survey was conducted between July and September, 2014.
  • A Random Digit Dialing approach, calling both cellular telephones and land lines, was used.
  • The survey took, on average, 20 minutes to complete.
  • 7% of surveys were conducted in Spanish.
  • All respondents reported being residents of the 12-county region in Northern California known as the (larger) Bay Area.
  • The random sample is not entirely representative of Bay Area demographics.
    Respondents were demographically diverse, but our sample has more White/Caucasian and age-over-55 respondents than what would be expected based on demographic distribution.

Please explore a sample of our findings by using the interactive modules below:


Relationships between variables

The survey examined multiple concepts related to the environment, including:

  • Learning (how people learn about an environmental interest or concern; divided into 3 types)
  • Sense of Place (how connected people are to ‘their place’; scale of 0-10)
  • Environmental Behavior (how environmentally friendly people report their behavior to be; scale of 1-18)
  • Environmental Cconcern /No Concern (whether or not people reported having environmental issues related to their place that they are concerned about)
  • Activities/Interest (hobbies or interests related to nature or the outdoors; divided into a few categories)

Much research, including the Environmental Learning in the Bay Area project, explores how these concepts interact. Use the graphic below to compare these concepts with each other.

To explore this graphic:

  1. Select two variables to display by using the drop-down menus below.
  2. On the chart to the left, hover your mouse over the variable values to see how people’s response to one variable differed with respect to the other variable you selected.
Tips for the intrepid explorer

Sense of place is a social science concept that refers to individuals’ experiences of or attachment to their surroundings. Research has demonstrated that there seem to be different “dimensions” of that sense of place (e.g., biophysical, sociocultural, political-economic, and psychological). This research shows that people feel attachment to aspects of their places, and that those levels of attachment may differ by dimension.

Simple Counts

The survey included a small number of open-ended questions: questions that respondents could answer in their own words. For many of these questions, we organized these “free responses” into themes and categories.

Here we share categorizations of the themes to the responses by (right) types of outdoor activity people reported as their “favorite hobby or outdoor interest” and (below) types of environmental concerns people reported.

Top issues

Sense of Place and Scale of place

Given the rapid urbanization of the global population, we wanted to investigate how urbanity interacts with sense of place. Our research explored four dimensions of sense of place: biophysical, psychological, socio-cultural and political. We wanted to understand how these dimensions of sense of place relate to (a) the scale and related urbanity of what people consider to be “their place,” and (b) the actual degree of urbanity of where people live.

The results (demonstrated by the charts and described in words below) suggest a two-pronged approach to outreach and planning efforts: increasing engagement with “urban nature” and encouraging people’s perception of their place to be larger than the urban areas where they live.

Tips for the intrepid explorer

The graphs above demonstrate two findings:

  1. Urban dwellers rate their connections to the biophysical aspects of place lower than non-urban dwellers.
  2. People who perceive their place as confined to an urban area rated their connection to the biophysical aspects of place lower than those who perceive their place as a larger-scale region.

“Free time” visits

In one section of the survey, we asked respondents to share if they visit five different types of places (museums, zoos, parks, neighborhood parks, places for water-based activities) in their free time, and if so, how often they visit. These places can help people connect to their environment and to their place in a variety of ways. Understanding how often people visit, and any patterns in how visitation may interact with people’s backgrounds, may support the tailoring of environmental education and outreach activities to appropriate populations.

Attributions: Icons from the Noun Project: Anchor by Arthur Shlain, Rhinoceros by Luke Anthony Firth, artwork by Igor Gubaidulin, houses by McKinzie Madsen

To explore this graphic:

  1. Select a demographic characteristic from the drop-down menu at right..

Tips for the intrepid explorer

Consider if there seem to be patterns – that people with certain characteristics seem more likely to engage in certain types of activities

Geographic distribution

Our respondents were equally distributed within the 12 counties of the bay area; we talked to 100 people per county (counties are outlined in red). We explored if there were patterns in some of our key variables based on where people live. We used people’s zip codes to place them in one of the regions displayed (zip codes are outlined in black).

To explore this graphic:

  1. Choose a key variable from the drop-down menu below.
  2. Observe how that variable’s values are distributed geographically.
Tips for the intrepid explorer

Patterns you might peruse for include:
1. Clustering of common responses (e.g., a high sense of place or low incidence of environment behaviors).

2. Patterns based on geographical features (e.g, perhaps people living nearer water provide different answers).

Demographic Distribution

As mentioned above, our 1200 respondents were diverse in age, ethnicity, gender, and income.

To explore this graphic:

  1. Select a demographic characteristic from the menu below. Observe the distribution of that characteristic as it relates to the ages of our respondents.
Toggle between relative
and absolute numbers:
Demographic Distribution

Select one of the attributes from the dropdown to see its distribution across the six age groups. You can furthermore switch between absolute and relative values to better compare the differences within the groups.


The Environmental Learning and Behavior in the San Francisco Bay Area project is ongoing. We are currently working on multiple papers, drawing data from this survey and other aspects of the project (Community Listening Sessions, interviews, case studies, and an organizational network analysis). Papers in progress or in review cover topics including:

  • The relationship between “scale of place” and sense of place;
  • The dimensions of environmental concern;
  • The prevalence of waste management issues in people’s perception of environmental action;
  • The relationship between environmental behavior and sense of place;
  • The contexts and processes of environmental learning in everyday life;
  • The barriers to environmental behavior;
  • The factors moderating the link between environmental learning and environmental behavior.

The Bay Area population is diverse, socially and ecologically, and our results reflect that diversity. As evidenced above, our participants displayed wide variation in environmentally-related behaviors, participation in outdoor activity, environmental concern, and mechanisms of environmental learning. We hope you have enjoyed exploring data from the individuals generous enough to share their time and thoughts with our research team. We genuinely thank our participants, in the survey and in the other aspects of this project, for helping us to understand more about the connections between environmental learning and environmental behavior.

And importantly, we also thank you for visiting our website!

If you have questions or comments related to the work shared above, you can contact Dr. Ardoin and her team at socialecology@stanford.edu