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Active citizenship in green space governance

  • Mattijssen, Thomas
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2018
Wageningen University and Researchcenter Publications
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BackgroundThe role of authorities in green space decision-making and management is increasingly supplemented with activities from citizens. Research has shown how citizens across Europe nowadays engage in a wide variety of practices to accomplish their green space-related objectives. In this way, citizens contribute to the management of protected natural areas, rural landscapes and urban green spaces.The current focus on active citizenship in green space governance brings about important debates. This includes discussions about how to best govern and protect our green spaces. There are also democratic debates about the roles and responsibilities of different actors in green space governance. While citizens potentially contribute towards the realization of public policy, their objectives can also clash with the formal responsibilities and preferences of authorities. There might also be tensions between and inequalities among citizens.Thesis aims and research questionsThis PhD-project specifically focuses on forms of governance in which active citizens play a leading role in realizing, protecting and/or managing public green space. The main research aim is to contribute to scientific and societal debates on active citizenship in green space by studying its relevance for the governance, management and protection of green space. For this purpose, four main research questions have been formulated to address four main knowledge gaps regarding the involvement of active citizens in green space governance:What are the overall scope and key characteristics of active citizenship in green space governance?What are the benefits and co-benefits of different types of active citizenship in green space governance?What factors contribute to or constrain the long-term continuity of active citizenship in green space governance?How can the transformative potential of active citizenship in green space governance be understood?Research approachThis PhD-research focuses on the study of daily practices that involve active citizens in green space governance. To do so, this thesis departs from the Policy Arrangement Approach (PAA) and enriches it with elements from practice theory in order to tailor it towards this study of daily practices.The Policy Arrangement Approach is an established analytical framework used to study the governance of natural resources through four analytical dimensions: actors (those involved in governance), discourse (the content and verbal aspects of governance), rules (guiding principles that govern actions of actors) and resources (tools and skills used to achieve certain outcomes). By adopting elements from practice theory this thesis adds a focus on human activities as a fifth dimension. It also adds a stronger recognition of the constitutive role of materiality in practices and an emphasis on the ends to which practitioners orient their activities.I argue that a deeper understanding of the role and relevance of active citizenship in green space governance requires both a broader overview of the scope of these practices and a deeper understanding of specific practices. In order to do so, I used a 3-layered framework for this thesis. This started with a broad inventory and analysis of 264 different practices in order to gain an overview of their characteristics and diversity. The second layer progressed upon this with a detailed qualitative analysis of a subsample of 50 practices in order to gain more reliable knowledge and a deeper understanding of these practices. In the third layer, four case studies have been conducted to gain in-depth knowledge on a number of specific issues.The scope and key characteristics of active citizenshipWhen I started with this thesis, there was a scarcity of good quality baseline data on the nature and diversity of active citizenship in green space governance. The analysis of 264 examples of active citizenship across the Netherlands in layer one of this thesis gives a good overview of the variety of ways in which active citizens engage in green space governance. They for example aim to protect the habitat of an endangered species or manage land within a nature reserve. However, improving social cohesion through community gardening or providing access to a woodland can be important objectives just as well. Active citizenship in the green domain thus often works across traditional policy silos and crosses borders between nature, culture and social domains.This study on the scope and key characteristics of active citizenship highlights that most of the practices in which citizens engage are small scale; they are usually limited to local areas spanning no more than a few hectares, and often much less. Most of the active citizenship in green space governance takes place outside of protected reserves, often in (peri-)urban areas. It also shows that citizens do not always engage in the actual management of green space. In contrast to most previous studies, this research highlights the additional relevance of political activities such as lobbying and protesting, as these activities are important means for citizens to accomplish their objectives.Active citizenship is often linked with other actors in the public domain. Citizens often cooperate with local authorities and NGOs, and occasionally also with business actors such as farmers. Funding from local authorities can be an important source of income, as well as sponsoring by companies and private donations. In many practices, involved citizens donate their own money and sometimes revenues are generated through delivering products and services.The benefits and co-benefits of active citizenshipThe detailed qualitative analysis in layer two addresses a lack of insight into the outcomes produced by active citizens. This makes it difficult to comprehend the implications of a shift towards active citizenship for the natural environment and the population.The analysis shows how the large majority of the 50 practices contribute towards ecological benefits, such as biodiversity, urban greening, landscape restoration, expansion of green space areas, or species protection. This large majority also contributes towards socio-economic co-benefits, such as environmental awareness and the use functions of green space (accessibility, recreation, amenity). Other co-benefits relate to social cohesion, food production, employment and the protection of cultural aspects of the landscape. The exact benefits and co-benefits strongly depend on the type of practice.The practices in this study generally generate benefits on a much smaller scale than those of authorities and large NGOs. While green self-governance does contribute towards realizing environmental and social objectives, this contribution is therefore mostly of local relevance. It is also important to be aware of potential tensions between benefits and co-benefits related to the activities of active citizens, for instance when an increase in recreation negatively affects biodiversity. Furthermore, citizens are not always successful in accomplishing their objectives and the activities of citizens can also produce outcomes considered as negative.The long-term continuity of active citizenshipIn the studies in layer one and two citizens expressed concerns about the long-term continuity of active citizenship in green space governance. This was an important motivation for me to conduct three European case studies into place-keeping, the long-term responsive management of places, in order to preserve the qualities and benefits that a place offers.These cases show how citizens can manage public green spaces over multiple decades. While similar examples are rare, such cases can provide important inspiration for other groups that aim to protect certain green values in the long term. They show how citizens can develop an inspiring idea, mobilize fellow citizens, realize a green space and maintain it over time. Even so, these studies also highlight how even after several decades, groups still struggle to continue their activities. Changing policies such as declining subsidies, urban development such as encroachment, and the ageing of volunteers all put pressure on the continuity of citizens’ activities.A number of important lessons for continuity can be distilled from these cases. First of all, long-term continuity is supported by a degree of formalization: established rules and internal procedures provide stability to citizens. Secondly, the importance of adaptive capacity is also underlined: citizens need to be able to respond and adapt to political, socio-economic and cultural developments over time. Third, authorities play a key role in place-keeping by citizens: their long-term support can provide stability to citizens, but they can also constrain citizens when they change their policies. The transformative potential of active citizenshipTensions between the activities of citizens and the role of authorities are manifest throughout this thesis. Prior research shows that active citizens are often hindered by institutions and often face difficulties in scaling up beyond the local level. I therefore conducted an in-depth case study on how citizens can transform practices in governance and reshape the relationship between citizens and (local) authorities.This fourth and final case study shows how discourses and activities promoted by citizens became embedded in spatial planning and green space management. This instigated institutional changes, and showcases a transformative potential in both substance (redevelopment of a green space) and governance (co-creation). Yet, this study also highlights the persisting influence of institutionalized rules and procedures. Institutional change in local governance is often a slow and complex process, in which citizens need to align with the institutions that they want to change in order to be able to instigate these changes. This conditions the activities of citizens, reducing their autonomy.Even so, transformation in governance is not necessarily a matter of citizens striving to realize their objectives vis-à-vis authorities trying to realize theirs. Instead, this study shows that when certain ways of working are under pressure, when motivations align towards a shared end-goal, and when there is a shared sense of urgency, transformation can take place through co-creation between citizens and authorities. In this, the success of practices that involve active citizens in governance can clear the way for involvement of citizens in other practices, eventually instigating a gradual rather than disruptive change in how society is locally governed.DiscussionThis thesis shows how citizens can make an important contribution to the governance and management of green space. Most practices are currently situated outside protected nature reserves, but they can enhance urban greening and biodiversity in the city or ensure the conservation of cultural elements in the landscape. Even so, the contribution of citizens to (inter)national policy goals and ecological networks is still relatively small, as the outcomes of active citizenship in green space governance are mostly limited to the local scale level.In the long run, co-benefits of active citizenship in green space may increase people’s connection and involvement with nature, leading to increased support for environmental protection. With this, co-benefits can provide a first step towards the realization of more direct benefits for nature conservation. After all, practices with an explicit focus on co-benefits often also produce benefits - and vice-versa. Relating to co-benefits can therefore be an effective strategy for governments or environmental NGOs aiming to involve active citizens in their work.From a democratic point of view, critical scholars have highlighted how authorities prefer to deal with citizens whose objectives correspond with their own policy aims. While authorities often aim to promote active citizenship in their discourse, this will sometimes put them at odds with citizens who pursue different goals. Conflicts between citizens and authorities often manifest themselves in my work, but such notions are often overlooked in the political discourse, which tends to focus on cooperative forms of active citizenship. My work also reiterates citizens’ dependency on authorities and shows how the continuity of their activities can depend on the role of local governments.Scholars have also been critical of the exclusion of non-active citizens in these debates. Previous research has shown how certain societal groups are less represented in active citizenship, and there are ongoing debates about how the costs and benefits of active citizenship in the green domain are spatially distributed. Authorities still have an important task to represent everyone, also disengaged or less successful citizens, to make sure that everyone has the chance to enjoy the benefits offered by green space. The fragmented nature and local scale of active citizenship also point towards a need for a continued central role of authorities in safeguarding green space values and realizing ecological networks.In this, active citizenship can offer a valuable addition to what governments do, contributing important benefits and co-benefits to the environment and the population. By strategically supporting or collaborating with active citizens, authorities can strengthen their contribution to policy objectives and stimulate direct forms of democracy. Over the long term, authorities can support place-keeping by citizens by providing security via stable policies, formally protecting the involved spaces, allowing long-term management contracts and contributing resources.In this context, the adoption of a more polycentric and context-sensitive approach to green space governance can help authorities in achieving their policy objectives. The diversity of active citizenship does not match with generic ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy and governing approaches of authorities. Rather, it calls for a flexible role of authorities in governance: in some instances authorities should have a leading role, in other instances an enabling or facilitating role, and sometimes a collaborative approach to governance is called for – all of this with sensitivity to the local context. 

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