The Dynamics of Public Participation in Ecological Restoration

Ecological restoration has become a popular form of citizen participation in environmental management. Especially in the urban areas, there are many opportunities for volunteers to help with restoration projects as a way to reconnect with nature. Started out as a volunteer at the UW Arboretum myself, I found the idea of “human assistance in ecosystem recovery” attractive and empowering. The more I got involved in the restoration activities; however, I realized that there are many inherent controversies in ecological restoration, both as an ideology and as a practice. Particularly, everyone involved in the process has his/her own ideas about nature and the proper role of humans in dealing with the natural environment. While an increasing number of restoration projects have been carried out through a collaboration of ecological scientists, professional practitioners, and the general public (as volunteers and concerned citizens), the internal dynamics and interactions among these various actors have little been addressed.

Existing literature on public participation in ecological restoration often champions the cultivation of citizen environmental stewardship and the intimate connections between people and nature brought by such experience. Although my studies also confirmed these positive influences from volunteering, a closer examination revealed some tensions between the “experts” and the “lay” volunteers. The fundamentally different interpretations of “nature”, “science”, and “public participation” in ecological restoration are the main sticking points for conflicts. Whereas the professionals regard ecological restoration as restoring the natural environment based on scientific practices, volunteers view restoration as restoring human-nature connections and care about the social, psychological, and educational benefits from participating in restoration projects. The unequal power relationship between experts and lay volunteers further widen the chasm between the actor groups.

To better engage all sides of the debate, my dissertation research addressed these diverse perspectives on ecological restoration from the standpoint of positionality. The research took a comparative case-study approach to explore the dynamics of public participation in ecological restoration in Madison, Wisconsin and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Integrating both qualitative and quantitative research methods, including participant observation, semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, publication analyses, and questionnaire surveys, my dissertation mapped out the knowledge-discourse-practice nexus of ecological restoration and to identify potential conflicts and spaces for integration among the various actor groups. By analyzing the dynamics among the social actors involved and addressing the challenges and opportunities for democratization, my research fostered dialogue between experts and lay volunteers and contribute to the recurring appeals for more integrative approaches in ecological restoration.