(February 2011) Rethinking environmental protection from common experience: responsible collaboration between laypeople and planners.

Rethinking environmental protection from common experience: responsible collaboration between laypeople and planners. image
Despite the fact that the issue of preserving rich natural ecosystems usually perceive human activities as always destructive, Environmental Planners and Designers have learned to look at the interaction between humans and nature, deeply linked in a co-evolutionary and adaptive process, in a more open and creative way. Planning and Design are even called to innovate the way humans use land and resources, and conceive actions and projects toward a direction of de-growth. In this perspective, environmental planning is seen as a form of making good things happen ("active" preservation) instead of denying bad thing to happen ("passive" and top-down preservation).In this framework, the role of local communities, their attitude toward their own environment is crucial, and their internal relationships as well as their inputs to planning processes and decision making. In particular, it is crucial to understand the role played by different groups within apparently uniform communities: how can community members, experts and Institutions collaborate and share responsibilities, promoting democratic processes? How can the different kinds of knowledge belonging to each of these groups relate to each other, contributing to ecological matters?
My research is looking for ways of enhancing interactions among common inhabitants, experts and institutional representatives, in situations of particular ecological challenges, using the participatory action-research methodology. In particular, I belong to a University of Catania (Unict) research group that has been practising University engagement and service-learning  as way of helping: communities to perform reflective action; University to perform practical thinking.
I'm planning to remain involved in a process I am already familiar with, in the Simeto Valley (Eastern Sicily, Italy). About three years ago the Unict group has formed a partnership with a network grassroots Associations of the area committed to the preservation of the local river ecosystem threatened by polluting activities causing the loss of biodiversity and agricoltural decline. In an initial phase of the project, the partnership was interested in exploring local knowledge and hopes shared by inhabitants, as a way to conceive actions toward a more sustainable future of the valley. The exploration was made through a Community Mapping project, involving different actors. In conceiving the tools we used, we had been inspired by Lynch's studies on imageability; Bioregional mapping approach for empowering local communities; resource mapping techniques used in the participatory rural appraisal approach. Through Community Mapping, in one year, we were able to build a strategic plan for Simeto Valley, involving different actors (farmers, tourism operators, students and, in general, inhabitants, workers and users of the Valley) and affecting local Institutions. But this was just the first step of a work still in progress: we are know working for implementing some of the small but significant community projects identified by the community map.