Community Voices: Building Culture for Better Natural Resource Management

By Tonya L. Ketza

Our species has had a long history of causing ecological destruction (Vugt, 2009)

Since the industrial revolution, particularly within western cultures, we have seen ever increasing negative impacts of human behaviors on ecological systems. However, our species is unique in our ability to emote and express creatively. This is what influences our cultures and culture shapes human behaviors. Thus, by influencing culture, behaviors can be shaped and cultural influence becomes a tool for better natural resource management and ecological preservation.

Infrastructure describes a set of conditions within which human action plays out. These human actions are the cornerstone of culture and therefore infrastructure plays a key role in shaping culture and human actions. Cultural infrastructure can be built or physical elements that reflect cultural values and reinforcing connection (Bingham-Hall & Kaasa, 2017). They can also promote protection by creating barriers against poor value practices or conversely encourage fair value practices (McKenzie-Mohr & Smith). Cultural infrastructure can also be systems or organizational structure, which are sometimes referred to as silent infrastructure. They provide opportunities to connect with values and can be things like shifting policies, processes, or educational frameworks (Brugg, 2002).

How is cultural infrastructure constructed? There have been several social and behavioral studies that have led to some good frameworks upon which to build a cultural infrastructure plan. One such construct proposes four core motives and points for interventions: Information, Identity, Institutions, and Incentives (Vugt, 2009). Another proposes a community level approach with removal of barriers to beneficial behaviors whilst enhancing the real or perceived benefits of the behavior (McKenzie-Mohr & Smith). An important aspect of constructing cultural infrastructure is the process of creative placemaking (Fox & Bennett, 2021). This process encourages the inclusion of artists in project planning and designs as their expertise and viewpoint can help to envision new and culturally relevant possibilities. They can help to design visitor experiences that help a community to understand, connect, and design for culturally relevant multipurpose and enhance project aesthetics.

What components of natural resource management can benefit from cultural infrastructure? Natural resource is a broad category of natural assets that can be used to benefit humans. Major categories include water, soil, air, and minerals. Maintaining supply and access to these resources is vital to our species’ survival and the foundation of most management plans. Often the management of one resource will influence another. An example of this is within the remote Hawaiian Islands. Most of its native aquatic species are endemic and endangered (Nishimoto, 2021). This creates competitive stress for the native species and good water quality is needed to promote their survival. For example, coral reefs constitute the key foundation to Hawaii's marine food chains, and they are particularly sensitive to changes in water quality. But pollutant loading from land runoff onto reefs is debilitating to the survival of these systems. Through better stormwater management - which is also important to mitigate flood hazards, protect groundwater resources, and surface water recreation - loadings can be reduced providing better survival rates for coral reefs and fish stock (Shore et al., 2021).

A key aspect to the success of any management plan is a robust and active stakeholder advisory group. Stakeholders include agency managers from federal, state, and local municipal agencies that directly oversee resource management such as from the federal, state, and local governments. This also includes nonprofit resource managers; historic preservation agents; and arts and culture agency managers. Other important stakeholders are researchers, natural resource monitors, behavioral scientists, and technical experts such as designers and engineers.

To assess management needs and relevant cultural interfaces, managers should gather and analyze data to identify key concerns and problem sources. Then, determine the barriers and benefits for actions towards those cultural interfaces. Regular sampling to identify key issues and their causes and the use of a robust modeling system will help in the selection of actions to prioritize (Jager & Mosler, 2007).

Once a stakeholder group is formed and target cultural interfaces prioritized, cultural infrastructure can be selected to develop influences aimed to shape desired behaviors. There are several intersections in natural resource management programs that require human interaction and therefore can be influenced by cultural infrastructure. The focus of this review will be on these program categories: Public education and outreach; planning and new development; and public agency activities (City of La Habra Heights, 2017). Applying constructs for developing cultural infrastructure within these programs should have influence over these functional categories to improve resource quality, source controls, and sustainability.

Some examples within the public education and outreach category include the installation of informational graphics around best practices or including interactive components into build designs that provide information and influence community culture.

Planning and new development cultural infrastructure includes the design and installation of green infrastructure that captures and treats pollutants. By placing more green spaces into a community, it will shape cultural action by providing an environment for which green friendly cultural actions can take place. Fundamentally, providing the community something to connect with and protect integrates the importance of a resource into the culture. Another is purposefully designing installations that provide an opportunity for community interactions around the desired behavior, a place to engage and instill these practices.

Cultural infrastructure within activities of public agencies include the sharing of information about resource protection with schools and other organizations. Encouraging them to build cultural interfaces that are relevant to resource protection on their site and use these with their educational or outreach programs. Another is revamping existing systems to infuse outreach with culturally relevant best practices in a way that provides a space for creative learning and expression. Finally, assessing all governmental systems infrastructure that has interfaces with the resource. Then, within those identified systems, inserting policies that require incorporating creative learning expressions of the identified culturally relevant best management practices. This should create new systems that better align with accomplishing the goal and vision of management plans.

Measuring and reporting on the resulting influence of these kinds of cultural infrastructure is important to justify investment in their ongoing use. Measuring the cultural influence of these efforts generally rely on more sociological markers than analytical parameters. But it is recommended to include analytical monitoring and other quantitative field studies to track concrete changes to resources being managed. This provides the opportunity to determine if there are any measured outcomes connected to cultural influences. Some examples of relevant assessments for cultural influences include tracking the outcomes from an advisory group. Such as, the diversity and quantification of members and the number of strategies and projects they recommend. This data should inform and support managerial decisions, ensuring that the number of culturally relevant site-specific management objectives are developed and tracked. Another is to track the number of culturally relevant components incorporated into project installations and the number and diversity of purposes integrated into the project design (City of Santa Maria, 2016) This will help ensure better integration of what is culturally relevant to the community including unintended quality of life measures, such as community health goals or strategies. Including these other purposes within the cultural interactions will ensure greater reach, appreciation, and manifestation of the managerial goals. Other assessments include tracking the number of projects that have multiple partners; the number of studies and projects implemented; and the number of engaged residents. Finally, to track the success of culturally relevant systems an assessment of improved resident awareness and understanding of the resource management practices and protections can be captured through surveys (Flora et al., 1999).

An important aspect of the successful use of cultural infrastructure within a resource management plan is to review all assessments and adapt accordingly. There are a number of uncertainties around cultural variations and their influences on resource management. The uncertainty between what actions can influence cultural behaviors should be reduced as resource parameters, behavioral actions, and community understanding are monitored, and these interactions assessed. This is accomplished using traditional resource and behavioral science-based monitoring methods. This model of predicting cultural influence over behavioral outcomes that impact resource parameters is accomplished by comparing actual community engagement and awareness with field behavioral and resource monitoring analyses. Resource monitoring, field behavioral data and community engagement and awareness data collected in post-decision monitoring are used in updating uncertainties about cultural influence, behavioral changes, and resource impacts. As uncertainties about the relationships between cultural influences and behavioral changes that affect resources are reduced, managers will be able to adjust the cultural infrastructure measures needed to meet management objectives and facilitate broader managerial learning. Ultimately providing additional tools and understanding of practices to effectively manage resources and protect ecological systems.


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The views discussed in this article are those of the contributing author and do not reflect those of the APA Hawai‘i Chapter.