Doing things differently

Alternative ways of thinking about nature, values and decision-making

While this ‘About’ section has tried to outline the key ideas about valuing nature and how these social values can play an important role in policy and decision-making, you’d be right in thinking it is still slightly unclear how these social values can make such an impact in the world of flood risk management. For example, flood risk management is a world that is dominated by risk assessments and engineering plans, where is there an even an opportunity to talk about ‘valuing rivers’?

On top of this though you might notice another problem. In flood risk management it is rare that decisions are made about the river itself but rather the decisions are made based on the homes that may be protected, the areas of towns, e.g. businesses that may be saved, and the various floodplains that may need to be managed differently. That’s all to say that even if there was space to value rivers in the decision-making process, should we not be talking about valuing rivers and the surrounding communities, places, people, habitats and species that relate to the river as well? Indeed flood management has historically been a prime example of the separation of nature from culture that has driven so much about our (referring to the ‘western world’s’) modern understandings of the way the world works. Separating the river off and keeping it confined to its banks has been the prime motivation for flood management with the thinking being that if water is confined then it can be controlled. Purseglove has brilliantly documented this historic relationship with rivers in the UK in ‘Taming the Flood; a history and natural history of rivers and wetlands’. This documents particularly the idea of rivers being seen as drains of land above all else. The result of this way of thinking can be a disassociation with the rivers that have defined where we live. Often, particularly in cities, people think of rivers as dead, dirty or unsafe. We often forget their existence entirely until those moments where they shock us and spill over into places where they shouldn’t.

So when we talk about valuing rivers, we seem to be actually talking about all of the relationships people and nature have with the rivers. Looking at valuing in this more ‘relational’ way rather than purely instrumental, that is, valuing what the use of the river is to us alone, can allow for a wider understanding of the importance of rivers that should be taken up in our decision-making.

This phenomenon of nature and culture being seen as separate, leading to ideas of rivers as drains, can also be challenged on an institutional level in terms of the governance of flooding. This relates to the decision-making process behind, in this instance, flood risk management. It is hard for decision-making processes to be challenged or done differently if the institutions aren’t designed to allow for this possibility. This project therefore looks to challenge the ways in which both valuing nature is understood but also to think differently about the way in which decisions are made. Walker and fellow researchers sum up all of these different aspects of flood management very well,

“…for floods and becoming flooded the process of assemblage involves the human and nonhuman; the `natural’ circulations, dynamics, and flows of water; the built infrastructures of containment and spaces of dryness; and the social values, meanings, and institutions through which flooded spaces are produced and to which actions of various forms are attached.”

Walker et al., 2011, ‘Assembling the flood: producing spaces of bad water in the city of Hull’, Environment and Planning A 43(10): pg.2307