Valuing rivers

Social values about the environment? What (and where) on earth does that mean? 

This blog post will look to lay out some of the key ideas that the LWW project will explore and that may often come up in conversations and in workshops. Firstly, a look in more detail about what we mean by social values and secondly where we are referring to when we say about the environment ore when we refer to the rivers.  

Firstly, social values, in relation to sustainability and environmental management, is a very broad term which is becoming increasingly popular in the world of policy and decision-making. Generally, it refers to the way in which people (groups of individuals, communities of certain interests etc.) find the environment to be important. So, in response to the workshops, conversations, walks and talks that have been held as part the MCG series so far it seems a perfect opportunity to look at what has been said so far in terms of environmental values and more specifically social values. Of the many different ways to try and understand the expression of the importance of the environment (in this case, York’s rivers) have been expressed In these kinds of conversations, it is helpful to split these up into four categories (referred to as the Life Framework of Values) that are –  

a) How we live from the natural world – meaning the importance of the environment according to how it benefits us directly, e.g. food, energy, materials, physical or mental health etc. 

b) how we live in the natural world – referring to the environment as the stage of our life events, practices and cultures, and the foundation of our identities and relationships 

c) how we live with the natural world – acknowledging the planet’s existence long before and after us humans and the fact that we share this planet with the more-than-human world 

d) how we live as the natural world – this points out the way in which many communities around the world don’t see themselves as separate from the natural processes and look after the environment as much as the environment looks after them.  

Something to note here is the interchanging use of natural world and the environment. This brings us to the second point of this blog post, where on earth are talking about! Of course, the direct response to this question is that it depends on the context in question. Generally, when we talk of the importance of the environment, this is obviously quite a broad and vague word. The environment might mean the natural world, I.e. the habitats and species we consider the more-than-human or it might mean the built urban environment that we usually attribute to human construction. This distinction is a difficult one to consider in the world of heritage and conservation, especially in a country like the UK where there are few corners of the island that do not have a rich diverse history of tangled human-nature relationships. This is an important point to bear in mind when we talk of the ‘natural world’ in this context too, (as I have done above!) as this can often imply this sense of separation between the ‘human’ and ‘natural’ world even though we are increasingly aware of the complex, interdependent ways humans relate to the natural world.  

Furthermore, in environmental management, it is often that the term ecology is used instead of the environment. Ecology, meaning the study of the household (I like thinking of our planet as our household), looks more specifically at the relationships between different components of the environment. In turn, scientists start to look at the systems that are at play in sustaining life on our planet using the term ecosystems. Here there is often talk about the ‘functions’, as the ways in which ecosystems do things – I.e. control flows of energy, nutrients and water that support other ecosystems, and the ‘services’ of these ecosystems, meaning the ways in which these functions contribute to our (humanity’s) own existence – I.e. provide the food we eat, regulate the air we breathe etc. However these ‘services’ (I personally don’t like the term) can also refer to the way in which ecosystems can provide us with cultural benefits (leisure, inspiration, beauty, practices, traditions and customs etc.) that make up a fundamental part of our lives. Again this shows the way in which it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between that which is natural and that which is cultural as we often in turn shape our landscapes around us according to these benefits.  

Taken from here – This is one of my favourite maps (or even pieces of art!). It was created by Harold Fisk, a geologist who was working for US Army Corps of Engineers. It maps, one on top of the other, the varying courses of the Mississippi River from lots of different periods in time through the Alluvial Valley. It is the perfect demonstration of how dynamic and changing the ‘location’ of a river is over time.

Therefore, and part of the reason valuing the environment can be such a complex question, when we talk about valuing ‘the environment’ we are allowing for people to express any number of things we have just mentioned. In the LWW project we are talking about the rivers in York. However where does the river start and the land end? In the 2015 floods people reported the rivers coming up through washing machines while bore holes have shown the Ouse and the Foss to be connected underground near the confluence! What about the banks on the riverside or the floodplains and Ings? When taking about the social values of rivers we can refer to all of these things that are part of the make-up of these river ecosystems. So we may talk about someone valuing the act of sitting on a bench by the river as one ecosystem service benefit in the same way we may talk about enjoying a freshly caught fish that had been swimming in the river as another.  

This may of course seem all too obvious or apparent for some people. Or even for others it may seem far removed and irrelevant from local politics whilst when decisions are being made. However, it’s important to remember that whenever decisions are being made certain assumptions about value are being made too. Conventional (mainstream, neoclassical) economics assumes that we all value things according to their use (utility) to us (regarding only ourselves, not others in the community let alone other species) and this can easily be weighed up in making decisions using tools like Cost-Benefit Analysis. Sometimes this may be helpful but often it is too simplistic and doesn’t include the many other ways in which we might find something to be important (valuable). So, equipping ourselves with this language of valuation and way of understanding the many values of the environment allows us to see decisions a bit differently

Our rivers as veins not drains! A first glimpse at the social values of York’s rivers 

My Castle Gateway (MCG) conversations to date have often touched on the relationship between the Castle Gateway area and the two rivers, the Foss and the Ouse which converge around the ‘Eye of York’. While the Living Well with Water (LWW) project focuses on sites around the wider city of York, the themes that have emerged from the My Castle Gateway conversations have been instrumental both in the direction of this research project but also in understanding what it is people in York are concerned about with regards to the rivers they live with. Handily, for those who have attended MCG workshops, Helen and Phil’s passion for post-it notes have provided a record of these conversations so far (#everypostitcounts). These have in turn been ‘tagged’ according to the relevant topics on Flickr’s photo streaming platform. These post-its have been collected from the full range of workshops and event topics so far – drawing from the initial Open Brief asking people ‘What matters about the area to the people who use it?’ As well as walks through the Castle Gateway areas to understand how the spaces have been used in the past, what is there now and what people would like to see in the future.  

So I have typed up all of these ‘watery’ (river related) post-its and then analysed them on a programme called Nvivo. This programme essentially makes it easier to pick out themes that come up. The social values I was looking for become apparent when you start to see the themes that emerge as you are sorting through the notes. Social values are broadly people’s expressions of the importance of an ecosystem (the rivers in this case) not based simply on usefulness to themselves, but on a range of different reasons that refer to others – other people (e.g. community groups), other species etc.  

To understand a bit more about the types of values that have so far been expressed, I sorted (coded on Nvivo) the notes in to the four categories of importance according to the Life Framework of Value; living from, with, in and as the environment (as described in the post above but you can read more about this here). Essentially each of these frames show the broad categories of how the environment is considered to be important.  

It is important to note that values are often difficult things to express in conversations let alone on small post-it notes of 4 or 5 words each! In any case, take this blog post as a scratch at the surface! Of the many post-it notes collected so far, I identified 126 as being expressions of the rivers’ importance to people. The results are very exciting in that they show the wide array of ways in which people in York value the environment. There were 54 examples of values in the ‘living in’ category, 41 in the ‘living from’ category and 31 in the ‘living with’ category.  

To begin with, an overarching theme that has emerged in these conversations is that when talking about rivers in terms of management, people less frequently talked about flooding than they do other aspects of river management. In fact, of the 86 times the topic of ‘management’ was raised (in more or less direct fashion) people expressed more (74 times) concern towards the rivers’ water quality as well as ensuring more activities (I.e. access) take place on the rivers as opposed to measures to prevent flooding (12 times). This can be summed as a desire to celebrate the rivers as giving life to communities – the veins, as opposed to simply being there to wash away excess rain and waste – the drains of the city.  

So, with this in mind, what sort of things fell in to the ‘living in’ category? This category was filled with examples of people wanting to celebrate the river either through having riverside festivals or enjoying the arts barge. There are festivals of all kinds mentioned, including dragon boat racing, jolly boating, a late Victorian flotilla festival, Lumiere festivals to name a few. There was also a prominent theme of ‘dwelling’ that could be detected from these post-its. This idea of dwelling was both about literal river ‘dwellers’, I.e. those living on houseboats or mooring their narrowboats, including ideas for a marina (even a floating city) to help foster this sense of a ‘river community’ but also people who just wanted to slow down, sit and enjoy the atmosphere of the river, such as creating nice greenspaces, riverside cafes and seating areas for people to enjoy the riverbanks. This may perhaps correlate with a collective memory of a previous time when riverboats weren’t so sparse on the Ouse.  Similarly, certain recreations and leisurely pursuits in this category would also describe the river as a place they’d like to ‘dwell’ in with hopes to bring back punting as well as encouraging safe swimming spots in the Ouse and much more activity on the Foss. People also frequently mentioned the idea of connecting these spaces to open up opportunities for people to walk and move around the city more easily.  These are all examples of people finding the river and its surroundings spaces to be important as a place to live in. 

This last point about movement around the city however differed from the sense of movement that could be found in the ‘living from’ category which pointed to the river as being useful for the purpose of travel, I.e. commuting. There were lots of different ways of commuting that mentioned being either by the river (walking, cycling, running) to get in and out of the city as well as being on the river (there was talk of encouraging more public travel by boat, including river taxis!). Lots of other examples of values in this category referred to the views of the rivers and how people wanted to make sure these views were attractive, this often meant reducing litter (particularly in the Foss) as well as again opening up access so they could be enjoyed for things like fishing among others! 

The river Ouse, with hard, straightened concrete banks – ideal for local anglers (and geese!)

The ‘living with’ category referred mainly to the theme of people’s relationships with the more-than-human world. I wasn’t expecting this theme to come through just from post-it notes, but I was surprised to see it had – reflecting the importance people place on living with biodiverse habitats and species. In fact the discussion of the more-than-human relations seemed to evolve from slightly negative connotations (talk of the aggressive swans on the Foss and the over-abundance of Canadian geese around the museum) in the past, to more positive in the present and future pointing out opportunities for developing this side of river management. For example, ‘history boards’ were suggested to describe the wildlife that has inhabited the rivers and castle gateway area in the past and at present. People often pointed to this idea of wanting to know more about the city’s interactions with the river in the past too, neatly summed by a very creative idea to build a ‘Floating/amphibious centre along lines of Dutch design that could be used to tell York’s story about the city and water- past, present and future’. There were also several references to linking up the rivers with greenspaces and existing nature reserves and nearly all of the post-its in this section suggested more trees being planted!  

These suggestions all reflect key ideas in sustainability research about ‘connectivity’ and creating corridors and ‘mosaics’ of wildlife habitats. It is the kind of work that St. Nick’s, Friends of Rawcliffe Meadows and York’s Natural Environment Trust (YNET) more generally, have been doing for some time now in York showing the city does have the capacity for these changes. There was talk of wanting more diverse species in the area; red squirrels, white geese, peacocks and otters were mentioned! Finally, people suggested ways of creating a better place for species to live through improving water quality with ideas such as removing debris and litter (something that the River Foss Society work hard to do already but could receive more support), the odd suggestion of preventing people from urinating in the Foss by having public urinals in place (a la pissoirs of Paris!) and even putting in things like floating islands or ‘ecosystem rafts’ which can create habitats for species as well as filter out pollutants in the water over time. 

This last point easily overlaps with the ‘living in’ category as it talks about the values of living in a unique and beautiful place. Of course not everything fits neatly within one category such as those walking by the river as a commute and those who want to walk more slowly, dwelling and enjoying the atmosphere. It is likely these are two sides of the same coin, but this is also the beauty of working to understand people’s values about the environment in that we can start to work towards designs that meet multiple values and benefits. 

There were two observable gaps in this information (‘dataset’ if you will) so far. Firstly there were fewer post-it notes that talked about the city’s relationship with water in the past, despite several notes suggesting a desire to know more. This could be something to explore, as groups such as York Past & Present regularly demonstrate how much collective knowledge the city of York has regarding this age old relationship. Similarly the River Foss Society have a book and keen members who could talk about the history of the rivers in York. This could present itself as an opportunity to hold an event of a workshop where we listen to stories about the Foss and the Ouse and how it has not only shaped York’s history and identity but how York has shaped the rivers’ character too. If you have any knowledge on this topic, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! 

Similarly there were no real examples of expressions of value that could fall in the ‘Living as’ part of the framework we used. This is unsurprising, as it used slightly more to understand and capture those values expressed by groups of people, i.e. indigenous communities, around the world who might not subscribe to this idea of nature and culture being separate. However it would be interesting for us to explore this way of looking at the rivers and understanding our relationship with them. This outlook may become clearer if we explore our own relationships in our daily lives with the more-than-human world around us. ‘Living as’ categories include things like ‘practices of care’ that are often associated with gardening and maintaining greenspaces where we situate ourselves as being part of an ecosystem rather than separate from it. Or even things like ‘lived experiences’ where people show a deep sense of connection or knowledge of a place and its more-than-human co-habitants. It would be interesting to think through this ‘lens’ either in a workshop or in conversation as expressions of values in this category can often bring the consideration of the more-than-human to the decision-making table more easily.  

It is likely that people in York show this way of thinking on a daily basis already. Maybe you’re an angler and you enjoy fishing on the riverside of the Ouse and ‘know’ the range of species of fish that live in the river or what conditions the various species ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. Similarly, the Tansy Beetle Action Group (TBAG) are often monitoring closely the movements of the Tansy beetles trying to understand their perspective more; where they move, why they do well here etc. These are all different ways of looking at and engaging with the river and its more-than-human parts. If you can think of any experiences, you might have had don’t hesitate to get in touch with the project. Whether you’re an angler, swimmer, rower or by-passer you may each have different relationships of ways of looking at the rivers differently – in which case I want to hear from you! 

What this exercise and blog post has aimed to do however is to paint a picture of the multiple values that people in York hold towards the rivers and that this full range of values, not just about how the river benefits us directly (how we ‘live from’ the rivers), but also how we ‘live in’ these spaces and ‘live with’ the more-the-human world must be voiced and indeed listened to when making decisions about the rivers in York. The picture painted by you, who have been involved with MCG so far, is that we ought to celebrate the rivers in York as the veins of our communities not simply as drains.