How Does Local Knowledge Change Watershed Management?

This blog post was written by Rebecca Parsons as part of the Spring 2018 UGA Urban Ecology class.

Picture a big decision being made about stormwater management in your city. What do you envision? A fancy boardroom in a government building, long and nondescript table, figures in suits gathered around it? While this is what many of us imagine, the picture of decision-making in cities across the nation, and across the world, is set to change. These suited figures are figuring out that the old way of doing things overlooks a key source of information and perspective: the locals.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Parsons

Local knowledge is the unique collection of information gained by a community through living on the land. It is gained through experience, often handed down orally and built up over generations.

For a long time, decisions were made, and often are made still, behind closed doors, by people far removed from the issues they aim to solve. Increasingly, though, scientists and policy-makers are recognizing that areas with successful water management “have involved as many of the players in the process as possible” (AWRA, 2003). Often called “bottom-up” approaches, such projects begin by identifying problems through the community of interest, which may identify different problems and solutions than a “top-down” approach, wherein the identification of problems and the creation of solutions is by scientists and officials, these solutions then implemented in the community by the same distant officials (Butler et al., 2016).

How does the addition of local knowledge change this traditional, top-down process? The answer falls largely into two categories: information gathering and knowledge contribution. More commonplace of the two is information gathering, which often takes the form of community science. Community science, when members of the community are trained to collect scientific data, enable scientists to acquire data more often and in times and places they may otherwise be unable to. This allows scientists and policy-makers to make more informed decisions based on the greater breadth of locally-relevant knowledge they now have available.

The less frequent category of knowledge contribution, and the one we will focus on more in this article, is local knowledge. In this format, scientists and policy-makers seek out and account for the unique knowledge and experience of those that have lived in and been a part of the community of interest often throughout generations. This kind of knowledge influences decision-making processes in several ways. A common way this is phrased is “involving the stakeholders” in the process, though this can mean anything from simply holding town hall meetings to allow residents to offer thoughts on an already designed plan to intensive charettes to cooperatively design and plan a project with the community.

Local knowledge of this kind can shift the path of a plan from simply offering a new and on-the-ground perspective the experts couldn’t have to providing information and insight the experts could never have otherwise obtained. For instance, during the planning of a park, a seemingly universal good, one resident remarked that they didn’t want a park because it would only be used for homelessness and drug-dealing. In other cases, residents like Juanita Wallace of the Proctor Creek Watershed in Atlanta can offer a historical account of watershed conditions that predate scientific study or good policy records in an area, offering a look into the extent of the changes and damaged undertaken by an area over the decades (Wall, 2017). Bits of information such as these are not only difficult or impossible to obtain without the inclusion of the community, they can also shift the entire direction of a management project in an area, avoiding everything from minor unforeseen challenges to catastrophic failure of a project.

Photo Credit: Kitamura, K.; Nakagawa, C.; Sato, T. Formation of a Community of Practice in the Watershed Scale, with Integrated Local Environmental Knowledge. Sustainability 2018, 10, 404.

One way to combat the absence of local knowledge is a type of design project called a charette, mentioned earlier. In a charette design process, representatives of stakeholder groups come together to design plans for a project as a group. Every group in the charette has equal say and sway, and the design is not approved until unanimously agreed upon by all stakeholders. Therefore, the perspectives and knowledge of the different local groups and the scientists and policy-makers are incorporated into the design.

Another way to incorporate local knowledge is the use of learning networks. Learning networks like ours bring together people, organizations, and resources to facilitate the two-way exchange of knowledge. This way, community members get the information they need, while also imparting their own knowledge for scientific and governmental establishments.

However, local knowledge is not always incorporated into management efforts, and there are several reasons for this. For one, the process of obtaining local knowledge from community members can be logistically difficult. Town hall meetings to gather input are one oft-used tactic, but these efforts fall short due to poor timing with community members’ work and family responsibilities, lack of transportation to the town hall location, and inadequate public awareness of the event.

Even if community members can and do make it to such meetings, there can be a feeling that the so-called experts do not respect or care to hear what locals have to say. Vice versa, scientists are especially guilty of ineffectively communicating their expertise with community members.

On the internal side of institutional decision-making, challenges arise in the very way the planning of such projects are sometimes structured, a way which inadvertently makes the collection and incorporation of local knowledge difficult. Projects often follow a very strict workflow and timeline, which have historically not included consulting with the community. Within scientific institutions, decisions often must be made based on formally-researched science and do not allow a place for local knowledge.

Finally, management projects are known to require cooperation and communication between a multitude of different governmental and non-governmental organizations. These relationships alone can cause challenges, gaps in communication and conflicts of interest, and the mediation of local knowledge and community involvement adds another layer of complication that such institutions must account for.

EPA and other government organizations. Photo Credit: EPA.

Community members possess an unparalleled perspective and depth of relevant knowledge to inform environmental management projects in their communities. These assets are underused in the current science and policy structures, but the trend is changing in many places and is slowly creeping its way into urban areas. In the search for effective urban watershed management, local knowledge is an essential component for understanding the social, ecological, and economic systems in which these management projects take place.

Green Infrastructure Advocacy Training. Photo Credit: Eco-Action.

American Water Resources Association, Spangenberg, N., Herring, J., & Nelson, D. J. (2003, January). Failures in Water Management: Lessons Learned. Water Resources IMPACT, 5(1), 12-14.

Butler, D., Ward, S., Sweetapple, C., Astaraie-Imani, M., Diao, K., Farmani, R., & Fu, G. (2016). Reliable, resilient and sustainable water management: The Safe & SuRe approach. Global Challenges, 1(1), 63-77. doi:10.1002/gch2.1010


Wall, E. (2017, September 20). Local Knowledge: The Key to Restoring Proctor Creek. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from

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