May 15, 2018

Is a clean river fun for all? Recognizing social vulnerability in watershed planning

By Miguel Valdez Soto

Watershed planning can lead to policy innovation and action toward environmental protection. However, groups often suffer from low engagement with communities that experience disparate impacts from flooding and water pollution. This can limit the capacity of watershed efforts to dismantle pernicious forms of social inequality. As a result, the benefits of environmental changes often flow to more empowered residents, short-changing the power of watershed-based planning as a tool to transform ecological, economic, and social relationships. The objectives of this paper are to assess whether the worldview of watershed planning actors are sufficiently attuned to local patterns of social vulnerability and whether locally significant patterns of social vulnerability can be adequately differentiated using conventional data sources. Drawing from 35 in-depth interviews with watershed planners and community stakeholders in the Milwaukee River Basin (WI, USA), we identify five unique definitions of social vulnerability. Watershed planners in our sample articulate a narrower range of social vulnerability definitions than other participants. All five definitions emphasize spatial and demographic characteristics consistent with existing ways of measuring social vulnerability.

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