Why engage communities in NBS development?

Unlike Gray Infrastructure which is designed to address a single technical challenge, Nature Based Solutions that are deployed to serve the very same purpose can – in principle – offer multiple other social and environmental benefits. However, for citizens to harness these benefits, their interaction with NBS needs to be carefully planned. For example, how can we be sure that a park meets the needs of the local residents?

It is, therefore, critical to have engagement methodologies in place as early as possible in project design in order to address issues of problem awareness, understand citizen priorities and maximize the acceptance and the usability of NBS.

The Blue Green (BG) roofs RESILIO project of Amsterdam has been truly proactive in this: it has developed and is currently implementing a multilevel engagement strategy (also adapted to pandemic restrictions). The activities and lessons learnt can support other Blue-Green Infrastructure projects with similar citizen engagement needs. Here we briefly present our engagement and communication strategy as well as some limitations and challenges faced that can be relevant to other project NBS implementers and practitioners.

How does RESILIO engage and communicate with citizens?

  • Develops sense of collective efficacy

The engagement strategy follows the main principles for ‘climate change learning’ to achieve a sense of ‘collective efficacy’, as described by Allen and Crowley (2017). This refers to the sense that one’s actions, in combination with the actions of the community, have the capacity to make an impact. In order to achieve this, it is important that the engagement strategy is relevantly framed by focusing on local needs and interests, should go beyond informing and include hands-on interactive activities within communities that enable learning and established a meaningful dialogue that can facilitate acceptance and consensus building.

  • Identifies neighborhood characteristics

Amsterdam’s strategy includes targeted communication and participation approaches tailored to the specific neighborhood characteristics and is based on a stakeholder mapping. Targeting makes use of readily available data sources and tools that provide information on the type of lifestyles that are dominant in the specific BG roofs neighborhoods. Through such an analysis one gets an overview of the flooding hotspots in a neighborhood, the important topics concerning citizens in the neighborhood and active networks and outlets that can be used when reaching out to citizens.

  • Develops creative engaging activities

The activities followed so far included presenting the BG roof through a “blue-green roof” bike tour around different neighborhoods where blue-green roofs are installed, but also approaching residents to distribute information material at the street level and organizing tailored events for citizens in the RESILIO Innovation Lab. Other activities involve art and drawing workshops with children and workshops with residents concerning urban biodiversity.

  • Brings experts close to citizens

In addition, inviting experts that are involved in the project to the neighborhood events has worked well to inform residents about the multiple benefits of the BG roof approach and create a sense of trust in the project and its goals.

  • Reaches local people through their own networks

In addition, through interviews with local people and writing personal articles, the ‘neighborhood stories’, we engaged on a deeper level with residents and through that we expect to reach local people in their networks, to tell them about the RESILIO project. Involving people with what happens “above their heads” is also done by creating time-lapse videos of the work in progress that we share through RESILIO and the City of Amsterdam social media accounts and local online platforms.

  • Uses local neighborhood organizations in your strategy

Besides, when developing engagement activities, it is wise to involve local neighborhood organizations and organize activities together. They often have a better understanding of how to reach citizens and communities and already have a significant network in the neighborhood. It is also key for harvesting local knowledge on local needs and motivations of residents (see citizen priorities below).

Engagement challenges and limitations

The communication and participation strategy had to be adapted to the COVID-19 safety measures (social distancing, number of people in events, community centers being closed). Further meetings were moved to online, however the turnout was low. This suggests a need for additional effort and creativity when engaging virtually. Yet, those attending were actively engaged.

The project is investing extra in online recruitment and information distribution through paid social media posts and the use of the project partner’s online network. The project also makes use of the digital resources and resident letters from the housing corporations that have become even more important in the times of Coronavirus.

Engagement events at the roof (left) and street level (right).
    Engagement events at the roof (left) and street level (right).

Understanding citizen priorities

The RESILIO project is funded by Urban Innovative Actions Initiative (European Regional Development Fund) as a climate adaptation project with emphasis on its flood risk reduction potential as well as for improving water and energy efficiency. Yet, when consulting with residents, it appears their main driver and self-perceived benefit is urban biodiversity. This has suggested the importance of knowing your audience’s nudges. It is hoped that residents will demonstrate an increased awareness for climate action by the end of the project. On the basis of these findings the participation plans were adapted and have included more activities related to urban biodiversity.

Amsterdam’s lessons and advice to other NBS projects exploring whether and how to engage

It is not uncommon that some citizens will be more skeptical than others when it comes to the development of Blue-Green Infrastructure in the neighborhoods. This does not mean that we should avoid discussions with the community during the development of the project. On the contrary, our project so far has shown there is higher risk involved by not engaging than by engaging: involving people with what is happening during construction, creates understanding for possible nuisances during construction.

The project is working closely together with the building owners and their contractors to receive and share all relevant information about building activities and have a feedback loop to the asset owner when residents and neighbors pose questions; thus, the project has built and maintained a high level of mutual understanding and mutual respect. The responses from attendees of the neighborhood events at the Innovation Lab have been very positive. People are quite proud that their building will get such an innovative solution. Any concerns they might have regarding the effect of “water above their heads” or costs that are involved are eliminated through providing expert information.

In summary:

  • expert opinion is communicated directly to citizens,
  • careful two-way communication takes place through multiple means,
  • understanding citizens self-perceived value
  • building a sense of ownership and pride can contribute to improved awareness and acceptance of BG roofs.

These approaches can apply to other BG features in Amsterdam and beyond.

Acknowledgements: The authors acknowledge the support and funding by the European Regional Development Fund through the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative. It is also grateful to the support by the City of Amsterdam, asset owners and participants of the events.

Information: This is the second web article of a series to follow between 2020-2022 presenting ideas and news about RESILIO. Stay tuned!

Contact: Mr Age Niels Holstein  (a.holstein@amsterdam.nl) – project manager of RESILIO, Leon Kapetas (leonkapetas@gmail.com), Jan Henk Tigelaar (janhenk@rooftoprevolution.nl) and Marie Morel (m.w.a.morel@hva.nl)