Human Systems as Part of Ecological Restoration Equation
by Keith Bowers, ASLA

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to plan, install, manage, monitor, and sustain ecological restoration projects. Sure, it requires research, tools, and perseverance. But most of all it requires the involvement of people - typically lots of people. And what I am discovering is that it takes people that we never even thought had any relevance to the initiative in the first place to make an ecological restoration project a truly long-term success.

As biologists, ecologists, landscape architects, and engineers, we are good at conceptualizing webs of connections and relationships between components of natural systems. We develop complex frameworks that describe inter-relationships between nutrient flows and species diversity, or hydraulic models that describe the relationship between river flows and sediment transport. But how many times do we develop conceptual models or map out relationship webs that describe how people intervene, interact, and relate to an ecological restoration project? Aren’t human endeavors considered systems too? Yet we typically ignore human systems in our restoration endeavors, or at best, we give them fleeting attention. After all, it’s more fun to tinker with planting compositions, count soil microbes, or burn prairies than to forge relationships with adversaries, reach out to the disenfranchised, or participate in true dialogue.

I am ever more convinced that people, or as they are more broadly termed “stakeholders,” are the key to the long-term success of a restoration project; more so than specifying the right soil, selecting the right plants, or processing the right knowledge. In fact, the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) came to the same conclusion in 2004 with the publication of “Ecological Restoration – a means of conserving biodiversity and sustaining livelihoods: A call to action by the ecological restoration joint working group of SER International and the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.” The document emphasizes that principles of good ecological restoration practice must not only recognize attributes from ecosystems, but should also incorporate elements from human systems, including:

• Ensuring that all stakeholders are fully aware of the full range of possible alternatives, opportunities, costs, and benefits offered by restoration.
• Empowering all stakeholders, especially disenfranchised resource users.
• Engaging all relevant sectors of society and disciplines, including the displaced and powerless, in planning, implementation, and monitoring.
• Involving relevant stakeholders in the definition of boundaries for restoration.
• Considering all forms of historical and current information, including indigenous and local, as well as scientific knowledge, innovations, and practices.

Like modeling ecological processes, stakeholder engagement takes time, effort and commitment. And it takes dialogue. Most of what we do today is communicate, and communication is easier to do than ever, thanks to cellular phones, the internet, and air travel. How come, then, miscommunication is blamed for many of the problems we face in ecological restoration? Is it because we are communicating, but not really engaged in dialogue? Dialogue requires a commitment to speaking and listening in a more deliberate way than normally takes place in ordinary conversation or in discussion. This allows deeper understanding to emerge and encourages a sense of shared meaning. Perhaps if we entered into true dialogue with all stakeholders, our ecological restoration research, projects, and initiatives would be resounding successes.

We should approach ecological restoration first from a people perspective. Identify and map out the myriad of people, relationships, and cultural elements that will influence the ecological restoration process. Assess the critical human factors that will facilitate the success of the initiative, and plan for these in our research and projects. Then we can watch ecological restoration really sustain itself.

In The Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, author Peter Senge makes the case that consideration of human systems requires a shift of mind— from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world. Perhaps ecological restoration is as much about restoring human spirit as it is about restoring ecosystems.

Article is adapted from: “Human Systems,” Ecological Restoration. Vol. 24 Number 2, June 2006

Keith Bowers, ASLA is Vice Chair of ASLA’s Reclamation and Restoration Professional Practice Network, and Chair of the Board of  the Society for Ecological Restoration International.  He may be reached at

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