NEW SMYRNA BEACH. Public participation and community engagement have long been discussed as critical components for relevant and effective environmental management. When scientists and other resource managers listen, learn, and incorporate ideas from local people who are intimately connected to the places they manage, everyone can benefit. Local community members get a say in how their resources are managed and share their expectations for project outcomes, while scientists and decision-makers learn from diverse knowledge and perspectives community members bring and can more effectively communicate about the importance of their work. If done effectively, community engagement during the planning, implementation, and/or evaluation phases of a project can increase the community’s support for, and trust in, scientists and managers’ decisions.
On February 19, 2019, Citizen Science GIS team members, and other investigators on our National Science Foundation Coupled Natural-Human Systems grant held a listening session in New Smyrna Beach to learn what local people want to see come from living shoreline and oyster reef restoration projects in Mosquito Lagoon. Our big goal was to host a different kind of meeting, where listening was fundamental and committing to actions based on the priorities of participants, paramount. Invitations to the listening session were sent out widely through email and social media, and information was also spread through word-of-mouth. We invited anyone with a connection to the lagoon to come have their voice heard and share their priorities for future restoration with scientist actually working on these projects.
At the listening session, guests sat in small groups at tables, and each table focused on discussing a specific question:
- Table 1: In which areas would you prioritize oyster reef restoration, and why?
- Table 2: In which areas would you prioritize living shoreline restoration, and why?
- Table 3: How has restoration in Mosquito Lagoon affected you, and what kinds of benefits do you hope to see come from oyster reef and living shoreline restoration projects?
By the end of the evening, participants had a chance to sit at each table to share their perspectives on every issue.
So what did we learn? There were certain areas people prioritized for upcoming oyster reef and living shoreline restoration. Anticipated ecological success was a big factor in where people wanted to see future restoration occur. Another top priority was to choose highly visible sites to maximize the educational opportunities of restoration. The people we spoke with also expressed a desire to see restoration projects improve water quality and clarify, and they expressed concerns over development, plastics, and boat wakes, which can dislodge oysters.
What happens now? Restoration scientists on the Coupled Natural-Human Systems team are currently planning for summer 2019 living shoreline and oyster reef projects, and have committed to integrating what they learned from the community into their upcoming work. As such, the maps and notes developed from this listening session are playing into decision making about which places to restore next. As decisions are made, we will continue to post updates and send announcements to the community members who attended the meeting. On a broader scale, we hope this kind of community engagement continues so that restoration projects can align ecological and social goals to maximize benefits for people and the planet!