Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ecologies of Care

Caring for the place where you live/love - how does that happen? Is the quality of caring something we only hold in the mind? Or does caring for place entail a practical engagement with that place? And does it involve a sense of responsibility and/or some kind of action to look after that place?

When I started this blog I knew little about this place, the original custodians of the land, the life of the colonists, and the changes that white settlement brought (and wrought). Learning about the historicity of this place has come about through meeting a local historian and other long-time residents along the trail, reading local histories, and peering through the undergrowth for signs of former riverbank uses - sugar cane farm, cattle raising, bird sanctuary, golf course, recreation - when there were swimming baths and sandy beaches along the river, when people used to live in boats moored to jetties, and when the river was clear and fishing abundant.

Caring for the river has encouraged this research and engagement. And I have learnt much from the river itself and the creatures who dwell here. The highlight was the flurry of Brahaminy Kites as they came, built their nest, laid eggs, hunted and watched over the river but the sadness as they were eventally chased away by a barrage of maurauding birds.

Each day there is something new to see and experience. Willie Wagtails shift location and their dancing flows with the river's tides. Red Wrens make way for their Blue cousins. Pardalotes dig their small tunnels into the muddy embankment and find home. Dozens of Cockatoos forage in the treetops. Black Ducks bark from their vantage point above in the Eucalypts. Sacred Kingfishers come and go. Each day another layer is peeled away; each day something more is revealed; this place is a veritable jewell of the Brisbane River.

And yet this vital natural corridor is under increasing pressure to change. The surrounding natural habitat, so essential for protecting water quality, is threatened especially by rapid development and the desire for water views. As a consequence, natural capital is displaced by other forms of capital.

When development is mooted local residents need to be consulted about how they perceive changes to the river valley and their views need to be taken into account. Caring needs to go both ways - so sustainable residential developments are created, ones which blend trees and natural amenity with eco-friendly construction.

Studies on how people perceive rivers and their preferences for particular riverscapes has shown they prefer rivers which curve and wind offering a sense of mystery and views through open trees (Levin, 1977 in Ryan, 1998). Another study found that the knowledge that 'nature' was present near to one's home was a strong indicator of residents' satisfaction (Talbot et al, 1987), while other research suggested people living near an 'unkempt creek' felt more affinity for a creek further away which was kempt and 'park-like' (Ryan, 1998: 226-227).

Robert Ryan (1998) surveyed residents in a rural region of the American midwest. And perhaps like here, they commented on the river's quality, pollution and the damage of agricultural runoff. One resident said: 'The river has been turned into a giant sewer, the farm pesticide and herbicide has killed most of the fish species, muskrats are non-existent. The amount of birdlife and habitat is way down.' (234).

Farmers and residents, long term and recent arrivals had differing perceptions about riverscapes and natural amenity with newly arrived folks being more attracted to local natural settings (the river and woods) than longer term residents who had more affinity with domesticated farmscapes (235).

When development threatens the river valley planners could take residents' values and perceptions into account. Robert Ryan says: 'Understanding how rural residents perceive river corridors ... is only half the battle. The more difficult task is for planners and local communities to develop plans which are senstitive to both human and environmental concerns (236).

Which brings me back to caring for place. If the Brisbane River valley is threatened by more and more development, to what extent are local people's perceptions canvassed? And if they care, and want to oppose habitat and river bank damage, will their caring voice be heard?

In contrast, where the public has been involved in consultation on river restoration, a UK study showed that local residents valued the river highly, used it increasingly, and attached great importance to the consultation and feedback process (Tunstall et al, 2000).

Levin JE, 1977, Riverside Preference: On-site and Photographic Reactions, Unpublished Masters thesis, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
Ryan RL, 1998, Local Perceptioins and Values for a Midwestern River Corridor, Landscape and Urban Planning, 42, 225-237.
Talbot JF, Bardwell LV, Kaplan R, 1987, The Function of Urban Nature: Uses and Values of Different Types of Urnam Nature Settings, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 4, 47-63.
Tunstall SM, Penning-Roswell EC, Tapsell SM and Eden SE, 2000, River Restoration: Public Attitudes and Expectations, JCIWEM, 14, 363-370.