River restoration – what do the general public know?

I’ve been a part of the RRC team for two months now, and found out I’d be joining one month before I started. So, it’s now been three months of talking with friends about: what the RRC is and does; what river restoration is; and how my new role fits in with all that. I now have some well-practiced lines. It goes something like this:

Historically in the UK, rivers and the surrounding landscape have been altered from their natural state, which has created problems for both people and wildlife. River restoration is the process of returning rivers and the surrounding landscape to more natural states, providing benefits for both people and nature. The RRC is a small team which provides advice, training and guidance to promote and ensure best practice in UK river restoration projects.

And if I mention my role…

Historically large river restoration projects have been led by governmental agencies such as the Environment Agency. However funding cuts, and a new focus on involvement of local stakeholders from EU legislation means the role of Rivers Trusts, and other local and community groups, is growing. Part of my new role is to coordinate the RRC’s training and advice offering to such groups.

At first I did struggle to communicate all this succinctly; after all, it is a complex message to communicate. Without prior knowledge, the term “river restoration” can be interpreted in contrasting ways, and perhaps falsely linked to certain practices. It has been interesting listening to what people relate it to, or believe it to be. Aspects such as flood management, reducing point source pollution, monitoring and controlling river water extraction, and protection of endangered species have all been mentioned. Hard infrastructure, such as fish ladders to bypass weirs and dams came up a bit, whilst some link the word restoration incorrectly with river dredging; but wouldn’t it be great if they knew more or better?

I've found the last three months a great opportunity to talk with friends about river restoration, and other important environmental issues. What have I learnt from this? Often the general public understand a little of the concept and importance of river restoration, but not the whole picture. They often identify individual benefits, but very rarely envision the reality of multiple benefits for both nature and people. 

What does this all mean for us involved in delivery of river restoration? I believe it shows that the sector has an important role not just to restore, but also to educate, and not just for the sake of education, but action. Quoting Alice Hall of Thames21 speaking at the recent CaBA Citizen Science Workshop: "By enabling people to understand, you encourage them to act". 

It has been both encouraging and satisfying to see friends understand the importance of river restoration, and nature generally, more fully as conversations develop. People are genuinely interested by what’s going on. I often recommend Tony Junipers book, What Nature Does For Britain. It’s a brilliant account of the benefits UK nature provides for us; an environmental education tailored to the British public.

Given the transition towards more community led river restoration projects, the present and key challenge is how to engender public interest more widely, and crucially develop that interest into action. This is a subject which we will therefore be covering through events and resources tailored to the third sector in the coming months. For more information, view our new third sector web page here.

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