New perspectives on citizen engagement in flood risk governance – a social practices approach

16:15 Tuesday 28 May




Dries Hegger (Netherlands) 1

1 - Environmental Governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University

The roles and responsibilities of citizens in flood risk governance and in climate adaptation more generally are receiving increasing attention. Citizens’ involvement is deemed crucial to make societies flood resilient. Besides that, more general policy discourses centering on ‘community resilience’, ‘the Big Society’ (UK) and ‘the Energetic Society’ (Netherlands) attach an important role to citizens. An emerging body of literature is examining how institutions relate to citizens through processes of facilitation and co-production. Also risk awareness, action perspectives and motivations of individual citizens are more and more studied, mostly from social-psychological and behavioral economics perspectives. I argue that these perspectives need to be combined, integrated and enriched to arrive at better insights into citizens’ roles and responsibilities. For this, I propose to use the social practices approach as developed in general social theory and further specified in environmental sociology.

This approach takes the actual practices in which citizens engage as its main unit of analysis. Flood-relevant social practices include gardening (opportunities for inclusion of rainwater catchment technologies); refurbishing one’s house (opportunities for dry or wet proofing, installment of green roofs); building, buying and selling of a house (opportunities for prevention of urban development in flood-prone areas), amongst others. These practices are more holistically defined than the more narrowly defined policy domains of institutional actors. Applying the perspective provides opportunities for governance since it broadens ideas about the array of actors that can potentially play a role in flood governance and highlights a wider set of mechanisms through which citizens’ flood-relevant knowledge, skills, attitudes, and resources can be enhanced. Initial empirical examples from the Netherlands show the analytical and practical added value of this approach.

There are emerging examples, for instance in the Dutch municipality of Dordrecht, where governmental actors made the effort to connect closely to the rationalities and concerns of citizens and discovered that the ‘license to operate’ that institutional actors had in the eyes of citizens was broader than expected. For instance, from citizens’ viewpoint, it would make perfect sense that the same institutional actor addresses mitigation and adaptation action taking. In conclusion, the social practices approach has the potential to connect and integrate individual-centered and institution-centered approaches and to complement them with new perspectives that help identify a broader array of governance options. Hence, the approach addresses an important missing link in current research and practice on citizens’ roles in flood risk governance.