Petts J.. 2007. Learning about learning: lessons from public engagement and deliberation on urban river restoration. The Geographical Journal. 173(4)


To provide insights into learning through deliberative community engagement processes

Geographic Focus: 


Key Findings: 

This article discusses learning within a local deliberative engagement process, using an empirical evaluation of an urban river restoration project. This was a project supported through the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD). The authors argue that social issues tend often to be given secondary consideration, after science, in environmental or resource management. The objective within the broad context of the Sustainable Development of Urban Rivers and Floodplains (SMURF) project was to elevate social considerations on a more equal footing with available science. Two important learning mechanisms are highlighted in this research. They include the value of learning gatekeepers in representing diverse interests and perspectives, and the privileging of local narratives which helped to weave local understandings and priorities into collective decision-making. The emergence of instrumental and communicative learning was confirmed as a direct result of the deliberative participatory processes. Whether this learning was limited to the immediate project, or was of a more embedded nature is uncertain without further longitudinal studies. However, the role of gatekeepers shows some early evidence for their capacity to embed learning, and further research may lead to improved understanding of these processes. ‘Expert’ learning and the interchange between local ‘non-experts’ was also considered. The authors note that, while transference of ‘expert’ learning to organisational and/or institutional learning cannot be assumed to be direct or immediate, public engagement processes have significant potential in this area.


Adaptive learning is immersed in complexity, due in large part to issues of scale. In fact, learning to learn across hierarchies of adaptive cycles may prove to be one of the greatest challenges for wide-ranging adaptive learning within environmental restoration, as well as other sustainability and natural resource management issues. Accumulating and embedding learning through iterative processes occurs over time and, as this article points out, many resource management projects are both small scale and ad hoc. While adaptive learning may occur within these limited spatial and temporal spaces, these dominant approaches provide limited scope for understanding or realising the full potential of adaptive learning processes. It is also relevant to point out that learning is entirely dependent on individuals and individual styles. Establishing connections between system elements across space and time, as well as between individuals, is therefore critical. In practical terms this draws attention to the need for much greater co-ordination, co-operation and integration both in research efforts and in practical decision-making. While some evidence of this is emerging, for example in research collectives, it is still in its infancy and significant barriers appear yet to be overcome.