William Stewart, professor of leisure studies, says everyone has "a land ethic, whether they know it or not."
Photo by Kwame Ross
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Bill Stewart believes that everybody - from the trail-mix-munching hiking enthusiast to the SUV-driving mall-shopper - has what he calls a "land ethic, whether they know it or not."
Most people, however, "acquiesce to the dominant cultural ethic, which tells us that in the urban, workaday world, we have no connection to nature," said Stewart, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That connection is there, he maintains, and is reflected in individual lifestyle choices and behaviors.
Photo by UI Prairie Planning and Policy Lab.
Photo from UI study depicting a contemporary landscape, in which natural prairie and urban development coexist.
For example, a person's choice of transportation to and from work can be an indicator of his or her land ethic. "Taking mass transit or bicycling has less impact on the earth's resources compared to driving alone in one's car," Stewart said. Likewise, "the plants growing in one's yard, the size of one's house, the clothes one wears - taken collectively - tell us what the person thinks is the 'right' relationship between society and nature."
But one person's land ethic isn't necessarily "right" in universal terms, according to Stewart, whose research focuses on what he calls the "landscape values" of individuals and communities, and on ways in which "stakeholders," or concerned citizens, can empower themselves by building healthy communities.
Unfortunately, all too often when people with different landscape ethics sit down at the same table as part of a community-planning process, broad brushstrokes are applied, he said. And stakeholders quickly find themselves rigidly defined and confined to black-and-white boxes of opposing camps, such as environmentalists against developers - or working farmers against leisure-oriented urbanites.
In reality, people's beliefs about the right relationships between communities and the natural world tend to be more complex, said Stewart, whose research of diverse populations of land users - from recreational users of the Grand Canyon National Park to residents of his own university community - hinges on "bringing out the complexities of public or community-based environmental values."
"My goal of building healthy communities revolves around local people being able to read their local landscape and see their reflection in it. They need to know how it functions, ways in which their behavior affects it, and to see their heritage reflected in it," said Stewart, whose study of "community identities as visions for landscape change" among stakeholders living near the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in northern Illinois appears in the current issue of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
Stewart described Midewin (pronounced Mih-DAY-win) as a "long-term restoration project encompassing the conversion of more than 15,000 acres into a restored prairie." The prairie preserve, on the site of the former Joliet Arsenal, recently opened part of its acreage to the public. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the area - which is expected to evolve slowly over many years - is intended for recreational and educational use by hikers, bikers, bird- and wildlife-watchers, and other nature enthusiasts.
Stewart said the Midewin planners are in the initial phases of managing the restoration process. They also are developing a seed bank, and envision the site as becoming the world's largest collection of prairie-plant seeds. That goal may be 50 to 100 years off, he said. By then, the preserve likely will be surrounded by urban development "and probably will be viewed in much the same way as we appreciate the Grand Canyon today."
In the Midewin study, Stewart and co-authors Derek Liebert (Urbana [Ill.] Park District) and Kevin Larkin (White Mountain National Forest, Laconia, N.H.), employed a research method called photo-elicitation to develop an understanding of the land values of 25 individuals recruited at workshops held in conjunction with the Midewin planning process in 2000-01.
The participants, 20 of whom completed the study, were given disposable cameras and instructed to photograph places, people and environments that were important to them. After the photos were processed, participants discussed their images during one-on-one, in-depth interviews with the researchers.
Photos included images of churches and other community gathering spots, festivals, wildflowers, backyard gardens, canals and adjacent lands, and even a racetrack and a casino. After interviews were completed, Stewart examined the photos in conjunction with text from the transcribed interviews and served as the study's primary analyst.
"There were several valuable points that came out of this study," he said, "but perhaps the most salient one to the Midewin staff involved a photo in which the participant's vision was linked to a contemporary prairie compatible with mixed uses and human development, rather than a historical prairie that would erase the past 50 years of human settlement.
"The Forest Service came into the process with their institutional culture - largely affected by use vs. preservation ideology - that a pre-settlement prairie was the vision for Midewin. The study - and particularly this photo (of the contemporary prairie) - was a forceful image to re-direct their vision to a contemporary prairie as the target of restoration. Their stakeholders were not asking them to make Midewin appear like a pristine, virgin landscape, but rather, appreciated the layers of humanity that came before. They also were tolerant, if not grateful for, the development surrounding restored sites and recognized the need for humans to play active roles in restoring prairie ecosystems."
The bottom line among the researchers' findings, Stewart said, was that the participants' "long-term vision was to showcase a landscape that included people as part of it."
"Participants wanted Midewin to portray in an honest fashion the role of humans in working and healing the land, and not to disguise the restored prairie as a pristine landscape," he said.