Producing data to protect biodiversity is not just the priority of the scientists and researchers but should be the responsibility of everyone. Also, protecting biodiversity in cities and in our living environment should never be outsourced solely to landscape architects or urban planners, but environmental planning should be open for citizens too. Yet, how can citizens be expected to participate in producing data for biodiversity if there is no channel for participation? Could they actually provide something useful for the protection of biodiversity at all?
Enabling people to participate
For the past few years, participatory planning of living environment has been a growing trend in Finland. Planning the living environment together is not only a beautiful idea, but a useful method for the land use and urban planners as well as landscape architects as it provides an access to data that otherwise is not available anywhere. How many times do the planners actually live in the area that they are planning? What is their practical knowledge about the nature in the area?
The growing trend of participatory environmental planning has been supported by the Finnish authorities who have responded to the trend by developing an Action Program on eServices and eDemocracy in 2009. The program included establishing Living Environment Information Services — basically digital services online — that would make it easier for citizens to participate in planning their living environment. One of the services developed in the program is the map-based survey tool Harava that collects data from citizens on the map for participatory environmental planning. The UN Human Rights Council listed the survey tool as a Good Practice in March 2015. The compendium describes good practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to support environmental policymaking with special focus on environmental protection.
According to some landscape architects, participatory planning has also helped them cut expenses when the planning process is smoother thanks to digital tools. It is also likely that participatory planning leads to more inclusive decision-making that reduces the number of complaints.
Protecting parks with participatory methods
Technology has already played a remarkable role in various biodiversity projects in Finland. For example, the Park Maintenance Department of the City of Hyvinkää needed to update the maintenance and development plan for one of the most popular parks in the city, the Sveitsi Nature Park, in 2014. Having been shaped by the Ice Age, the Sveitsi Nature Park enjoys a status of the protected park: in practice it means that the park is a subject to strict regulations according to the Finnish Law. To protect diversity in accordance with the rules and regulations but also make the Sveitsi Nature Park more responsive to park visitors’ needs, the department turned to citizens and asked their thoughts on the current and future state of the park. To obtain high-quality responses with meaningful ideas and feedback, they used the map-based survey tool Harava to integrate responses with spatial data. As a result, the updated maintenance and development plan of the park is more sustainable considering both the protection of biodiversity as well as the recreational value of the park.
Another example of participatory planning and the protection of biodiversity comes from the City of Kuopio, located in the region of Northern Savonia. Puijo is a ridge and a famous land mark of the City of Kuopio: the ridge is a recreational area with ski-jumping towers and nature trails, among others. Yet, it is also one of the first nature conservation areas in Finland and additionally a part of the Natura 2000 network of the European Union.
In the spring of 2015, the City of Kuopio carried out a map-based survey on Puijo to enable citizens to participate in the protection of the area. With nearly 400 responses, the citizens provided the city and planning authorities with precious practical knowledge on the nature of the area, reported invasive species, suggested better ways of protection, and commented on the development of the park.
Saving reindeers and Saimaa ringed seals with digital map-based survey tools
Participatory planning is not restricted only to parks but it can be applied in inventing and documenting nature observations. Also, mapping vital areas for certain species helps protect biodiversity and avoid conflicts between nature and land-intensive industries. For instance, the European Regional Development Fund inaugurated a GIS project called ‘Reindeers’ in Lapland in 2012, together with the Finnish Environment Institute and Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute. The purpose of the project was to create a database containing information and spatial data about the reindeer pastures as well as buildings and structures used in reindeer herding. The data collection process was carried out with participatory methods by using the digital map-based survey tool. The ultimate purpose of the database is to enable better planning in land use and prevent conflicts between the reindeers and land-intensive industries in the region, such as forestry, mining, power production, and tourism.
The most recent project of the protection of biodiversity with participatory methods in Finland is from the fall of 2015. The Regional Council of South Savo carried out a survey on the Saimaa ringed seal and fishing restrictions. The Saimaa ringed seal is among the most endangered seals in the world and the only existing population is found in Lake Saimaa in Finland. The survey was responded by more than 1,400 people indicating that citizens have an interest in participating in the protection of biodiversity when given a chance.