What is Local?

William R. Teska, Pacific Lutheran University

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Students frequently speak passionately about preserving biodiversity in far away countries and about improving the livelihoods of citizens in lesser-developed nations. Yet, the search for environmental justice (a clean and healthy environment) is often tempered by the need to achieve social justice (adequate and sustainable economic development). Many students enthusiastically support the preservation of tropical rainforests by the creation of national parks or preserves. However, sometimes the students ignore the facts that people live adjacent to or within parks and that the livelihood of these people is affected by the use of the land. In order to comprehend the challenges of preserving nature or in promoting economic development, it is important to be aware of spatial or geographic scale. This activity explores scale through the consideration of the concept of "local." Students are encouraged to ponder the role that people have in the management of natural resources and to appreciate competing viewpoints about conservation and sustainable development.

This course activity is especially designed to help them understand the ramifications of spatial scale. In essence, the students are asked to define the term "local" and then to apply it in various situations, contexts, and locations. A seemingly simple term, the notion of "local" is the keystone for the construction of resource management plans that address conservation and development. While the course in which this activity takes place has been designed for students who are non-science majors, the activity is equally applicable to those with interests in science or environmental studies. Through a hands-on examination of a nature preserve/park in a nearby urban setting and with classroom discussions and activities, students become aware that individuals are affected differently by the preservation of nature or by development of natural resources. Similarly, through an in-class activity that analyzes stakeholders, students come to realize (1) that individuals do not have an equal voice in the decision-making process and (2) that there are practices that promote inclusive participation. Learning is assessed through written and oral reports that demonstrate a proficiency in evidenced-based analyses. The overarching goal is to enable students to be better ecological and global citizens.

Learning Goals

Students will understand the concept of local and its importance in engaging stakeholders in decisions that affect natural resources. Learning is assessed through (1) written assignments, (2) a stakeholders' analysis, and (3) the final exam in which the students are asked to apply their knowledge about the Tacoma park with the Latin American park that they have researched using library and internet-based resources. Students are evaluated by the degree to which their reports demonstrate an evidence-based approach of analysis.

Context for Use

This activity was designed for students enrolled in "Conservation and Sustainable Development," a class at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. The course is part of the university's International Honors program and fulfills one of the students' science general education requirements. Typically the students are non-science majors in their second year of college. As part of the framework of the honors program, the course must integrate international concepts and issues by examining multinational perspectives. This course focuses on the relationship between people and the conservation of the natural resources that surround the communities in which they live. It examines the tensions between development and preservation and how this tension affects not only the sustainability of natural resources, but also that of global and local societies. In order to allow the students to have common ground in their discussions, the international directive is limited to countries within Latin America. At the outset, students typically believe that each country in Latin America has similar problems and constraints - they soon discover that while similarities exist, every country and every site are different. They are asked to apply lessons learned from one location to another, including those gleaned from a nearby urban park. Working in groups of four, students research a specific Latin American national park and its neighboring communities. To achieve the multinational perspectives required for the honors program, each group analyzes a different country. Because the course emphasizes evidenced-based writing, students augment their in-depth library research about their selected foreign park with hands-on field explorations of a nearby park. Through having to resolve issues and conflicts that surround the preservation and use of a nearby park, students can better appreciate the challenges that confront citizens of another country as those citizens wrestle with development and preservation. The nearby park thereby serves as a reality check that stems overly optimistic assessments, promotes pragmatic voices, and provides concrete, tangible examples of resource management. Through classroom discussions and presentations, the students come to realize the importance of spatial scale and become aware of the differences that exist among global, regional and local perspectives.

In practice, this activity is woven throughout a semester-long course. It starts at the beginning, when students narrow their selection to a country and to a specific park that they will study in groups of four. The first laboratory period is a field trip to a natural area, Puget Creek Park. The course culminates with a classroom activity that models a participatory development workshop that allows students to construct a stakeholders analysis. During the semester, students have written assignments that build from activities in the park and from their readings. The entire class visits the park during four afternoons at approximately one-month intervals. The last three weeks of the course are allocated to the participatory development workshop and related lectures/discussions about integrating conservation and development. Although the activity for this particular course extends throughout the semester, the activity could be conducted with a single afternoon visit to a natural area and its surrounding community and then by an in-class hour-long discussion and a three-hour, in-class stakeholders analysis. In its simplest form, it could focus exclusively on the nearby park. Readings allow students to appreciate the dilemma that exists when people try to attain and to integrate conservation and development that is also sustainable.

The park that the students study is located in the urban core of Tacoma, Washington. Created in the early 1900's, the park's now dense forest is surrounded by an expanse of neighborhoods that arose at about the same time as the park. Prior to its creation, it was logged along with most of the adjacent hillsides. In actuality, the park was more an afterthought because its slopes are too steep and the valley too wet to develop. In the case of Puget Park, it has zones with different uses: a picnic area, a children's playground, a nature trail and a research area. Part of the park is being restored with native vegetation; other parts have already been restored. The entire park has been historically impacted by development, which enables the students to understand how natural areas change temporally. Land ownership patterns vary across the park. Although it visually appears to be under the control of the county park system, in reality part of the park is owned by the city, part by the county, and part (largely the borders) by the residents of nearby houses. Furthermore, the park is bisected by road right-of-ways (most of which have never been developed), power lines, sewer lines, and storm drains. A mosaic of ownership sets in motion conflicts of interest that mirror situations found in situations worldwide. About a decade ago, a citizen's group, the Puget Creek Restoration Society, was formed to return the park to its natural state. Volunteers are active in planting native species, improving the health of the salmon-bearing creek, and removing invasive species.

Possible Use In Other Courses

While designed for a course with an international focus, it is equally applicable for courses that examine issues in the United States or for those that are oriented toward resource management.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Learning Activities

Students visit the park several times during the semester and do habitat restoration work in close association with the volunteers of the Puget Creek Restoration Society. Three of the visits to the park are group-conducted service-learning sessions: (1) removing invasive introduced species; (2) planting native species; and (3) maintaining trails. Through spending hours in the park doing hands-on work, the students see details that would have otherwise been overlooked. They witness people using the park in a variety of ways. The students grasp the impact of people on nature and learn well the difficulty in restoring abused ecological systems to their natural state. Plus, the time serves to stimulate discussions, let alone promotes civic responsibility. After the students visit the park, they engage the notion of spatial scale and how Tacoma residents have different stakes in the park dependent, in part, on where they live. Students also consider the various agencies, organizations, and businesses that affect the park. The founder of the Puget Creek Restoration Society speaks to the class and provides historical, political, and socioeconomic perspectives. Before doing the written assignments, the students analyze maps of Tacoma and discuss the physical and perceived boundaries of Puget Park. These discussions prepare the students to conceptualize spatial boundaries and to appreciate the difficulty in defining the word, "local." Readings about the preservation of nature and about ways to integrate conservation with sustainable development, especially in light of this course's international theme, supplement classroom discussions.

Sample Assignments

  • Following readings and lectures that describe in the international arena, the concept of integrated conservation and development plans/projects (ICDP's), the students complete a written assignment that asks:
    • In the context of ICDP's, what is meant by the term "local"-as, for example, in local participation, local resource users or local community? How does the delineation of local affect the outcome of an ICDP?
    • Building from your answer for the previous question, apply the term "local" to Puget Park by verbally delineating the boundaries of local. Justify your answer. Because each of you may have differently described boundaries for local, your answer could be physical descriptions or it could be more conceptual. The critical part of your answer is your justification.
  • The students are assigned to read two chapters (7 & 11) in the book, Llamas, Weavings, and Organic Chocolate, by Kevin Healy (2001). The author describes the work of the Interamerican Foundation in Bolivia and the Foundation's efforts to implement developmental assistance projects with local people. Because the Foundation achieves its goals through grassroots participation, its projects are effective models of community development. Because Kevin Healy illustrates not only the successes, but also the failures, students hone their abilities to think critically and pragmatically. While not focused on the preservation of nature, the projects described in these two chapters are tied closely to improving the environment. The first describes a project to augment the production of quinoa - a high Andean grain; and the second details a women's cooperative that promotes indigenous weaving. After reading the two chapters, the students are asked to compare the two Bolivian projects by completing a written assignment that asks:
    • Describe the way in which local people were engaged in the projects, stating not only their role in the projects, but also how they came to be involved. Who are the stakeholders for these projects? What obstacles had to be overcome in order to achieve successful involvement of the people in the projects?
    • Which of the two projects came closer to being a model for an integrated conservation and development projects - keeping in mind that model ICDP projects protect biodiversity by keeping ecological processes going and by involving local people in the process, while improving the livelihood of local people. Using evidence from the readings, explain the reason you believe one project is a better model.
  • A major portion of the final exam is a take-home question. The students are asked to demonstrate their ability to apply lessons learned through the following written assignment:
    • You have studied both a nearby park (Puget Park) and a preserved area located in Latin America. In both, the issues involve local people with parks. Draw lessons that can be learned from each and applied to the other. Please note that your answer must be bidirectional: What lessons are learned from Puget Park that help elucidate the issues abroad, and what lessons learned from abroad can be applied to Puget Park? Your answer should include specific examples and should clarify why some are successful and others less successful. To the fullest extent possible, your answers should be evidence-based.
  • A core part of the course-long assignment is an in-class workshop that models a participatory development workshop. Key to the workshop is a stakeholders' analysis; and as one of the first steps, the students are challenged to define and articulate "local." They are asked to design a stakeholder conceptual map/analysis that requires them to set local boundaries for a specific natural area. It is not, of course, delineating on a map the legal limits of the park, but rather it is determining the sphere of influence, which extends beyond the park. The definition of stakeholders is discussed so that the students realize that stakeholders include individuals, agencies, governments, and organizations. Usually students observe that the plants and animals also have a stake in the outcome of preserving or developing the land and resources of the park. This provides an opportunity for them to learn that while integral to the park, the plants and animals have no voice in the decision-making process. Such discussion introduces a brief conversation about ethics and values.

For the stakeholders analysis the students are asked:

  • To work in groups of four
  • To discuss the park
  • To identify the threats to the park and the potential uses of the land and its resources
  • To delineate the local sphere of influence
  • To list as many stakeholder groups or individuals as possible
  • To discuss each stakeholder's relative resources and interests in the park in light of their physical presence, economic effects, or social well-being
  • To select an array of colored paper circles. Each color of circle is used to represent a different stakeholder or stakeholder group. The size of the circles varies and is used to represent proportional or relative interest of the stakeholder(s) in the park or its resources
  • To label and glue the circles on a sheet of poster paper
  • To present orally to the rest of the class their stakeholder analysis
  • To discuss and compare each group's analysis

Examples of Student Work (Microsoft Word 1.1MB Oct27 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The stakeholder analysis could be done first for a nearby park and then again with a national or international park that students research using library or internet-based resources. The use of a nearby park facilitates classroom activities because it provides a common ground for discussion. Even after group visits to the park, students are not likely to share the same ideas about the park because they will have made different observations at the park and in the community. These are points to be explored in conversation.

Students will need help in choosing a park, region or country to study. It is well advised to limit the students' geographic scope. There are more resources available for some locations than for others. This type of research is likely to be a new experience for students.

Their analyses will benefit from practice in applying the lessons learned in one locale to another. Reading case studies about developmental assistance and conservation projects is a good strategy.

The choice of the nearby park is critical: the more intersecting the complexities the better. Ideally, it should be located in an area that is surrounded by development. This facilitates the discussion regarding conflicting use. It is also good if there are multiple uses of the park.

If a service-learning activity is to be incorporated into the class, it is advisable to choose a nearby park that has an active citizens' group or a governmental official through which the activity can be coordinated and situated.

One possible activity for future classes would be to attempt an actual participatory development/conservation workshop with the stakeholders for the park in Tacoma - including the people who reside in neighborhoods that surround the park.

References and Resources

The website for the Puget Creek Restoration Society follows. This serves as an example of an active citizens group that provides resources for student activities and participation. http://www.pugetcreek.org/

Students often need help in navigating the library and internet resources, especially in choosing a foreign park to study and in researching development that is actually occurring near a park located abroad. Sometimes a good starting point is to look at the Web sites of organizations and agencies that are active in the preservation of nature and the development of economies.

Here are some organizations:

  • The Nature Conservancy and specifically their Parks in Peril projects. TNC is a conservation organization that focuses on land acquisition. Try, for example, http://www.nature.org/wherewework/southamerica/.
  • Conservation International and specifically their Biodiversity Hotspots priorities. CI originally was part of TNC, but the organization split & CI retained the international portfolios. TNC now works separately.
  • World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and specifically their local websites. Originally this group focused on particular species that were endangered, but their mission expanded.
  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This is the division of the UN that funds large conservation and development projects throughout the world.
  • The US Agency for International Development. USAID is the agency of the US federal government that is responsible for developmental assistance worldwide. The agency does conservation activities, as well as development, largely by funding organizations and independent contractors (the contractors often produce detailed reports of their progress). Other governments (e.g., Belgium, Germany, Japan and Canada) have counterpart agencies.
  • UNESCO. The World Heritage site provides information about many areas. http://whc.unesco.org/
  • UNESCO. The MAB program promotes preservation and development in many countries. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/man-and-biosphere-programme//