Governance of urban wetland ecologies

By ZHANG YUANHUI and FAN DONGPING / 06-02-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An aerial view of Huangbai River Wetland Park in Yiling District, Yichang City, Hubei Province on May 15, 2021 Photo: CFP

Urban wetlands are not only an important tool for improving urban ecologies and nourishing water sources, but also serve as a green space for public recreation and leisure. In the process of wetland conservation and management, we need to comprehensively understand relations and interactions among society, the economy, humanity, natural resources, and other system elements, to pull together in collective action for urban wetland ecological management.

Development dilemmas
As an important component of urban ecosystems, urban wetlands often face development dilemmas from a variety of economic, social, and structural sources, resulting in varying degrees of damage to wetland ecosystems. The following areas are in urgent need of improvement.
Urban expansion has led to a narrowing of wetland development space. With rapid urbanization, the high demand for land for development continues to decrease wetland space. Meanwhile, air, water, and soil pollution resulting from urban development have had a significant impact on the original ecology of wetlands. Furthermore, residents surrounding wetlands are driven by financial interests to encroach on wetland space and carry out business development activities such as planting, which damages the natural integrity of wetlands.
The main body of governance needs to become more diversified, to make up for weakness in the urban wetland governance system. Due to the wetlands’ public nature, the government, as the main body of wetland ecological governance, undertakes multiple tasks such as ecological restoration, water management, and environmental maintenance of wetlands. Social organizations, the public, and research institutes have relatively little initiative to participate in governance of urban wetlands. This singular governance body has led to a weak urban wetland governance system and the inability to shape collective action in urban wetland governance.
Internal functions move from disorder to order, further improving the restructuring process for urban wetlands. As an important component of urban ecology, urban wetlands play multiple roles, sustaining urban water sources, enriching the lives of citizens, and providing public information and education. The ambiguous positioning of wetland functions brings about varying degrees of disorder in the planning and construction of urban wetlands, further leading to multiple reworkings and developments in urban wetland construction, which impacts the original ecology and structure of urban wetlands.
Dimensions of wetland governance
First, it is important to maintain integrity and coherent policies among ecological conservation, economic development, and China’s culture. The coupled human-ecological system is constantly influenced and constrained by social, economic, and cultural influences, which demands attention to each factor that may play a role when analyzing the complexities of social-ecological systems, especially the influence of various economic, social, cultural, and ecological factors.
Second, the non-linear and hierarchical nature of elements within our social-ecological system should be emphasized. A social-ecological system is a multistable nested system carrying uncertainties, and it is necessary to comprehensively understand its complex nature and non-linear functional mechanisms, to clarify non-linear interrelationships among the different elements across scales, and to study them holistically. The urban wetland social-ecological system is an open and complex mega-system, in which multiple actors form a multi-level interdependent system. Therefore, in the ecological management of urban wetlands, it is important to interpret reciprocal feedback between the wetland social-ecological system’s actors and the environment, so that overall management can be optimized.
Third, functional zoning should be optimized under a multifunctional landscape system. Urban wetland planning should follow the principles of wholeness and functionality. Wholeness aims to ensure integrity in the restoration of wetland ecosystem structure and the integrity of ecological processes, while functionality guarantees sustainable wetland development.
Based on the principles of wholeness and functionality, urban wetland functions can be divided into wetland conservation areas, restoration and reconstruction areas, education and display areas, rational use areas, and management service areas. Each functional zone should be managed separately with clear management objectives and technical measures. The process of gradually restoring the resilience of the urban wetland ecosystem creates a symbiotic evolutionary development mechanism among society, people, and natural resources.
Ways forward
Urban wetland governance should adhere to systemic thinking, leverage the government’s leading function in governance, promote collaborative participation of multiple social actors, and optimize urban wetlands’ management methods.
First, the government plays a key role in the ecological management of urban wetlands. To begin with, the government should ensure that wetlands are protected as permanent ecological sites through legislation and set up a corresponding “wetland management office” to maintain and scientifically manage urban wetlands in a unified manner, to lay a solid foundation for the comprehensive protection and construction of urban wetlands. Then, the government should provide technical and financial guarantees for the restoration of wetland systems. The government has implemented wetland boundaries and fencing projects to enforce effective isolation and prevent excessive human disturbance to wetland ecosystems.
In addition, special funds should be earmarked for ecological management and the restoration of wetland systems, especially for the restoration and maintenance of vegetation and restoration of water bodies ecosystems. In terms of daily management, a grid-based wetland management platform can be built based on big data, which monitors such acts as sewage discharge and encroachment on wetlands and deals with these issues in a timely manner.
Secondly, we should effectively promote synergy and cooperation among multiple subjects in urban wetland governance. In the process of restoration, construction, protection, and supervision of urban wetlands, the traditional model of hierarchical government management has become outdated and has been replaced by a synergistic model in which social enterprises, non-profit organizations, scientific research institutions, and the public participate in wetland governance.
Already, government management agencies play the role of organization, coordination, guidance, and supervision. In addition to administrative departments, such as forestry, marine fisheries, agriculture, and environmental protection, the government should also set up a special office for urban wetland management, giving this office the power to operate independently and manage wetlands in a unified manner, and to ensure that the responsibilities of the relevant departments are fulfilled.
Going forward, multiple subjects can promote the sustainable development of wetland systems by enhancing their respective strengths. For example, scientific research institutes can establish partnerships with wetland administrators to jointly carry out scientific research projects, providing theoretical and technical support for the conservation and development of wetlands. All in all, a collaborative governance mechanism formed among multiple subjects is not only an effective way to address the complexity of urban wetland governance, but also an important model for the sustainable development of urban socio-ecological wetland systems.
As a third strategic goal, we should promote the development of a multifunctional landscape system for urban wetlands. The Urban Wetland Management Office uses system thinking to achieve standardized and scientific management of urban wetland ecosystems based on dynamics and classification, and builds a multifunctional landscape coordination system that takes into account ecological and productive functions, coordinates science education, and promotes ecological stewardship.
To begin with, urban wetlands should be placed under zoned management. Based on the ideal of synergistic development of ecology and production, the ecological management of wetlands should be promoted. We should promote the ecological management of wetlands core functional areas to provide good habitats and feeding conditions for birds and other wetland species. Furthermore, rational development of productive resources such as wetland fisheries and fruit industries should be encouraged to achieve agroforestry ecological balance and material and energy cycles.
Next, we should begin strategically opening urban wetland zones. As an important public service space for urban residents, urban wetlands can be open to the public, free of charge, with “reservations + tickets,” and the number of visitors per day should be controlled. Currently, functional areas for wetland expositions, science education, public fitness, and leisure are gradually being established to promote the public’s overall awareness of wetland protection while they relax and enjoy themselves. In addition, an ecological conservation area will be opened only to scientific research teams and environmental education institutions to promote an in-depth understanding of wetlands and scientific research and to realize the healthy development of industry-academia-research integration.
Zhang Yuanhui and Fan Dongping (professor) are from the Institute for Science, Technology and Society at South China Normal University.
Edited by WENG RONG