Is a clean river fun for all? Recognizing social vulnerability in watershed planning

Bethany B. Cutts, Andrew J. Greenlee, Natalie K. Prochaska, Carolina V. Chantrill, Annie B. Contractor, Juliana M. Wilhoit, Nancy Abts, Kaitlyn Hornik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Watershed planning can lead to policy innovation and action toward environmental protection. However, groups often suffer from low engagement with communities that experience disparate impacts from flooding and water pollution. This can limit the capacity of watershed efforts to dismantle pernicious forms of social inequality. As a result, the benefits of environmental changes often flow to more empowered residents, short-changing the power of watershed-based planning as a tool to transform ecological, economic, and social relationships. The objectives of this paper are to assess whether the worldview of watershed planning actors are sufficiently attuned to local patterns of social vulnerability and whether locally significant patterns of social vulnerability can be adequately differentiated using conventional data sources. Drawing from 35 in-depth interviews with watershed planners and community stakeholders in the Milwaukee River Basin (WI, USA), we identify five unique definitions of social vulnerability. Watershed planners in our sample articulate a narrower range of social vulnerability definitions than other participants. All five definitions emphasize spatial and demographic characteristics consistent with existing ways of measuring social vulnerability. However, existing measures do not adequately differentiate among the spatio-temporal dynamics used to distinguish definitions. In response, we develop two new social vulnerability measures. The combination of interviews and demographic analyses in this study provides an assessment technique that can help watershed planners (a) understand the limits of their own conceptualization of social vulnerability and (b) acknowledge the importance of place-based vulnerabilities that may otherwise be obscured. We conclude by discussing how our methods can be a useful tool for identifying opportunities to disrupt social vulnerability in a watershed by evaluating how issue frames, outreach messages, and engagement tactics. The approach allows watershed planners to shift their own culture in order to consider socially vulnerable populations comprehensively.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0196416
JournalPloS one
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General

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    Cutts, B. B., Greenlee, A. J., Prochaska, N. K., Chantrill, C. V., Contractor, A. B., Wilhoit, J. M., Abts, N., & Hornik, K. (2018). Is a clean river fun for all? Recognizing social vulnerability in watershed planning. PloS one, 13(5), [e0196416].