This exploratory and descriptive research intended to examine ways to engage a vulnerable young adult population in environmental and ecological education and in community planning and public participation processes.
A goal was to understand how to be more inclusive in the decision-making process at the community level based on ethical principles prescribed within the practice of equity planning and environmental and social justice. Merging the methodologies of applied action learning and action research, nested case studies were developed. Three cases within environmental and ecological education encompassed community gardening, horticultural therapy, and community mapping. The three cases within community planning and participatory processes included participating in a general plan or comprehensive plan update, a federal public hearing, and applying to sit on a federal agency working group.
This research found ways to invite uniquely abled people into public participation processes through adaptive surveys, novel meeting places, and engagement opportunities. A nexus exists between environmental education and understanding community such that vulnerable participants are able to become involved in public processes and participate at a level that demonstrates their ability to understand their community as well as their needs. Participating in experiential and informal learning, practicing and integrating skills, and demonstrating knowledge and abilities, uniquely abled participants were empowered toward building confidence in public speaking, sharing knowledge about themselves and their community, developing skills in self-reliance, and building social capital. Because of this vulnerable population's needs, they brought up problems and solutions that prompted other participants to realize they could also benefit from this population's input. Using GIS tools, limitations of public transportation were identified and now can be resolved through the planning process. As the participants became more involved at the community level, their interest in and knowledge of the environment increased. The systems of community participation and environmental immersion reinforced on the other much like a feedback loop, stabilizing an otherwise disconnected community, bringing about an equilibrium that provides an enriching and diverse environment where all its citizens are better connected and more equipped to live well in their environment.
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