Visualizing nature: Engaging local youth in issues of stormwater and subwatersheds
The declining health of the Chesapeake Bay region’s water and ecology has been the target of strong regulatory reform. The improvement of the bay region requires an approach that addresses beyond the predominant focus of regulatory and technical practices, to include socials dimensions. Additional research should focus on the role social dimensions can contribute to the environmental concerns of the Bay region, specifically identifying a base line of knowledge as well as the behavior, practices, and relationship community stakeholders have to the local and regional environment. This study engaged underrepresented stakeholders from two sub-watersheds within the Anacostia River Watershed and the Patuxent River Watershed. The two study sub-watersheds had comparable percentage of residential area and percent impervious surfaces. Photovoice, a community based participatory research method with deep roots in public health and minority stakeholder involvement, was used to gauge the relationship, perceptions and knowledge of local youth. A total of 20 students participating in an environmental club from two local high schools, one in each study area, were asked to photograph areas within their watershed relating to nature and environmental issues (n=468). Participants then selected 10 photographs and wrote a brief narrative about each photo.
The study included a textual and visual analysis of the photographs and narrative to identify the perceptions and priorities of participants. Four dominant themes emerged from the photographs: issues of water, local environmental problems, stormwater infrastructure, and community-related issues. Although both study areas shared these themes, the visual depictions and narratives differed. A word count identified issues relating to pollution and trash as more prominent in the Anacostia River Watershed (“trash” n=43), compared to terminology relating to water systems and nature in the Patuxent River Watershed (“lake” n= 28, “stream” n= 23, “flow” n= 19). Chesapeake Bay signage was photographed numerous times in the Patuxent study area, with many narratives describing connections to the larger Bay region. Contrastingly, photographs from the Anacostia study area predominantly depicted trash in the stream, identifying in the narratives the need to change apathetic attitudes and the larger role community members need to take to improve the health of the environment. The results of this qualitative study can inform local government and community members as to the issues and opportunities and priorities of youth and how to incorporate social dimensions to consider in the regulatory process.