Global urbanisation presents the challenge of how to conserve remnant biodiversity in our cities and maintain human connection with nature. Nature contact has been found to be beneficial for physical and mental health as well as for quality of life and social connectedness. As densities increase, there are less opportunities to retain nature within gardens and streets, so nature will be experienced within urban open spaces and protected areas. Nature invokes a range of social realities...[Show more] depending on your experience. Canberra, a planned city coproduced by humans and nature, defies binary notions about the separation of nature and city, providing an ideal setting for social research. Using place-based case studies, this qualitative research uses ethnographic methods to explore how nature is experienced in urban nature reserves, drawing on perspectives of neighbours and users, practitioners developing near nature reserves and managers, including volunteers. These case studies are supported by topical studies about how societal discourse and norms might influence nature connection and interstate studies that explore alternative models used to manage biodiverse urban nature reserves and people relationships. This research has found nature reserves in Canberra are important social spaces, satisfying a range of human needs by providing valued everyday nature contact and fostering social bonds and cohesion. Regular users and nearby neighbours are strongly place-attached to these nature reserves, as are Park Care stewards. This meaning and belonging is expressed in many ways from human memorials, photos and stories of daily nature experience, to boundary maintenance practices and ecological restoration. This raises questions about how we best manage these places for multiple social values. Ecosystem loss has elevated biodiversity conservation and the bounded governance of nature reserves creates a value hierarchy and imposes rules often at odds with the everyday reality of users and other beneficial societal outcomes. Promoting nature connection is also hitting against heightened elevation of risk in society, communicated through the popular media, and evident in changing social norms around parenting, affecting children's freedom and nature contact. Structuring reserve management around bounded ecological units means social values and knowledge about these places is often overlooked in planning processes. Epistemic authority rests in scientific and administrative knowledge at the expense of other ways of seeing, the place meanings and community knowledge that has evolved through long-term social associations with these reserves. Knowledge and skills based groups like conservation stewards and fire volunteers provide critical capacity for managers and need greater legitimacy within management agencies. The potential is evident in long term collaborations elsewhere where management of nature reserves devolved to community organisations leads to imaginative local programs. By comparing different management responses in the case studies, there is evidence that with early education and visible active management, respectful stewardship behaviours can evolve alongside the conservation purpose. This suggests bounded management is fit for purpose where there is a regular management presence, well-designed and maintained trail infrastructure and targeted education programs. In the older reserves, managers need to recognise the legacies of these lived-in landscapes and explore opportunities for community partnership approaches that devolve autonomy. Writing people into not out of urban nature reserves recognises these social realities as well as the management legacies around their creation and the resource constraints. The experiences from Canberra will have resonance for other cities wrestling with the challenge of managing people and biodiversity in a way that respects the needs and interests of both.
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