NESTED CONCEPTS (GRAPHIC): How do we change what we are doing on and to the landscape? Everything comes down to one question: What is the number for the line item in a local government annual budget for community investment in maintenance and management of stream systems?

Note to Reader:

The idea that nature in general and “urban green infrastructure” in particular provide something called “ecological services” is not intuitively understood by the public, elected representatives and asset managers. Because the concept is abstract, it requires a leap of faith for buy-in at an operational level in local government. In a phrase, at that level numbers matter.

An ever-present reality is that  local governments need real numbers to deliver outcomes. This creates a communication challenge and accentuates the need for effective communication tools to convey core concepts in a way that is easy to absorb. Thus, the Partnership for Water Sustainability created the Nested Concepts graphic to help local governments move past the rhetoric and focus their attention on actions that achieve desired outcomes. Getting there will depend upon a sustained and affordable investment by the community in restoration of streamside protection zones.

Nested Concepts frames in a visual way how we must change what we are doing on the landscape

“Partnership for Water Sustainability experience is that effective knowledge sharing is facilitated by communication tools that make it easy for audiences to grasp and absorb foundational concepts,” states Kim Stephens, Partnership Executive Director.

“At the conclusion of the 6-year program of applied research to evolve the methodology and metrics for EAP, the Ecological Accounting Process, we identified the need for a clear and compelling graphic that would encapsulate the essence of EAP.”

“It required a process for EAP Chair Tim Pringle and me to develop the Nested Concepts graphic. How will the graphic be used, we asked ourselves? How do we communicate with a range of audiences, from academics to political folks, about core concepts?”

“When the smoke cleared, we had distilled the essence of EAP into a set of succinct statements that we believe paint a picture and thus tell a story. In a very real sense, it is a case of less being more. We knew we had to keep it simple. Once we had the words right, a graphics designer brought our words to life in a visual way.”

Nature of the communication challenge

“The essence of the challenge as Tim Pringle and I saw it was figuring out how we would communicate a mix of ideas and place, with ‘the place’ being the Salish Sea and the lands surrounding and draining into it.”

“In broad terms, this place in the southwest corner of British Columbia is called the Georgia Basin Bio-Region. But it is more than just British Columbia because the bio-region includes the tributary land that is situated in the northwest corner of Washington State.”

“The Salish Sea itself is made up of two bodies of water – Puget Sound in Washington State and the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia. We call it the Salish Sea. But it is more like a big lake. In fact, and in terms of size, the Salish Sea has dimensions comparable to Lake Champlain in the state of Vermont in the eastern United States.”

Could Today’s Problems be Tomorrow’s Opportunities?

“We concluded that the Nested Concepts graphic need not explain things in great detail. It just had to engage the attention of the reader who then would want to learn more.”

“So, we asked ourselves, how do we frame what the issue is and what communities need to do? Well, the issue is that  the way we develop land has adverse consequences for the health of the streams and rivers flowing into the Salish Sea. And those consequences impose a financial liability upon communities.”

“The flip side of a problem is an opportunity. So, what must communities do to turn today’s problems into tomorrow’s opportunities? The answer is to begin the process of changing what we are doing on the landscape.”

“Simply put, that means change our development practices by designing with nature. This means respecting natural systems. This is not a new idea. The legendary Ian McHarg introduced it in the 1960s. This way of thinking has been embedded in our convening for action language in British Columbia for the past two decades. The Partnership develops tools and resources to support and enable designing with nature.”

“With these thoughts as the backdrop, the structure for the Nested Concepts graphic nicely fell into place.”

Five Nested Concepts tell a story

“Five ideas tell the ‘story behind the story’ of EAP, the Ecological Accounting Process through the lens of Nested Concepts. Expressed as soundbites, the five nested ideas are Context, Desired Outcome, Framework, Methodology & Metrics, Annual Budget. The five create a visual mind-map. Next, we explain what each means in  broad terms,” continues Kim Stephens.

Context – Land Use Surrounding the Salish Sea

“The Salish Sea is our geographic context, and the salmon and Orca whales are the canaries in the coal mine! More pointedly, the land use surrounding the Salish Sea is the context for financial valuation of stream systems which are ecological assets of primary concern in a local government setting.  The starting point for turning things around is that local governments need real numbers to make the financial case for doing business differently.”

Desired Outcome – Natural Asset Management in the Built Environment

“We manage what we measure. We can manage engineering infrastructure because we have hard numbers. We know, for example, what it costs to supply and install buried pipe. Yet we have an Infrastructure Deficit because historically communities have not done a good job in planning ahead for renewal or replacement.

But that ‘failure to manage’ is now being remedied through implementation of Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery: A BC Framework.”

“Success in moving forward with Engineered Asset Management gives us confidence that we can do the same for Natural Asset Management. But success will only follow if we get three elements right. In order of priority, the three are: guiding philosophy, pragmatic methodology, and defensible metrics.”

“The Partnership for Water Sustainability describes the progression as a journey along the Asset Management Continuum. The local government reality is that it is one step at a time and incremental progress takes time.”

Framework – Science-based Understanding of Land Use Consequences

“Rich Horner and Chris May are the Washington State researchers who correlated changes on the landscape to the consequences for streams. In the mid-1990s, their findings were transformational. Their work shook the foundations of traditional engineering practice. Horner and May provided us with a science-based framework for balancing use and conservation of land.”

“The Partnership calls this the Roadmap for Protecting Stream System Integrity.  We must stay true to the science if we hope to make a difference. The problem is the gap or disconnect between what communities know what should be done versus what they allow to continue. That is an ever-present challenge.”

Methodology & Metrics – Ecological Accounting Process (EAP)

“Streams in urban, suburban and rural settings are assets that require maintenance and management (M&M). EAP provides an original way to analyze and present data from existing sources as well as field observations. The EAP methodology and metrics fill the gap and would thus enable action by local government.”

“The Riparian Deficit is a measure of land use intrusion along streams. A comparatively low value is a positive indicator of the effectiveness of streamside setback regulation. The Riparian Deficit is equivalent to the well-known Infrastructure Deficit that currently drives Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery.”

“Having a number for the Riparian Deficit provides environmental planners with a point of departure for balanced inter-departmental conversations about the services that natural and constructed assets each provides.”

Annual Budget – How Much?

“There are two basic questions that drive Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery. One, what does maintenance and management (M&M) of stream systems cost? Two, where does the money come from?”

“With EAP, local governments have the tool they need to populate line items within Asset Management Budgets for ongoing investment in stream system M&M, just as they would do for an engineered asset.”

“Realistic, affordable and acceptable – those three attributes describe a defensible budget,” concludes Kim Stephens.



EAP is a BC Strategy for Community Investment in Stream Systems

The Synthesis Report is a distillation of over 1000 pages of case study documentation into a storyline that is conversational and written for a continuum of audiences that includes land use practitioners, asset managers, stream stewards, and local government decision-makers.

To Learn More:

Download and read a copy of the entire  Synthesis Report on EAP, the Ecological Accounting Process, A B.C. Strategy for Community Investment in Stream Systems (2022), the 4th in the Beyond the Guidebook series of guidance documents.