Feeling the forest: participatory methods to uncover the emotional dimension of forests

A new study reviews a range of participatory methods and provides a series of practical recommendations for forest practitioners, policymakers, and researchers.

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Forests contribute to people’s quality of life in different ways. They provide materials such as timber, fibres, and non-wood forest products, which are sources of subsistence and income generation. They also regulate the environment, surrounding ecosystems, and the climate, cleaning the air, filtering water supplies, controlling erosion, and supporting biodiversity. Assessing their multiple contributions is thus one of the top priorities of modern forest policy.

If several tools, methods, and frameworks do exist to value tangible forest benefits – such as timber, water, and biodiversity – the forests’ most intangible contributions to people (like spirituality, emotion, aesthetics) are hard to appraise, given that they are rarely marketable,  so quantifying their demand and supply is generally difficult. For this reason, community engagement activities, often called Participatory Methods, emerge as an innovative way to assess these intangible values broadening existing socioeconomic valuation approaches.

In a recent study, researchers reviewed existing participatory methods in the literature used by experts and facilitators that can serve best to identify and assess the emotional dimensions of forests. Through this assessment, they were able to list a series of practical recommendations for forest practitioners, policymakers, and researchers eager to use participatory-based research to evaluate forests’ intangible contributions to people.

The authors found 15 participatory methods, which include: performative methods to uncover participants’ emotions towards nature and the surrounding landscape; walking-based methods to immerse participants in nature while conducting research; validation methods to form judgements and evaluate research results conjointly; and methods to foster small-group discussions (Table 1). Amongst these, performative and walking methods emerge as the most widely used. These methods capture the vision of both individuals and communities and aim at giving an active voice to the environment, making nature part of the decision-making process.

While confirming that participatory methods are pivotal approaches to unfold connections amongst stakeholders dealing with forests’ intangible contributions to people, the authors make a step further and list four operational recommendations:

  1. Context matters. Practitioners wishing to use participatory approaches should be aware that the context in which the exercise is organised is important. Carefully selected outdoor forest settings that are meaningful for group participants can help to disentangle intangible contributions deeply rooted in the individual’s past experiences.
  2. Ensure facilitation skills. The success of the participatory exercise depends on the skills of the facilitator involved, who should have received the proper training for unveiling the emotional relationships between stakeholders and the forest settings.
  3. The right tool for the right moment. The choice of methods is both context and participant based. Review results indicate that the perfect method does not exist. The selection and testing of the method that best fits the research focus is up to the facilitators, their knowledge of the context, the participants involved, and the research objectives.
  4. Be prepared for what might come. Disentangling a forest’s intangible contributions to people means digging into human-nature relationships, individual emotions, and group dynamics. The results can be highly unpredictable and facilitators need to be ready for that.
GroupParticipatory method
I – Performative methods ranging to unfold participants’ emotions towards nature and the surrounding landscapeCommunity theatre, storytelling workshop (performative methods)
Participatory video method
II – Walking-based methods to immerse participants in natureWalking tour
III- Validation methods to form judgments and evaluate research results conjointlyData Party
Deliberative valuation process
IV- Methods to foster small-group discussionsCommunity potluck
Focus group
Participatory heterogeneity analysis
Visioning processes
V- Methods to include participatory aspects across the whole research processCommunity-based participatory research
Participatory observation
VI- Mapping and planning methodsParticipatory mapping
Participatory surveys/data collection planning
VII- Scoring methodsParticipatory workshops with experts scoring
Table 1. Participatory methods identified through the review divided into 7 macro groups. Adapted from Marini Govigli & Bruzzese (2023).

Full reference:

Marini Govigli, V. & Bruzzese, S. (2023) Assessing the emotional and spiritual dimension of forests: A review of existing participatory methods. Forest Policy and Economics 153, 102990.

This article has been co-written by Valentino M. Govigli (University of Bologna) and Stefano Bruzzese (EFI Governance).

SOURCEValentino M. Govigli & Stefano Bruzzese
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Valentino Marini Govigli
Valentino Marini Govigli is Junior assistant professor (fixed term) at the Department of Agri-Food Sciences and Technologies, University of Bologna (Italy). He holds a PhD in Forest and Cultural ecology, a MRes in Ecology and Environmental Management, and a BAE in Economics. His fields of expertise are socioeconomics of agro-forest goods and services, consumer behaviour and stakeholder preferences, intangible ecosystem services assessment, social innovation brokerage and multi-actor engagement.