Restoration – the word brings to mind glossy dark-wood furniture or big old Georgian manor houses. The antique chair may no longer perform the function it fulfilled in its heyday, roped off to prevent weary visitors tempted to take a load off.
While seeming functionless, restored objects can be beautiful to look at and hold important cultural values, reminding us of where we have come from and the depths of artistry and craft in different cultures and ages.
Sometimes there is very little of the original object left to restore; the damage or decay of time has erased much of the former structure. Restoration ecologists work to bring back species or ecosystems that have been damaged or erased. In furniture restoration different schools of thought debate the value of preserving the piece “as is” with minimal attempts to cover up and replace damaged parts versus the “simulacrum” approach of replacing lost parts and recreating how the piece once looked.
Similarly, the concept of recreating a lost ecosystem is contentious. Can we ever bring back an ecosystem of the past given how fundamentally the climate, soils and water flow have changed? How do we bring back ecosystems that hold priceless shards of our evolutionary and cultural heritage but no longer function as they once did? Should we be constructing new ecosystems that prioritise critical functions such as water purification, carbon sequestration and pollination that work with the realities of current human land use? Can the construction of new ecosystems even be called “restoration”?
The challenges in restoration science are substantial and bring together a wide range of different scientific fields with plenty of scope for creative tension that leads to conflict, but also to innovation, ambition and the reimagining of our future.
Restoration is not simply a natural science or engineering problem that can be solved through application of biology, physics and chemistry; it is very much a social science problem. How we restore ecosystems to generate benefits for a wide range of different people, and deliver those benefits equitably, is the cutting edge of the field.
While urban parks may not spring to mind when we think of restoration projects, a recent report on which sectors of society benefit from urban parks in London was eye-opening. Different ethnic minorities appreciated very different kinds of parkscapes from very formal plantings of garden plants through to wilder landscapes of trees, lakes and wetlands.
Restoring nature to people's lives means bringing it close to them and enabling them to enjoy it
The functions that parks provided to people also varied hugely from somewhere you might meet for a barbecue through to a place for appreciating rural beauty in the middle of the city. The values of those who designed the parks contrasted strongly with the values of the people in the catchment area of those parks who would gain most from the health and wellbeing benefits that parks provide. This meant whole sections of the surrounding population felt excluded or not catered for in their local parks.
Restoration does not have to be just one thing, such as the restoration of wilderness qualities in areas far removed from people, valuable though that is. Restoration projects can be sited in areas where a large number of people will gain benefits. The Dublin Mountains Makeover being undertaken by Coillte Nature specifically targets forests close to the densest population centre in Ireland. Restoring nature to people's lives means bringing it close to them and enabling them to enjoy it.
It is a blindingly obvious statement that not all people want the same things. The study on parks in London highlighted a massive conflict between dog lovers and people who cannot stand dogs. Negotiating these conflicts is not easy in shared spaces. We need a mosaic of landscapes and facilities to accommodate multiple uses and benefits.
Restoration means many things to many people. Gaining the political and public will to achieve the scale of restoration needed in Ireland requires the inclusion of a wide range of people’s values and being explicit about what we are trying to achieve. Do we restore a chair to sit in or to admire? Maybe, with clear planning, we can have both.