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A Review of “Theory & Practice of Strategic Environmental Assessment” by Thomas B. Fischer (2007) 2009/12/09

Posted by swansley in Environmental Planning.
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Fischer has created a pioneering book about a much needed planning and decision-making tool aptly named Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). The content is geared toward planning and policy professionals, theorists/academics, and graduate level students. If current and new generations of decision-makers actually begin to employ the theory presented here, we may truly have a fighting chance to slow, or even reverse, our negative environmental impacts on a global scale.

Fischer explains that SEA promotes sustainable development decision-making by encouraging environmental consideration at every level of the planning and policy creation process.  If environmental consequences are addressed earlier in the planning process, and at higher levels of decision making, environmental issues can potentially be dealt with in a more aggressive and proactive manner. Very often, environmental (and other non-material) issues are seen as secondary concerns and are not a focus until after economic decisions are made.  Unfortunately, this practice creates a reactionary situation that results in mitigation being the only remaining course of action.

He goes on to clarify that if environmental consequences are introduced in advance and are addressed at higher levels of planning, the playing field between economic, social and environmental concerns becomes more balanced. In short, policies, programs and projects would be on track to have a much more profound affect within our communities and our society as a whole. Toward this end, SEA attempts to change established routines that favor un-sustainable decisions that lead to un-sustainable practices. Additionally,  SEA in practice ideally creates interdisciplinary knowledge leading to greater environmental awareness within an authority or agency.

Fisher’s book addresses the eternal concern for planning professionals: how best to encourages intense public and stakeholder participation. Within the framework of SEA, the theory strongly advocates for decision-making practices that actually help build public trust and aid in providing increased transparency for better governance. According to Fisher, SEA encourages participants to attempt to see issues from other stakeholder perspectives in order to more easily achieve consensus.

To date, the SEA process has been applied across the world to a variety of situations, including trade agreements, economic development plans, land use plans and transportation plans. Even though SEA was initially introduced over two decades ago in Europe, its theory and practice are still in its infancy and agencies struggle to effectively apply it to multiple levels of planning (above the project level ). Due to the difficulty of balancing and applying all elements of the theory, practitioners have found it difficult to incorporate all of the theory’s ideals. Those that have even attempted are only a small handful of countries, including the U.S, Germany, and the Netherlands. The author provides detailed comparative analysis of 11 implemented SEA systems with varying results which will no doubt shine light on strategies that worked and lessons learned.

Planning and policy experts could benefit greatly from this book. The theory and practices presented here have the potential to create a new paradigm of decision-making in our world of climate change, growing human populations and rapid loss of biodiversity. Our policy and planning activities need an effective decision-support  tool to help balance economic development with social equity and environmental protection. SEA has the potential to provide this breakthrough. Fischer’s book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in this pursuit.

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