Environmental Limit Setting, Selwyn Waihora

Large project combining multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary approaches.

Research goal: Predicting the consequences of future landuse scenarios in the Selwyn Waihora catchment on environmental, economic, social, and cultural wellbeing.

Between 2011 and 2015 Environment Canterbury ran their first collaborative policy-making process to set freshwater quality limits in the Selwyn Waihora catchment (the catchment that the Lincoln campus sits in). The collaborative policy making was centred on a committee consisting of council and community representatives and local rūnanga. The committee was to recommend regulatory and non-regulatory provisions, including water-quality and quantity limits, that realise the community’s cultural, economic, social, and environmental values.


A technical team was formed to support the committee. The project team thought carefully about their role in this new type of policy making process, and although they didn’t employ a broker, they designated one or two people to focus on the integration and translation of information and brokering knowledge between different groups.

Organising concept

To sense-test the technical work and to provide input to the committee, the technical team set up 11 community focus groups. These were selected by considering who is potentially impacted by the problem, who is potentially impacted by the solutions and who is interested. The technical team engaged with a diverse range of people throughout the project and it would have been useful to formally record how different people were involved.

Integrated techniques used

At the start, instead of the scope and focus of the research being determined by what the regional council scientists said they could measure or model or considered important, the community said what they valued and where and when they valued it. It was then the job of the technical team to see what information they needed to generate and therefore what disciplines and sources of knowledge they needed to include in the technical assessment. The problem was framed from the perspective of the community, and included a larger range of considerations than probably would have been the case otherwise. This approach to problem framing recognised that it wasn’t just the science knowledge that was important for this process.

Contextual concepts


There were resource and time constraints of this project meant that the project needed to reuse existing modelling combined with relatively simple new numeric models and qualitative and quantitative assessment techniques. These models needed to be linked together to generate and integrated assessment, however, as many of the individual components were pre-existing, there was the risk that they weren’t compatible. The technical team found it useful to build a conceptual model of how water and nutrients move through the catchment. This was used to sense test the results of the different models. The conceptual model was generated bringing knowledge from the technical team and other ECan expertise, the focus groups and the committee. It was discussed and refined over the course of the project, and represented in simple diagram form to make it easier to digest and for people to comment on and ask questions about.

The technical team worked with the focus groups and the committee on developing possible future land-use scenarios and choosing appropriate indicators to evaluate the scenarios. For each scenario the technical team evaluated the likely impact on environmental, social, cultural, and economic values. Using these scenario evaluations it was possible to assess the degree to which a community’s aspirations for economic growth, healthy water, cultural health and social well-being could be met.

Integrated techniques used


It was in the doing phase that the project’s lack of adequate engagement with Ngāi Tahu was really evident. The rapid pace of the project and short timeframes and poor understanding of appropriate modes of engagement for the technical team meant that there were considerable concerns with some possible future scenarios being modelled.

Contextual concept

More information

Robson, M. (2017). Unintended consequences of honouring what communities value and aspire to. Integration and Implementation Insights blog post

Robson-Williams, M., Norton, N., Davie, T., Taylor, K., Kirk, N. (2018). The changing role of science and scientists in supporting community-centered land and water policy processes in Canterbury, New Zealand. Changing role of scientists in collaborative policy. Case Studies in the Environment, October.