The European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD) offers an unparalleled opportunity for improving river basin management. Active participation is essential for its delivery. “End-of-pipe” solutions will not deliver the improvements needed to achieve its ambitious goals. This research tested DesignWays, a toolkit for participatory planning, as a mechanism for maximizing the long-term social and environmental benefits of such stakeholder and community participation. It examined the emerging role of “planning for sustainability” in the context of river catchments. Sustainable management of water requires integration, and recognition of interconnections between systems at different levels of scale. This is an endeavour in which systems thinking provides useful tools. The development of DesignWays was a conscious attempt to embed ‘new paradigm’ living systems metaphors into a practical planning tool. This paper begins with a description of DesignWays and its development in Southern Africa. An outline of the context of the action research in North-West England is followed by a description of the stages of the process, with highlights of the outcomes. This research had two major outcomes: a contribution to theory through an in-depth exploration of the theoretical basis of participatory, ecologically informed design; and a contribution to practice through investigating DesignWays' potential to meet key challenges of the WFD. This research points to the importance of understanding participatory planning as a societal process, aiming to make the process engaging and meaningful. It has pointed to the need to see participatory planning and education for sustainability as an integrated process. It demonstrated the benefits of an iterative process in which planning at the landscape level of scale informs, and is informed by, work at the site level. It has shown that an approach consistent with a living systems paradigm can contribute to the development of more integrated, ecologically sound plans.

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