Misha Begitte Pedersen ‘Community engagement as a route to promoting hidden heritage in Geopark Vestjylland 



According to the National Geographic Geotourism Charter,

“While a geopark must demonstrate geological heritage of international significance, the purpose of a geopark is to explore, develop and celebrate the links between that geological heritage and all other aspects of the area’s natural, cultural and intangible heritages… It is about reconnecting human society at all levels to the planet we all call home and to celebrate how our planet and its 4,600 million year long history have shaped every aspect of our lives and our societies.” (National Geographic, n.d.)

Geoparks aim at interpreting geology, human and physical geography, and investigate the links and interdependencies of man and his environment. Since 2015, Geoparks have officially been part of the UNESCO family. The UK currently has 7 UNESCO Global Geoparks, while the worldwide count is 120 in 33 different countries. Geopark Vestjylland will be Denmark’s second.

Hidden heritage of landscapes

Hidden heritage is the forgotten, untold aspects of heritage, which have the potential to inspire, enlighten and spark interest if disseminated in the right way to the right audience. To illustrate how this applies to landscapes, figure 1 shows a landscape which without interpretation may be a pleasant vista but nothing significant. However, once the viewer is made aware that what he or she is looking at is where the land ended and the ocean began around the Neolithic Period, a dimension is added to what is observed and a hidden story is told which connects the observer to the landscape in new ways.

Figure 1 Engbjerg Church on Engbjerg Hill, West Jutland, Denmark.

Geoparks and their local populations

A stated goal of a Geopark is to encourage not only sensitivity to the values of the local population, but to involve them and manage the park with the best interest of local residents in mind:

The establishment of a Geopark should be based on strong community support and local involvement, developed though a “bottom-up” process. It should demonstrate strong support from local political and community leaders… Success can only be achieved through strong local involvement. The initiative to create a Geopark must therefore come from local communities/authorities with a strong commitment to developing and implementing a management plan that meets the community and economic needs of the local population whilst protecting the landscape in which they live. (Global Geoparks Network, n.d.)

As Geopark Vestjylland also received LEADER funding (DEFRA, 2016), the emphasis on a bottom-up approach was expected to be even more marked in this Geopark. As a result, it was therefore natural to ask how the Geopark engaged with stakeholders and to which extent these efforts could be said to be genuine or were more tokenistic. The idea arose to conduct a case study to explore how a process of involvement was handled in this aspiring Geopark.

Baxter and Jack, in their guide to novice researchers, present Yin’s recommendation to use case studies “when ‘(a) the focus of the study is to answer “how” and “why” questions; (b) you cannot manipulate the behaviour of those involved in the study; (c) you want to cover contextual conditions because you believe they are relevant to the phenomenon under study; or (d) the boundaries are not clear between the phenomenon and context”’ (Baxter & Jack, 2008, p. 545) (Yin, 2003), all of which criteria were met in this scenario.

Data were collected from multiple sources. Archived material, documents and PR communications, participation in meetings and events, interviews with main stakeholders and informal conversations with residents in order to obtain rich data and minimise the risk of bias. Toward the end of the case study, valuable information on volunteer strategy and stakeholder relations was obtained over email.

Community engagement

The reasons for a change toward an increased focus on community engagement and the limitations and challenges that characterise this field have been explained by Head, Hare & Nielsen, Giddens and others from different perspectives. (Head, 2007) (Hare & Nielsen, 2003) (Giddens, 1998). Political changes, the advent of new communication tools, economic changes and other factors at a macro-level have resulted in a need to think along new paths and adopt a more bottom-up approach.

Hare and Nielsen, in their report “Landscape and ‘Community’”, present some of the challenges faced when involving citizens in landscape projects. (Hare & Nielsen, 2003) According to them, one of the most fundamental issues is determining in the first place who to engage with. Hare and Nielsen point out that the community is not just the loudest, the friends’ groups or those groups who are easy to identify but also those groups who may be harder to find and engage in dialogue. They find that the word ‘community’ is problematic because it tends to lead to exclusion and elitism. Through a series of case studies, they identify different ways community engagement, or as they prefer to call it, public participation, has been sought in different projects in the UK around the turn of the millennium and the challenges faced regarding quality design, satisfying a complex client who may now just as well be a community group and managing a complex project where focus is on developing capacity and improving communities more than on the traditional practices of their field. (Hare & Nielsen, 2003)

The debate about how to practice community engagement or citizen participation is not new (Arnstein, 1969 (2004)) and some central concerns are whether policy makers are genuinely interested in engaging and relinquishing power, whether citizens have the capacity to participate and whether real influence is possible to any substantial degree. (Arnstein, 1969 (2004)) (Head, 2007)

This paper uses the Ladder of Citizen Participation by Arnstein as a model for evaluating the level of engagement. (Arnstein, 1969 (2004)) This model depicts the potential levels of influence given to citizens as rungs on a ladder and divides them into 3 main categories, from nonparticipation (consisting of manipulation and therapy) over tokenism (informing, consultation and placation) to citizen power (partnership, delegated power and citizen control). (Arnstein, 1969 (2004))

Several guidelines and toolboxes have been developed, outlining some of the methods often used in community engagement. Most to some extent follow Arnstein’s levels. (Forest Research, n.d.) Familiar methods will include public meetings, stakeholder analysis and workshops, but also participatory GIS, ‘Head, heart, bag, bin’ and many others have been included. (Forest Research, n.d.) (Bryson & Carroll, 2007)

Workshops and information meetings

Geopark Vestjylland is the result of a long process initiated by local citizens. Before the project officially started, meetings were held with local community groups and interest organisations in preparation for the creation of the Geopark. Citizens were asked to share their ideas and contact details, which were held on file for later use. Many small experience and hospitality providers took part along with artists, local politicians and interest groups. The amount of ideas generated by this group through workshops and brainstorms was significant and would later form the basis on which the Geopark was built.

After a period of time, funding was gathered to start the Geopark as a project organisation and to progress toward an application to UNESCO, which includes a comprehensive self-assessment questionnaire followed by a visit from other Geoparks to confirm that the Geopark is established to the standards reported. A part of this self-assessment questionnaire deals with involvement of the local population.

At this stage, the project was largely citizen controlled and the methods used to engage with the public were to a wide degree inclusive, allowing citizens to co-develop a vision for the park.

Events and fairs

As the idea of a Geopark took hold, funding was acquired to create a project organisation and formally begin the process toward the establishment of the park and submission of an application to UNESCO to become an acknowledged park. At this point, publicity and engagement were sought through two main channels. Firstly, by meeting with heritage institutions, other nature parks in the area and regional tourism planners. Secondly, by being present at events, fairs and conferences hosted by potential partners to get in contact with businesses, policy makers and members of the community.

At this point, partnerships and mutual agreements were sought especially in the first category, that is, in the heritage and tourism sector. In relation to the general public, informing and displaying maps and ideas became the primary method of engagement, giving rise to opportunities to answer questions as well as explain the vision for the Geopark.

The roadshow

Shortly after funding was ensured and the project organisation created, meetings were held at village halls and similar locations where community groups were informed of the project and invited to a dialogue about the project in their own familiar environment. The title for this series of meetings was ‘The Roadshow’. Communities were told what the creation of the Geopark would mean to them. An important message was that there were opportunities to contribute, and for businesses to benefit from the Geopark umbrella destination in relation to marketing and co-branding. The importance of the UNESCO logo was stressed and the fact that if the application was successful, this would be a stamp of quality and something for the area to be proud of.

The public meetings in the smaller communities presented the project to citizens and encouraged two-way dialogue and for participants to support the project by becoming active in their communities and incorporate the Geopark in the plans for their smaller businesses.

At this stage, the actual Geopark application and direction was less open to debate.

Volunteer and Partnership Strategy

A volunteer and partnership strategy was developed to ensure contributors are aware of health and safety, excellence in hospitality, the Geopark brand and design manual, and interpretation standards before being allowed to market their local attractions with mention of Geopark Vestjylland. Partnership agreements would be drawn up, through which help would be available with translations, future interpretation material and courses for volunteer guides. During conversations with potential partners, the need for a coherent brand was explained to interest groups and hospitality providers, attraction owners and other interested parties.

These partnerships are mutually beneficial. The well-known challenge: the need for quality design has had to be addressed. Partners have received guidelines and training positively, and express an understanding for the need to present the park under a recognisable brand.

Organisational Structure

The UNESCO application assesses different areas such as project organisation, natural and cultural heritage, and geology. Several work groups were created in which professionals and volunteers worked side by side to describe and select the heritage, sites and attractions to be included in the Geopark application. Each work group was led by a coordinator who kept in close contact with the steering committee and the project manager.

The benefits of this method were that a very diverse range of viewpoints were represented in the work groups and that hidden stories were brought to the attention of the Geopark. Volunteer members of the work group have brought their perspectives to the table while respecting professional decisions about the elements to be included in the application and as main attractions.


As Geopark Vestjylland became a formal project organisation, the need for direction and progression toward the UNESCO application meant a project manager was employed to ensure cohesion and thrust. Geopark Vestjylland, like many other projects, faces challenges with regards to time, resources and a need to meet criteria in several areas which can sometimes conflict.

As part of the process during which the project matured, volunteering and community engagement became more formalised and according to Arnstein’s definitions, the project moved from citizen control to different levels of consultation, partnerships and delegated power.


This development is desirable in the context of a short project period toward the UNESCO application deadline, and is a lot more convenient when it comes to developing a recognisable tourist destination. Uniting on the one hand citizen participation, community engagement and volunteering with on the other hand the need for a professional, high quality offer and a project delivered on time and within the scope agreed with funding bodies seems a well-known challenge. As a result of these constraints and demands, it can be all too easy to stay at the lower rungs on Arnstein’s ladder in order to maintain control, get the consultation process finished and the right box ticked.

In Geopark Vestjylland, because the project was citizen initiated, engagement with a wider group of stakeholders has been sought and obtained. In addition, the level of engagement by key volunteer researchers has been high, and these stakeholders have formed an important part of work groups, helping to bring to the attention of the Geopark those aspects of heritage hidden or untold by heritage institutions. By working with community leaders, it was ensured that partnership agreements were helpful to the aim of the Geopark without becoming elitist or stifling to initiative. Simultaneously, an effort was made to increase the capacity of various groups to participate and provide training to partners in preparation for future initiatives.

Further research

This case study gave a glimpse of how community engagement was undertaken in one aspiring Geopark, and since then, further research has been undertaken by this author in Fforest Fawr Geopark, Wales, on stakeholder engagement. Understanding in more detail how Geoparks, with their special focus on wellbeing and prosperity of the local population, can provide both unique heritage experiences and also recognisable tourist destinations by working with communities could help further develop high quality, sustainable tourism offers, in Geoparks and beyond, and give insight into the process of public participation and ways to deal with the challenges inherent in this. Furthermore, identifying ways to use natural heritage resources to create a sense of pride in rural communities often facing significant challenges and to attract investments to these areas would be very beneficial. Community engagement and activating the resources present in these communities will play a key role in this process. Geoparks can be seen as one example of this, but far from the only one.


Heritage Matters both now and in the future !

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