Legal and institutional foundations of adaptive environmental governance

Daniel A. Decaro, Brian C. Chaffin, Edella Schlager, Ahjond S. Garmestani, J. B. Ruhl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Legal and institutional structures fundamentally shape opportunities for adaptive governance of environmental resources at multiple ecological and societal scales. Properties of adaptive governance are widely studied. However, these studies have not resulted in consolidated frameworks for legal and institutional design, limiting our ability to promote adaptation and social-ecological resilience. We develop an overarching framework that describes the current and potential role of law in enabling adaptation. We apply this framework to different social-ecological settings, centers of activity, and scales, illustrating the multidimensional and polycentric nature of water governance. Adaptation typically emerges organically among multiple centers of agency and authority in society as a relatively self-organized or autonomous process marked by innovation, social learning, and political deliberation. This self-directed and emergent process is difficult to create in an exogenous, top-down fashion. However, traditional centers of authority may establish enabling conditions for adaptation using a suite of legal, economic, and democratic tools to legitimize and facilitate self-organization, coordination, and collaboration across scales. The principles outlined here provide preliminary legal and institutional foundations for adaptive environmental governance, which may inform institutional design and guide future scholarship.

Original languageEnglish
Article number32
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2017


  • Adaptive governance
  • Climate change
  • Design principles
  • Environmental law
  • Social-ecological resilience
  • State-reinforced self-governance
  • Water governance


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