Current laws in many countries around the world, and in EU member-states in particular, have made the consultation of affected publics mandatory for such decisions as the sitting of energy facilities, urban re-habilitation or the designation of protected areas. This has made exercises of public engagement a generalized practice. However, the growing literature that addresses the perspectives of experts (scientists and decision-makers) about this engagement shows how the public is systematically constructed as unresponsive, indifferent, as needing information more than participation, and as appeasable by having certain specific concerns addressed. This ‘imagined public’ works as a rational for experts to opt, most of the times, for weak versions of public engagement, and this, in turn, contributes for reproducing and perpetuating an old image of the public under the new legislation. However, there is one further dimension that is crucial for understanding the dynamics of public engagement: knowing how the publics imagine themselves and whether or not these imaginations reproduce the models of the public with which the experts work. Yet, this is a much less studied topic. In this presentation we will look at how the publics imagine themselves. We present data from 9 focus groups with rural communities subjected to decisions linked to Natura 2000 biodiversity protection laws. The residents describe episodes of local civic engagement and talk about barriers and facilitators to engagement. The analyses show that, in several dimensions, the residents lack new forms of imagination, i.e., they imagine themselves as they are imagined by the experts. Other aspects are, however, contested, and the will to participate never leaves the discourses, thus opening space for agency and for new formats of engagement, even if these are not very specific. The consequences of this for governance and the advancement of environmental goals are discussed.