There are thousands of environmental non-profit organizations operating throughout the United States. Many are found in cities. Most are focused on advocating for cleaner air, water, and soils, pushing for new legislation, regulations, and municipal services aimed at improving the local environment.
Some environmental groups go beyond advocacy and organizing. They roll up their sleeves and play an active, day-to-day roll in stewarding the local environment. They start community gardens, care for newly planted street trees, or serve as auxiliary horticulture staff at public parks. These mostly volunteer-led initiatives end up becoming part of the local environmental governance scene, collaborating with municipal agencies and other big-name groups to make a demonstrable impact on the health and function of urban environmental resources.
I recently co-authored a research article on the steps that some of these hands-on stewardship groups have taken to measure and monitor the impacts of their work, looking mostly at cases from NYC. It turns out that most small groups struggle to bring environmental science into their regular stewardship practices, but they all dream of being able to see, in real time, whether or not their efforts are actually working. The article, published online in the peer-reviewed journal Local Environment, explores the different ways in which groups are participating in the science of outcomes monitoring whenever they actually can find a way to make it work.
Most groups are creating their own D.I.Y. methods and metrics for measuring the outcomes of their work. Though they may be simple in scope, these homegrown efforts are an important first step toward collecting and analyzing data about the efficacy of small-scale stewardship programs in cities throughout the world. Though all of the groups I interviewed struggled, to some extent, to measure their impacts, they all wished they could do more to self-assess their efforts. Future research may show ways to make outcomes monitoring more accessible to small stewardship groups.
A lot has happened around this topic since I collected field data for this project during the summer of 2012. During the summer of 2013, the Design Trust for Public Space launched the Five Borough Farm initiative to begin helping community gardeners and urban farmers in NYC measure all the good things happening at their various sites. If I were to do another round of field research for a follow-up article, I would need to take into account the dozens of gardens and farms now collecting outcomes data through Five Borough Farm. As more projects like Five Borough Farm come online, we may see more and more opportunities for stewardship groups to easily and confidently measure the outcomes and impacts of their work.
If you belong to an environmental stewardship initiative in your city, I would love to learn about the ways you and your neighbors are collecting data about your work. Drop a line and let me know what you’re up to!
Note: The research article referenced above is behind a paywall but is freely accessible to most library patrons through online journal databases—particularly those at colleges and universities. If you are having trouble accessing the article, please contact me directly.
Silva, P., & Krasny, M. E. (2014). Parsing participation: models of engagement for outcomes monitoring in urban stewardship. Local Environment, 0(0), 1–9. http://bit.ly/1oC5Wvb