Civic engagement and environmental stewardship: Who takes care of New York City?
Lecture by Erika Svendsen
Worldwide, cities are grappling with aging infrastructure, shifting populations, and changing weather patterns, necessitating the use and expansion of green public space in equitable and creative ways.
Many are embracing a transition from the sanitary city—comprised of siloed functions and grey infrastructure—to the sustainable city—comprised of regenerative and distributed systems that require ongoing coordination. At the same time, municipal budget constraints create an urgent need for leveraging civic capacity. Even under the best-case scenario, cities invest in their natural resources and green infrastructure primarily through the commitment of capital funds, leading to insufficient support for long-term maintenance of these installations. City agencies do not have the funding or humanpower to maintain these sites and systems alone, and rely on a growing network of civic organizations and volunteers.
The urban landscape is a co-creation of many, and if we want to improve the quality, accessibility, and viability of our natural resources and open spaces then it is important to understand not only the resource as a social ecological system, but those who care for it as part of that system. STEW-MAP (the Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project) began in New York City in 2007 as a way of visualizing the civic groups that provide capacity and take care of the local environment.
Stewardship is defined as the activity or job of protecting, taking care of, or being responsible for something. STEW-MAP is a way to understand the social extent of caring for a place. In urban environments where there are many layers of change as well as overlapping bureaucratic boundaries and property jurisdictions, the work of civic stewardship groups can be viewed as transboundary, as their work and purpose often cross over space, time, and scale.
Research findings from STEW-MAP have begun to illuminate the transformative power of natural resources stewardship as an activity that naturally cultivates and strengthens civic engagement. Since 2007, STEW-MAP has expanded to cities internationally. STEW-MAP projects are currently underway in Baltimore; Philadelphia; Seattle; Chicago; the Portland, Maine region; Los Angeles; the North Kona and South Kohala regions in Hawaii; Paris, France; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Valledupar, Colombia. Lessons from many of these cities will be shared as well as ideas for a shift toward a more holistic stewardship as a way to improve our capacity as a society and sustainable ways of being.
Dr. Erika Svendsen
is a social scientist with the US Forest Service, Northern Research Station, and is based in New York City. Erika studies environmental stewardship as it relates to social innovation, governance, and human well-being. She is the Team Leader of the NYC Urban Field Station, a research and practice partnership between the US Forest Service, NYC Parks, the Natural Areas Conservancy and many other cooperators. The NYC Urban Field Station is part of a national network of field stations and is a space to conduct research, cultivate ideas, and foster collaboration among scientists and practitioners focused on urban ecological and social issues. Erika recently co-authored the book How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy. She has received the Forest Service Chief’s Award for engaging urban America and an Early Career Scientist Award recognizing her co-development of STEW-MAP, a tool for assessing and visualizing the contributions of civic stewardship groups in improving community life and their local environment. She has served on the Research Steering Committee for the MillionTreesNYC campaign, as an advisor to the Vibrant Cities Urban Forests National Task Force, and a member of the Department of Interior’s Strategic Sciences Group on Hurricane Sandy. Erika is a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.