With climate change and biodiversity loss increasing stress on ecosystems, engaging residents in urban conservation is more important now than ever.
The question becomes how to reach people in their busy lives, respect traditional knowledge, and bring more people into the conversation about conservation.
Consider the method and the message
In order to reach people, we need to articulate biodiversity in a way that is meaningful for them, said Jennifer Pierce, a biodiversity researcher at the University of British Columbia.
She recommended starting from questions such as “how does biodiversity relate to their lives. To what they value?” This may mean dropping the solely environmentally focused arguments and connecting biodiversity to other top-of-mind issues for people.
As we noted in our story on neighbourhood-scale urban biodiversity projects, one of the benefits of local initiatives is how they can make biodiversity tangible and relevant. Recent research has also shown how people’s exposure to local nature can positively impact their involvement in wider environmental issues.
By leveraging people’s attachment to their own home or neighbourhood—and by showing them how native plant gardens and rain gardens could, for example, save them money like Guelph’s rebate program does—more people can be brought into the conversation.
Another way to reach people is by working with youth. Schools are a great cross-section of society, Ryerson University Associate Professor Nina-Marie Lister said. Students can bring back messages of the importance of biodiversity to their parents, the same way that they did with recycling in the 1980s. “It was kids that pressured their parents to recycle,” Lister said. “They led by example.”
Respect and honour Indigenous land stewardship
Joce Two Crows Tremblay is an Earth Worker with the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle in Toronto who works directly with street-involved youth and urban Indigenous populations planting and tending Indigenous species in local parks and public spaces.
These gardens are an important way of connecting with the land, traditions and ceremony—ties which have been severed through the colonization process.
“For the over 50% of Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) populations that are now living in urban settings, parks are often our only place to connect with the land,” explained Tremblay. “A lot of healing happens by just getting your hand in the ground.”
Tremblay’s work extends to compiling research and educating about less-invasive management practices with a keen awareness of how colonial thinking is often re-enacted in how we manage species and landscapes.
Introducing new ways of thinking needs constant effort, and reinforcement of intentions through all layers of staff, as Tremblay learned when one of their Three Sisters gardens was accidentally mowed down. It is as important for the staff cutting the grass as it is for management to understand efforts to increase biodiversity and reconciliation work in parks.
Friends of Watkinson Park. Credit: Elder Marlene Bluebird
How little we embed Indigenous knowledge and land management practices into our biodiversity work “is an enormous gap, and it’s also an irresponsible gap,” Lister argued.
She pointed out that while city staff have good intentions with biodiversity strategies and are aware of the need for more Indigenous involvement, they also recognize that many Indigenous organizations and communities are often stretched to capacity.
“It’s long been recognized that patterns of colonization and colonial history are repeated and entrenched through the way we build our landscape,” Lister said. “And we know that there needs to be, in Lorraine Johnson’s words, an unsettling of the garden.”
While not looking specifically at city parks, the importance of Indigneous land stewardship practices was highlighted by a 2019 University of British Columbia study which found biodiversity was highest on Indigenous-managed lands—finding a 40% greater number of unique species.
Engender respect and care
Getting to a place of collective care can be challenging. Some people may “love a place to death” while others may be ignorant of sensitive ecosystems, dumping trash or allowing their dog to run around.
However, as research by Mount Royal University’s Don Carruthers Den Hoed has found, how a place is framed—the name we give it and the narrative we embed in it—can impact people’s understanding of its importance. Humans are constantly looking for cues that suggest how we should act or what a place is for.
Carruthers Den Hoed pointed to one study where by telling people they were going to a park, people perceived it as a restorative place before they even got there. Even by naming something a “park” or a “sensitive landscape” we frame it in such a way that it affects how people relate to it.
Another research study set up by Carruthers Den Hoed included a “blind taste test” of nature. He brought participants to the same place through different ways: one group saw a park sign, one saw no sign, and another connected with Indigenous elders who talked about the place’s spiritual significance.
Carruthers Den Hoed found that people’s perception of the space—the importance and the level of care needed—was affected by the narrative of the place they were presented with, whether through signage or story. As a result, he noted it’s important to think about what the amenities, signage, and management of a park says about its significance and purpose.
Bose Forest Interpretive Signage in Surrey. Credit: Pamela Zevit
Creative ways to reach out and bring people in
Here are some of the creative practices that cities and communities are using to involve people in the preservation and enhancement of urban biodiversity.
Leverage the power of art.
- Montreal’s Les Amis du Champ des Possibles hosted botanical drawing sessions to reach artists and local residents in a vacant lot turned naturalized area.
- Montreal collaborated with students in Concordia University’s Communication Studies program to create a collection of 25 artistic short films called Portraits d'Arbres aimed at increasing urban tree awareness.
- Mississauga engaged in its first ever partnership between the Culture Division and Parks to create a public art bee hotel in Jack Darling Memorial Park.
Don’t be afraid to be quirky.
- The David Suzuki Foundation launched the tongue-in-cheek Bee-BnB campaign to transform the idea of a home-sharing network for pollinators, encouraging people to plant neighbourhood native gardens.
Turn nature into a learning laboratory.
- Edmonton’s Urban Bio Kit helps people conduct citizen science and monitoring in their own local park.
- Cities including Calgary host the multi-day City Nature Challenge where residents collect information on local wildlife. Calgary also works with residents to monitor wildlife cameras and partners on an amphibian monitoring program.
- Regina hosts Ladybug Day, where residents are invited to release thousands of ladybugs to control aphids.
- Montreal partnered with WWF-Canada to host Biopolis, which profiles projects and includes a resource library.
- Winnipeg operates the Living Prairie Museum, which conducts research into pollinator diversity across the city and control of invasive species.
- Ottawa organizes free wildlife talks bringing in experts to talk about the animals found in the city.
- Toronto produces a series of biodiversity booklets exploring bees, spiders, fish, and other local critters.
- Montreal launched a coyote info line for residents to report sightings and provide information to help people feel more comfortable coexisting with the city’s coyote population (the city also has a coyote management plan that emphasizes resident collaboration).
Make it accessible.
- Montreal’s Nana buses connect urban residents to the larger natural areas surrounding the city that are not readily accessible through public transit.
- The Into the Greenbelt program in southern Ontario offers bursaries for day-trip greenbelt bus tours to underserved communities.
- Ottawa’s online natural areas map provides directions and hiking information, including wheelchair accessible trails.