Why Do We Need to Increase Citizen Power in Environmental Decision-making, and How Can the City Nature Challenge Help?

10th May 2021

As a Master’s student doing an interdisciplinary research project, I have my feet in a couple of different academic camps. Human geography. Spatial data and digital mapping. Politics. Ecology. These schools of thought might seem remote from each other. But, my project relates to Bristol’s strategies to tackle the Ecological Emergency and transition towards a nature-friendly city. An interdisciplinary lens like mine is crucial, as it reveals the importance of making these strategies more inclusive, community-focused, and fair.

Reading up on the work environmental justice scholars have investigated and written about Bristol, such as Karen Bell, it becomes clear that human societies and the ecological systems around them are very much intertwined. This becomes clearer still when we look at the spatial patterns of environmental data on maps. For example, polluted air impacts inner city residents more severely than commuter residents in wealthier outer areas. This is an example of an environmental injustice. 

Research by ecologists in Bristol and other cities in the UK indicates that the ecological crisis is an environmental justice issue, too. Looking at plant-pollinator interactions across these cities, they saw that household income is positively associated with pollinator abundance in gardens. This is likely due to differences in garden size and diversity of plant species found within them, and shows how socioeconomic factors shape the functioning of urban ecologies (Baldock et al, 2019). This has knock-on effects. Healthy, diverse ecologies supporting pollinators also provide forage and habitat for other important species. They’re crucial for us humans, too, supporting sustainable urban food systems and improving the aesthetics of the green spaces around us, benefiting our health and well-being.

That negative environmental outcomes unequally impact human society, and unequal social forces negatively impact the environment, is why environmental justice scholars advocate something called ‘procedural justice.’ This simply refers to the ability of citizens to ‘acquire information about their environments, to organise and state their preferences for them, and to depend on local authorities to satisfy these preferences’ (Bell, 2014:21). 

Participatory research methods, like citizen science, citizen sensing and community mapping, have long-since been used as tools that increase citizen power in environmental decision-making. The development of digital technologies such as online map interfaces and apps, which are platforms for public interaction and data contribution, have definitely contributed to this agenda (Kar et al, 2016). Geospatial technology is the language of urban and environmental planners and decision-makers, and these platforms help the public to speak it.

The City Nature Challenge (CNC) is a great example of a geospatial application of citizen science; data collected this weekend will show researchers ecological data that maps out Bristol’s urban ecology, through the eyes of its residents. 

However, it’s all well and good collecting empirical data. But, how do we ensure that it acts as evidence that promotes policy and planning outcomes that are in line with local residents’ values and desires? We need to use it alongside qualitative data that tells us about what residents want to see for a healthier, socio-ecological system where they live.

Using a combination of digital technologies, such as online, map-based surveys and Zoom interviews, I’m investigating how certain green spaces could act as leverage points for ecological management strategies in Bristol to positively impact both local human communities and wildlife. 


Urban areas are full of informal, public green spaces that can provide forage and habitat for wildlife (image: Unsplash)


In particular, I want to know how people engage with and perceive the ecologies within smaller, informal urban green spaces. These often aren’t privately owned or formally managed, and don’t serve recreational or maybe even aesthetic functions. Think roadside verges, roundabouts, or patches of grass outside residential and commercial buildings. Scientists have told us that enhancing these spaces across the city could have a huge impact on Bristol’s wider ecological network (Baldock et al., 2019). And, because they’re often uncertain in terms of management or conservation status, they could be a powerful entry point for local residents to contribute to more inclusive ecological management processes. Especially given that they may provide those without gardens, time or money, an avenue to positively influence local ecologies.

Urban areas are full of informal, public green spaces that can provide forage and habitat for wildlife (image: Unsplash).

iNaturalistUK data, gathered over the CNC weekend, shows social and environmental scientists the natural world as it is discovered, known, and experienced by the public. It shows the spatial patterns of people’s observations and interactions with urban ecologies. That’s why I’ll be using it for my research; to compare with the data I collect, putting this  into the wider context of Bristol as I see what types of green space people are making their iNaturalist observations in, and what they find.

So, get out there this weekend, and show scientists like me the natural world as you know it! This is the kind of information we need to maintain an urban environment that benefits both the humans and the wildlife within it.

References

Baldock, K.C.R., Goddard, M.A., Hicks, D.M. et al., 2019. A systems approach reveals urban pollinator hotspots and conservation opportunities. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 363–373.

Bell, K., 2014. Achieving Environmental Justice: A Cross-National Analysis. Great Britain: Policy Press.

Hall et al., 2017. The city as a refuge for insect pollinators. Conservation Biology 31, 24 – 29. 

Kar, B., Sieber, R., Haklay, M., and Ghose, R., 2016. Public Participation GIS and Participatory GIS in the Era of GeoWeb, The Cartographic Journal, 53:4, 296-299.



Dora Young is an MScR student and human geographer developing participatory mapping methodologies for environmentally just, inclusive ecological management strategies in Bristol. She is interested in how human lives intersect with urban nature, both in policy and in everyday landscapes facing climate and ecological crises, and reads and writes about these themes in her spare time.