Citizen Science: How Community-Based Conservation Can Improve Nature Spaces in Your Neighborhood

We may not always think about it, but we have a lot more neighbors in our communities than we think. Beyond the Smiths across the streets and the Joneses next door, we share our home environments with a host of other beings--birds, bees, dogs and cats, squirrels and raccoons, the daffodils and tulips in the spring, the creek in the ditch, and even the trees that line our sidewalks. Shared spaces like neighborhoods grow stronger when their residents actively participate in their care. Things like block parties, volunteer clean-ups, or tree plantings make it easy to get involved and help shape your community into a place where everyone can happily and naturally exist. Now, there’s a burgeoning way for citizens to dive in even deeper and make important contributions to the natural and scientific world around them--it’s called citizen science.


Citizen science can be generally described as public participation in scientific research, but covers a broad range of involvement, including both large-scale research studies as well as local community action. What makes citizen science so exciting is the opportunity for communities and individuals to steer research and initiate changes that are important to those who live there. Anyone can get involved! Such high collaboration between professionals and laypeople is unprecedented, and opens up a multitude of avenues for larger, more diverse studies across the world. Using citizen science as a gateway to make important contributions, the general public can become more informed about scientific processes and what goes into scientific discoveries or actions. You don’t need to be a biologist, geologist, or any other kind of expert to make an impact.

A small strip of space between the road and the sidewalk, it has pink and yellow flowers and native grasses growing in it
An upgraded parking strip planted by Pollinator Parkways

While some professionals worry about the quality of data submitted through participants, a 2016 study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, found that datasets provided by citizen scientists have a reliably high quality that is on par with that produced by professionals. This is encouraging, because it means that scientists can use data from sample sizes and scales that wouldn’t otherwise be possible to achieve.


Making meaningful contributions to the scientific community can be as simple as opening your eyes to the world around you, and the iNaturalist app is a great example of this. iNaturalist is an open-source, global community of everyday people and researchers alike who take pleasure in sharing their observations of the natural world around them. Anyone can upload photos of plants and animals along with the time and place they were seen, and you can contribute to an ever-growing dataset that's available to scientists and environmental advocates across our globe. Whether you’re an avid hiker or prefer a pleasant stroll through your neighborhood, the observations you make can have a big impact.


Many people get involved through their hobbies--the Christmas Bird Count is an annual event through the Audubon Society, and each year thousands of hobbyist birdwatchers put their knowledge to use to provide data that is used for further research throughout the year. Similarly, the UK Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count is a global event that calls on people around the world to count the number and type of butterflies they see within a 15 minute time block. They provide detailed identification resources, and even have an app to track butterfly sightings year-round. Activities like these allow demographics otherwise absent or underrepresented in traditional sciences to contribute their knowledge to the greater scientific community. This includes children, those without degrees, those with lived experiences and traditional knowledge, and seniors. For children in particular, this can be an empowering experience--any one of us can be a scientist in our own backyards!


Grassroots science initiatives can lead to measurable and immediate results that would otherwise may take years to accomplish. Take Portland’s Pollinator Parkways as an example. Sherrie Villmark, a local pollinator enthusiast, decided to take matters into her own hands to improve foraging bee habitat in her own southeast neighborhood of Montavilla. Through the collaboration and support of like-minded neighbors, Pollinator Parkways converts parking strips (small patches of greenspace between the road and sidewalks) into native pollinator paradises.

Two people crouch on the ground, planting a small seedling
Volunteers at a FOBW work party, 2017

In the first year of the program, with help from a small grant and a group of volunteers, more than 3,000 square feet of new bee habitat was created. Now, Sherrie helps others by providing free resources on her website and opens up applications each year to assist others in converting their own parking strips throughout Montavilla. Since 2015, Sherrie’s program has added over 15,000 square feet of pesticide-free habitat for Oregon’s native bee species. For reference, that’s about ⅓ the size of a football field! Projects like these show that any one person can contribute to positive change in their community.


Other Portland area initiatives are thriving too--Friends of Fanno Creek Headwaters has coordinated over 400 community volunteers to improve trail safety, removed 15,000 square feet of invasive plant species, and replanted 2,000 native plants. They also built a stairway down a steep ravine to what is believed to be the headwaters of Fanno Creek. If you’re familiar with some of our work here at Oregon Wildlife Foundation, you’re probably familiar with the Harborton Frog Shuttle, an extremely successful yearly initiative to help transport Northern red-legged frogs across busy Highway 30 at the beginning and end of their breeding season. In the St. Johns neighborhood, the community organization Friends of Baltimore Woods (FOBW), which formed in 1998, is a group of neighbors whose mission it is to protect over 30 acres of mature forest canopy and greenspace in their neighborhood development just north of Cathedral Park. Over the ensuing 23 years, Friends of Baltimore Woods has advocated for official trail designations and special habitat designations, restored burned areas, and established the woods as an outdoor classroom space that’s used by nearby schools for science education.


Participatory sciences and community-led action are collaborative and manageable ways to get involved in conservation. It's also an opportunity to build a closer-knit community with those around you, and make meaningful change in the outdoor spaces we share with each other. April is Global Citizen Science Month and April 22 is Earth Day. There's no better time than right now to strengthen our community connection while helping conserve our natural world.


If you’re interested in learning more about any of the groups mentioned here, see the links below. Friends of Baltimore Woods is featured in our upcoming free Community Conservation broadcast event, Neighborhood Stewardship and Urban Landscapes, which you can sign up for here.

We hope you’ll join us!


iNaturalist


Christmas Bird Count


Big Butterfly Count


Pollinator Parkways


Friends of Fanno Creek Headwaters


Friends of Baltimore Woods


OWF's Community Conservation episode 7, "Neighborhood Stewardship and Urban Landscapes"


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