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Community  Based Urban Conservation

Identifying Barriers to Urban Conservation and Connecting Communities with Nature

This portfolio completed as part of Project Dragonfly's Global Field Program at Miami University.

The original can be viewed here.

MA in Biology, December 2018


Studies have shown that time in nature is necessary for healthy mental development in children (Louv, 2005), and mental, physical, and community social health are positively correlated with time spent in green spaces (Baur, Gomez, & Tynon, 2013; Miller, 2005). However, social and financial factors create barriers to disenfranchised communities by limiting access to science and conservation educational opportunities and experiences (Dawson, 2014). Rectifying this is a delicate task, as poorly realized urban conservation initiatives risk displacing minority and impoverished communities. Unequal access to conservation and education initiatives, especially in impoverished communities, means that their needs are not being met.  We need to utilize new ways to directly connect with, involve, and engage the most at-risk communities early in the planning phases of these initiatives. This is why my graduate work focuses on identifying and understanding these barriers to urban conservation and finding ways to connect local communities to urban nature.

By partnering with local organizations, such as Bartram’s Garden, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, I helped to foster connections between communities and expand the reach into more Philadelphia communities. Because access to formal and informal conservation education is limited in many urban areas, I also created WTH Wildlife, which stands for What the Hell Wildlife, because “what the hell” is a common phrase I hear when teaching about some of nature’s more unique species. WTH Wildlife began as a primarily web-based resource specifically catering to adults, focusing on understanding urban ecosystems and promoting environmentally responsible behaviors and grew to include in-person educational opportunities. WTH Wildlife  encourages people to reconnect with nature and find new ways to take action. All WTH Wildlife content, both online and in person, is free and open to the public. I have built a team of volunteer educators that share a similar passion for urban conservation, and we hope to expand our work and impacts as WTH Wildlife.

One way to bridge the disconnect between people and nature is though observing wildlife (Balmford, Clegg, Coulson, & Taylor, 2002; Randler, 2008). Learning species identification forms the basis for understanding complex concepts such as biodiversity and ecology (Randler, 2008), and provides experiential learning (Miller, 2005). These experiences can then be used to help people and communities develop an appreciation and awareness of their surroundings. As such, several of my projects have focused on getting people out into urban parks to observe and identify wildlife, both plants and animals. This allows people to use inquiry to build skills of identification, understand the human/nature connection even in urban areas, ask questions, and find connections to their local species. I hope to increase environmental stewardship by forming an appreciation for local wildlife and local green spaces, especially in Philadelphia, where I am currently based.

Urban Community-Based Conservation

A significant part of this program for me was about building a foundational academic understanding of urban community-based conservation from multiple perspectives. Understanding the inherent challenges of working in human-dominated environments when doing conservation work proved more difficult than I anticipated. What I did not expect was to spend a lot of time self-examining my own privileges and biases. This research provided a means of understanding the communities I work with and the potential impacts of the conservation and educational messages I share.

Urban Conservation, Community Exclusion, and Privilege

When coming into the Project Dragonfly program, I was unsure of the direction and focus that I wanted to pursue. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone was the spark of my childhood interest in conservation, but during college I realized that particular issue was not my story. After my undergraduate studies, I became a camp counselor at two camps, Riverbend Environmental Education Center and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Riverbend is an environmental education center nestled in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a small patch of nature hidden from the insanity that is city life, while the Academy of Natural Sciences is the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere that crouches on the Parkway to share its wealth of knowledge with the residents of Philly. I love both organizations and poured my heart into teaching the students and families that visited. They were critical in helping me develop both my skills as an educator and an understanding of the importance of science education in urban settings, especially to unserved and underserved communities. By the time I started this program, I had accepted a position as a chemist at an industrial waste management lab, far from the education work that I loved. Thus, involvement in these organizations was critical to maintaining my connection to science education.

Faced with the prospect of a first foray into academic conservation, I was stumped. I eventually decided on researching urban community-based conservation and, realizing just how broad that actually was, started focusing in on youth-specific programming given my background at both Riverbend and The Academy of Natural Sciences. My first paper delved into the complexities of urban conservation community-based programming, focusing primarily on families, school-aged children, and teachers. I sought to understand the particular challenges of conservation in human-dominated environments. The idea that direct local experiences impact the likelihood of environmentally responsible action over more traditional approaches of building a knowledge base, awareness, and appreciation (Davies & Webber, 2004; Hashimoto-Martell, 2012; Myers, 2012), ended up being the main driving theme behind my academic path while in the program. After this project, I shifted my focus to the city that I was born in, live in, and love: Philadelphia.

It was, admittedly, an uncomfortable process. For the first time in my academic career, I was forced to examine my inherent privileges and biases. As a white woman from a middle class, suburban family with a full time job, my priorities differ from those of my neighbors in West Philadelphia, especially when concerning conservation, education, and city spaces. West Philadelphia is a neighborhood of primarily lower-income Non-Hispanic Black or African-American long-term residents facing an influx of middle to upper class college students and young professionals. Emily Dawson’s "Not designed for us": How science museums and science centers socially exclude low-income, minority ethnic groups (2014) was a devastating read for me, and discovering that my experiences as an avid museum goer from childhood was much farther from universal than I had assumed disturbed me. This theme of social exclusion became increasingly important to me over the course of my work throughout the program.

For a downloadable PDF of Youth Targeted Urban Community Based Conservation paper, click here.

Understanding Barriers to Urban Conservation

The uncomfortable self-examination that started with my Youth Targeted Urban Community Based Conservation paper continued to grow, to the point where I decided I needed to learn and understand more about barriers to urban conservation. Unsurprisingly, Dawson’s article proved an early anchor point for this project, leading me to examine the benefits for and threats to impoverished, minority, and other at risk communities in urban conservation education efforts. This led me to examine social issues which I was woefully underprepared to understand both academically and personally. With minimal academic background in sociology, I felt that I lacked a basic knowledge of the issues I was starting to study. I was absolutely unprepared for the levels of complexity in learning about the unexpected negative impacts of conservation initiatives on impoverished communities, such as gentrification and increasing property taxes (Baur, Gomez, & Tynon, 2013; Dawson, 2014), and for a while, it felt that the more I learned, the more I could see the damage disguised as help that I had done to the communities I'd worked with. My own experiences are so vastly different from those communities that actually understanding their struggles at a deep level in order to find actual solutions felt impossible at times.

Urban conservation initiatives, it turns out, often have an unintended side-effect of increasing rates of gentrification in impoverished communities (Baur, Gomez, & Tynon, 2013; Dawson, 2014). Community-based conservation requires significant money, time, and long-term commitment, all of which are limited resources especially in low-income communities. One of the most effective ways of countering community distrust of conservation initiatives is through building community gardens (Clayton & Myers, 2009; Guitart, Pickering, & Byrne, 2012). Interestingly, one of the more unexpected side effects of this project was joining my own local community’s social media groups. There, I have been working towards building a relationship with neighbors throughout West Philadelphia so that we can work towards instituting effective changes that are both conservation conscious and safe for the community.

For a downloadable PDF of Poverty and Urban Conservation, click here.

Conservation in Human Dominated Landscapes

Unlike my previous two papers, I decided to look into the challenges facing urban conservation from a nature perspective, as opposed to human and community perspectives. I focused primarily on urban homogenization, the idea that urban areas are ecologically more similar to one another than they are to their adjacent ecosystems due to the similarities in land-management practices in urban areas (Groffmann, Cavender-Bares, Bettez,  et al., 2014). In seeking conservation-minded answers to I tried to identify new practical methods to make urban areas more nature-friendly.

One of the challenges of urban conservation is the limited resources for both humans and wildlife. Reconciliation ecology, a newer branch of ecology, focuses on utilizing human-dominated spaces to address non-human needs (Rosenweig, 2003). Since most conservation efforts are focused primarily on preservation, setting aside pristine habitat, or restoration, returning habitat to near pristine, reconciliation ecology provides a unique tool when addressing urban conservation.

Ecologically, urban systems are challenging to native species, since we humans have a tendency to build cities to fulfill our own narrow requirements for survival and comfort (McKinney, 2005). This causes broad trends in land management practices across cities worldwide, and human development, particularly landscaping, tends to follow these trends independent of the climate of their perspective regions (Groffmann et al., 2014; Larson et al., 2015). In the US in particular, landscaping choices seem to be driven by social and economic status, especially in the suburbs (Couvet & Ducarme, 2014; Larson et al., 2015; Pickett et al., 2010).

As a counterpoint to the social and economic struggles of impoverished, minority, and disenfranchised urban communities that I discussed in previous papers, reconciliation ecology may be key to marrying conservation and at-risk community health. Again though, I am faced with the shadows of well-intentioned conservation work proving harmful to the communities within which they are implemented. Reconciliation ecology seems to focus energy on initiatives such as building community gardens and installing green roofs and living walls, as ways to create habitat for local species (Rosenwig, 2003), with little regard for the wellbeing of the community in the long term. As reconciliation ecology, urban homogenization, and their impacts on communities is studied in the future, I hope that they take into account the particulars of working with and around disenfranchised communities in ways that will benefit those communities without displacing people. I believe that reconciliation ecology can form a durable and flexible link between underserved communities and nature if we take the time and energy to build a relationship with the communities we work within. These relationships can form a basis of trust and communication between conservationists and communities. It is counterproductive to preserve nature if in doing so we eradicate or displace unique cultures, landmarks, and embitter residents. Instead, we can help transform community members into allies and stewards of wildlife by implementing open communication and reconciliation ecology.

For a downloadable PDF of the Urban Homogenization paper, click here.

Education as a Means of Connecting Communities to Nature

In trying to find ways to apply the academic and personal learning of the community to conservation, I did a series of projects that focused on education. I wanted to produce and provide free educational resources that were either accessible or experiential, ideally both, to anyone interested. My hope was that these resources could be utilized to bridge the gap between urban residents and urban wildlife, especially in underserved communities.

Building a Foundation

Similar to my first paper, my first research project was an attempt to further define the direction of my academic career throughout this program. Due to my career change before the program, I lacked the connections, resources, and reputation I was accustomed to having when teaching in the past. Little did I know that this project would produce the ideal means for me to continue volunteering my time around Philadelphia while building connections and a brand for myself outside of the previous institutions I worked with.

My research project, Identification of Local vs. Exotic Vertebrates by Mid-Atlantic Based Adults, helped me determine a baseline for content knowledge of local species in adults in the Mid-Atlantic region. Similar research has been done with children in various places in the world (Ballouard, 2011; Balmford, 2002; Genovart, 2013); however, there is a dearth of research on adults. Species identification is a skill that improves people’s understanding of both biodiversity and ecology, which are foundationally important to conservation (Randler, 2008). As such, the ability to identify local species can provide a basis for learning and caring about local ecosystems.

What I found was disheartening, though unsurprising given the studies done with children: adults are better able to identify non-local species  than they are animals that they might find in their own neighborhoods and surrounding ecosystems. This lead me to create WTH Wildlife, an online adult education website and associated social media (FacebookInstagramTwitter). Yes, WTH /What the Hell, because I often found that question muttered when sharing interesting facts about local species while teaching, especially the adults. I would like to thank David Schloss and Ramon Torres, two fantastic educators I have worked with previously, for joining me on the adventure that has been creating and running WTH Wildlife. Without their support and dedication, WTH Wildlife would not be as vibrant and impactful as it has been.

WTH Wildlife has allowed me to expand my reach into the local communities to develop a rapport with people who might otherwise have had minimal wildlife experience. It also promotes the building knowledge, spreading ecological awareness, and connecting people to their communities and local ecosystems - things that are invaluable to increasing environmental and ecological conservation at the local and global level (Clayton & Myers, 2009; Davies & Webber, 2004; Gomez, 2015; Randler, 2008).

For a downloadable PDF of Local and Non-local Species Identification by Adults, click here. Appendix C can be found here.

Online Education

Birds are one of the best means of connecting people to nature in urban settings (Carver, 2013; Miller, 2005; Randler, 2008). In an attempt to extend our reach, the WTH Wildlife team, created a YouTube video (viewed here) called Urbin’ Birbin’. We sought to educate the general public about bird identification. It includes tips and tricks for identifying broad categories of birds and how to look for markings.

Our goal was to encourage beginning birders or non-birders to go outside and explore urban environments. We hoped that by getting people outside and looking for nature within their built environments, that people would develop both an awareness and appreciation for nature (Clayton & Myers, 2009; Davies & Webber, 2004; Randler, 2008). This awareness, we knew, would create or strengthen a sense of place and community between urban residents and the natural world (Gomez, 2015; Kudryavstev, Stedman, & Krasny, 2012; Miller,2005); a connection that we hoped to use to encourage environmentally conscious behaviors (Clayton & Myers, 2009; Davies & Webber, 2004; Gomez, 2015).

While viewership was not as high as we initially hoped, this project helped us redefine how we wanted WTH Wildlife to function as an educational unit. Our hope is to create a fun, humor-driven podcast that will both educate and entertain a wide array of audiences. Due to current time constraints, we decided to move to in-person education as well.

In-Person Education

Due to scheduling conflicts, this project went through several iterations, changing from a girl scout service unit workshop for leaders to a WTH Wildlife photography event. The original workshop was planned with the Delrich Girl Scout Service Unit, a group of several Northeast Philadelphia Girl Scout troops that has many minority and impoverished members. This service unit has a desire to do more environmental conservation work, but is unsure of how to go about doing that (E. Iwer, personal communication, January 2018). My hope was to provide their leaders with the skills to teach environmental education themselves and empower them to incorporate time in urban nature and conservation messages in their activities and badges (Clayton & Myers, 2009; Davies & Webber, 2004). This would encourage a stronger sense of community and sense of place for the girl scout troops, as well as having the messages come from trusted members of their community (Clayton & Myers, 2009; Davies & Webber, 2004; Gomez, 2015; Kudryavstev, Stedman, & Krasny, 2012; Miller, 2005).  While planning this event, I was keenly aware of my own privileges and advantages when teaching a group of people unfamiliar with the natural world. The workshop may happen later this winter, at which time I hope to empower the scouts to interact in their local ecosystems and encourage them to be better environmental stewards within their community and beyond.

Wanting to avoid the risk of scheduling conflicts, I decided to work under the WTH Wildlife name and host a wildlife photography for beginners event. The goals were similar to the workshop; to empower people to get out and interact with the natural world. I reached out to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, the first urban wildlife refuge in the United States, and asked if I could host the event there. We ended up with 13 attendees ranging in age from 8-64, some of whom brought binoculars, high end digital cameras, and bird books, while others showed up with a smartphone and enthusiasm. I started off by explaining the ways in which to identify different species, with a strong focus on birds. Ramon Torres, my WTH Wildlife co-educator for this event, then explained the basics of photography and the various settings for both cameras and phones that would allow for the best pictures. We then led a two hour hike through the refuge. If you’ve ever walked with birders, then you know this means that we only went about a half mile, so often were the stops and the excitement at the variety of the species we were seeing.

The feedback was immediate and encouraging. Attendees ranged from all across the Philadelphia region; most had heard of the event through word of mouth. While 13 is not necessarily a high number, I consider this a success due to the quick turnaround time and that this was WTH Wildlife’s first in-person event.  The most offered suggestion was for the event to be longer and go further. People enjoyed the pacing and ease with which we taught. It was interesting to learn just how powerful my network is for promoting events. As such, we are planning a series of meet-up style events to start in the spring, and hope to bring WTH Wildlife education events to local community outreach days. This particular project has really helped me figure out the direction I want to lead WTH Wildlife in the future, with more in person educational opportunities for community members.

For a downloadable PDF of the Girl Scout Leader Workshop and Wildlife Photograph 101 paper, click here. The Wildlife Photography 101 Survey Results can be found here

Personal Growth and Change

I've learned more about conservation, communities, education, and ultimately myself than I could have imagined when I began my graduate work here at Miami University. My expectations for the program were high, but I did not anticipate the personal growth that I value as much as the academic learning and community impacts that I have had throughout my time in this program. Themes of understanding and confronting my own personal biases and privileges, and learning how to best help my community are ones that have quickly become the most important to me.

I live and work in communities with historically negative interactions between white people and people of color. As a white person who transplanted into West Philadelphia five years ago, I don't and can't have the same connection and understanding to the African American community here as long time residents . Living where I do, for the price I pay for rent, means that people are getting priced out of their community that they've been a part of for literally decades. I am absolutely a person driving gentrification and its associated problems within my neighborhood. Why, then, should the West Philadelphia African American community trust me? By all accounts, they absolutely shouldn't. Middle class white women weaponize police against persons of color (POC) men at frightening rates, vote against policies that would protect themselves and other women, and have a tendency to try to take over POC dominated spaces and demand time and effort from that community that could be spent better elsewhere.

Understanding my own biases is a huge work in progress for me and I felt almost like I was being self congratulatory for building an awareness of my own negative impacts. It's a hard line to walk in admitting your own faults and the ways you're trying to address them and also not excusing bad behavior. I want my future impacts on my local community to be positive and helpful, and this program has helped me unpack my own problematic thinking and behavior in ways that I can grow and learn and, hopefully, become a better ally and neighbor.

Moving forward, I hope to use WTH Wildlife as a means of bringing experiential learning to communities that would otherwise not have access to it. I want to make sure that conservation programs that I am a part of and that happen around me take into account disenfranchised communities. Most importantly, I recognize that I must use my own voice and privilege to elevate those around me and give them a platform to be heard within the conservation community.


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Balmford, A., Clegg, L., Coulson, T., & Taylor, J.(2002). Why conservationists should heed Pokémon. Science , 295(5564), 2367.
Baur, J. W. R., Gomez, E., & Tynon, J. F. (2013). Urban nature parks and neighborhood social health in Portland, Oregon. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 31(4), 23-44.
Carver, E. (2013). Birding in the United States: a demographic and economic analysis. Retrieved from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website:
Clayton, S. & Myers, G. (2009). Attitudes, values, and perceptions. In Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature (pp. 15-33). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Couvet, D., Ducarme, F. (2014). Reconciliation ecology, from biological to social challenges. Revue d’ethnoécologie, 6, 1-16.
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Dawson, E. (2014). "Not designed for us": How science museums and science centers socially exclude low-income, minority ethnic groups. Science Education, 98(6), 981-1008. doi: 10.1002/sce.21133
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Gomez, E. (2015). Urban Parks and Psychological Sense of Community. Journal of Leisure Research, 47(3), 388-398.
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Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. New York: Algonquin Books:.
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