Who takes care of New York?


Who looks after New York City’s environment, how, where, and with whom? To answer this question, US Forest Service researchers Erika Svendsen and Lindsay Campbell initiated the Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project. STEW-MAP is a rigorously examined social layer of information that documents and plots the experience of more than 600 caretaker groups ranging in size and scope from informal block associations to national membership organizations. But when it comes to visualizing the complex spatial relationships and overlapping turfs of these groups, there’s both a challenge and an opportunity. Over the next few weeks, we actively seek advice and feedback from the information design community. Read the back-story here and then check out our forum discussion, where we look forward to comments that include precedents, visual stratagems, related work that might help make this important tool vivid, vital and accessible.

Cassim recently sat down with Erika and Lindsay to talk about how STEW-MAP got here, where it’s going, and what the Forest Service gets up to in New York City.

Erika Svendsen
Research Social Scientist, USDA Forest Service, NYC Urban Field Station

Lindsay Campbell
Research Urban Planner,
USDA Forest Service, NYC Urban Field Station

Erika Svendsen: I am Erika Svendsen, and I am a research social scientist with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service urban field station here in New York City. I studied at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies primarily with Bill Burch, a pioneer in the field of social ecology. Bill is still an important mentor especially since we started working together early on after graduate school on a Forest Service sponsored project called Revitalizing Baltimore. The project was intended to be a national model to demonstrate the use of open space and greening as a source of recovery: individual recovery, social recovery, neighborhood recovery, fiscal recovery, institutional recovery. Bill’s notion was that this kind of approach is often applied and seen in developing countries, places like Nepal and India. So he said, “You know, Baltimore is not unlike a developing country.” I worked in Baltimore’s southwestern neighborhoods; helping people to create gardens, green their streets, develop block planters. Sometimes we would use street trees to redesign or restructure the pathway of drug dealers: instead of planting trees in well appointed spaces on the street, we used them to block off vacant lots and redirect the way people would buy and sell drugs so kids could have safe passage to and from school. I began to realize just how critical green spaces – and the actual process of taking back your life, taking back your neighborhood – are to people.

When I left Baltimore for New York City, I took a job at GreenThumb, precisely at the time when Mayor Giuliani was attempting to shut down the program and sell off the gardens. We knew that when gardens were threatened, the legacy of long-term stewardship would become an important factor in garden preservation efforts. This informed my work here, at the urban field station, and the development of STEW-MAP. One of the many burning reasons for STEW-MAP is that so many of these efforts go unnoticed, and misunderstood, and under-resourced. What if there was a world where we could see all these shining lights, and see them in equal measure – as opposed to waiting for the media to pick up on them?

Lindsay Campbell: I’m Lindsay Campbell. I’m a research urban planner with the Forest Service Northern Research Station, the New York City Urban Field Station. Before coming to the agency, I studied public policy and environmental studies at Princeton – my undergraduate thesis investigated community-based natural resource management and sustainable development in Namibia. When I was deciding about becoming a researcher with the Forest Service, Erika’s way of framing and thinking about natural resources really appealed to me and made sense. I was at this decision point after college, also applying to do service and aid work in Africa, in an international development context and the rural world of natural resource management. And Erika showed me that you could have those same thoughts about community empowerment and community management, using open space to promote community development right here in America, and even in the most urban context. I continued to work for the agency and also pursued my master’s in urban planning at MIT – so I guess my reorientation towards urban natural resource issues is pretty permanent.

We’re puzzling through… we know of some examples that transform complex social data and apply it over space. It can be done with good design.Urban Omnibus: Why does the Forest Service have a field station in New York City?

ES: In its mission statement the Forest Service says its purpose is caring for the land and serving people. And who says that’s limited to the boundaries of what we call a “forest”? What is a forest? What is nature? I think in the latter part of the 20th century, we started to change our view about what is natural, and our response to that. Instead, there is more talk about disturbance, design and ecosystem management.

And there’s also the pragmatic issue that we went where the people are. If we are dedicated to serving people, then a lot of them are now in cities. Sometimes it doesn’t get any more complex than that. But these are issues that we continue to discuss and respectfully debate even with colleagues in our own agency.

LC: There are some real champions within our region, people who just really get it and see how many people can be served – the biophysical benefits as well as the social benefits of a well-maintained urban forest, but there are some people in other parts of the agency that might still ask: “why is the Forest Service in New York City?”

ES: In cities, we work a lot with people, urban gardeners, park stewards, and they are really no different than people tending land out on the Great Plains or out in the national forest. You find that someone in New York City working on a restoration site would have a whole heck of a lot in common with someone out in the middle of Kansas who’s working on restoring grasslands.

LC: I think it’s also important to note that it’s research within Forest Service that’s really pushing the way into this because the whole research station is structured like an academic faculty. It’s researcher driven. We’re not regulators, like the EPA. We don’t own land here in the city, so we don’t have that same management mandate as we do when we’re on the forest. In essence, researchers trade in ideas, and that trade can take place on any property jurisdiction.

ES: In the Forest Service, we often work with other federal agencies like the National Park Service, but our work differs in an important aspect. We are often managing land for a wide variety of ecosystem services. As researchers we try to understand aspects of an economic landscape, a social landscape, a biophysical landscape, with the point being the landscape is constantly evolving whether you’re harvesting for timber or trying to accommodate recreational uses or planning for new home development. It’s a changing, dynamic landscape. Perhaps we’ve always had an ecosystem approach. Around the 1970s, traditional ecologists said, “well, the environmentalists hijacked our science.” But maybe they just expanded it. Over the years, I’ve worked with trailblazers in this field like Bill Burch, Morgan Grove and Steward Pickett, all who have said in various ways, “No, this is exactly where we need to be. The city is the most complex forest, the most complex ecosystem.” I hope we start to see that both academic and community efforts from the later part of the 20th have led to more targeted resources being allocated to cities, part of a nationwide change that recognizes the needs of urban environments.

UO: What do the words “forestry” and “stewardship” mean to you?

ES: Forestry means land management, land stewardship. Stewardship, for me, embodies a set of rights, responsibilities, learned skills and adaptive science – and an approach to a particular place.

LC: For me, the word stewardship really is landscape-specific. Somebody who harvests timber might consider himself a steward; so might somebody who hikes through a forest. In particular on STEW-MAP we were looking at urban stewardship, so that already kind of bounds the types of actions that can and usually occur. And then we’re also really honing in on civic stewardship because we want to understand the engagement of people and community groups outside the realm of public agencies that are charged with managing the landscape. So that gets you even a little closer to what we’re talking about, whether it’s planting a tree, watering it, gardening, and so on. Then formally operationalized stewardship for our study and we defined it as “conserving, managing, monitoring, educating, and advocating”, any of those five functions whether it’s on land, air, or water.

ES: And it implies, as you said, action, at the end of the day it’s action.

LC: Engagement.

ES: And engagement.

UO: So what’s the goal of STEWMAP? If you could sketch out for me the history of the study…

ES: STEW-MAP began as somewhat of a measured response to all of the green infrastructure mapping that was happening. Initially, we just put park space on the map, and then eventually we got around to putting garden space on the map and then eventually we started mapping waterfront areas and then greenstreets, and all various forms of public and private open space. But a project is more than just design and construction; it also includes an important stewardship component that is often undervalued perhaps because it’s not as visual or tangible. Ironically, 10% of the duration of a project is design and construction and 90% of it is stewardship and maintenance. And so we wanted actually to put the social layer over the green infrastructure: who’s managing these lands? Who cares about them? Why do they care about them? How big are they? How could we help them do what they’re doing better? Where can we see that there might be gaps and overlaps, where might there be tensions and challenges?

LC: And so it’s no surprise that some of our earliest allies were some of the folks from the community gardening world, because they immediately understood what stewardship means and why it’s important. From the outset, STEW-MAP was always two things: a desire to do empirical, defensible research that we could publish on, because we felt there really was a gap. Scholars were writing about national membership organizations like Sierra Club, or they were doing case studies of largely rural, community-based groups usually on Western lands. So we felt there was a gap in the literature. Second, we wanted the research to be applied through public maps. We wanted to assist the land managers like the Parks Department, grantmakers, and foundations to know where the gaps and overlaps in stewardship are. And then ultimately we wanted to serve the public, who might want to know, “Who’s working in my neighborhood? How can I get involved?”

Since the dawn of cities, urban environmentalists have always cared about the world around us and the land, and stewarding and green spaces.

ES: From the get-go, we absolutely wanted to create a conversation within a city, between groups by asking, “Where and how do you care for this particular patch of city? Who do you do it with? What are your resources?” And we wanted to also validate what we were doing in cities. Because I feel there is still this notion that there is no real environmental restoration happening in cities. That’s changing now, almost to the point where no one could believe that this was once a commonly held view, but I do remember a time where I had to justify my job and my existence. I’ve been at it for 16, 17 years now, and it’s getting a lot better, but we wanted to show that the environmental movement didn’t start in the 1970s in cities. Since the dawn of cities, urban environmentalists have always cared about the world around us and the land, and stewarding and green spaces. We wanted to show to those skeptics, you know, those that ‘pooh pooh cities,’ that we’re right there with you, we’ve been there the whole time. Urban or rural, we’re in this together.

What continues to amaze me is that these stewards have the capacity somehow, through no direct kinship or monetary relationships, to maintain stewardship sites over the course of several generations. Sites change hands in New York City through civic networks, which I think a lot of people don’t realize. Most people think, well, “It’s one community group, that’s all it is, when those people leave or move on or die, the project’s going to end too.” But we’ve seen evidence of where the actual land that is stewarded keeps going and passes to new generations. Now what’s going on there and how is that happening? Is that because of local histories and community identity, or is that through the power of the design of the site? That is a social phenomenon and we wanted to catch it. That’s something that in my experience, city managers still sometimes and understandably, don’t completely trust. They still think, well it’s a community group and it’s going to be fickle and we don’t have the funds available to waste on that. And that makes sense too. But it can be all rather subjective. And so we wanted to show the whole social landscape of the good the bad and the ugly.

And we found that people really wanted to be mapped, they wanted to be heard and almost everybody said, “Yeah, make me public, tell other people about me.”


LC: We’ve taken a couple of cuts at coding the mission statements, and each time we throw up our hands because it’s really hard to pull the missions apart, to focus on what drives the group. We asked: at its core, is it an environmental concern? Or is it community health? It’s so entangled, that enmeshing of environment and community and also the built. We were trying to look at whether people cared about people, landscape, or built environment. But in the city, you can’t pull them apart; they meet right at the streetscape.

UO: The anecdote you shared about the trees in Baltimore is very deterministic; it is a design intervention in many ways, about how open space is managed and actually built to create pathways and wayfinding. That’s a very “design” mode of thinking.

LC: Right. We found historic preservation groups that started out because what they cared about was building facades, but lo and behold they ended up taking care of the trees on their block too. So, there might be a particular point of entry, but all of these groups would meet in the middle. Maybe they started with youth – “I want something for the kids to do in the neighborhood, well what can we do? We can clean up the park.” So it’s kind of this converging of people coming from different places, and the nestedness of environmental concerns within other concerns.

ES: But, you know, we really don’t have the ability to communicate this because it’s what we all take for granted, these networks and these relationships. How do you visualize that, how do you demonstrate that, how do you make that explicit? We can state that in words, but how do you do it visually?


LC: We can show our charts and figures. Right now, we’re puzzling through the challenges of representing the groups’ geography: we have the self-described turfs of these groups, and they range in scale from a single street corner, all the way up through the region. So that’s already a kind of cartographic challenge. Then when you add on top of that all of the organizational attribute data that we collected, so you can slice and dice it by the size of the group, or the focus of the group. You could generate a lot of different maps out of this. And then on top of that, you have the social network data. We asked groups to identify their top four partners in government, business, civil society and schools. So we have a rough sense of the social network, at least as defined that way, of these groups, and as Erika was saying, we haven’t yet figured out how to really make that legible. We’d love to partner with someone who could help us to do that – a real new media designer. We know of some examples out there that transform complex social data and apply it over space, like the Million Dollar Blocks project. So, it can be done with good design.

UO: Which was presented at the Architectural League, by the way. Could you describe just briefly what you notice spatially when you map the data, the clustering of the turfs.

LC: You can look at the presence of the groups in a lot of different ways. If you start to look at overlap of turf it shows it very differently, but in terms of just the presence of number of groups, we found there to be a lot in the South Bronx, along the waterfronts, and then through the center of Brooklyn, East New York, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Gowanus. And then smaller numbers of groups in the more suburban, outer reaches of Queens or Staten Island.

ES: In places where there was initially subtle yet ultimately dramatic land use change, such as in Central Brooklyn, you see this incredible response in stewardship, which was a response to prolonged vacancy. You don’t see it in parts of Queens that are a little bit more suburban along the Nassau border and you don’t see it in parts of Staten Island. You may see it now on the fringes of Fresh Kills Park and places like that. And that’s the other thing, with this tool, and I don’t want to overstate it, but I think in some ways we’re able to start to predict patterns of stewardship with this, which I find really exciting. It would be great if we ever got to a day working with policy makers where we could sit down and talk about the fact that there is fragility to stewardship. You’ve got Friends of the High Line, which is one model, and then you’ve got the more traditional community garden model. But I would say there’s fragility to both. One runs the risk of a downturn in the real estate market and ironically, the other runs risk of development when the market is up. My concern is that civic stewardship, which we absolutely consider a form of social capital, will wear itself out through sheer exhaustion of trying to get recognized and understood. Stewards start to think that nobody cares, they keep getting beat down because someone’s vandalizing their space – or making other claims on that space. So there are risks involved throughout all of this. Wouldn’t it be great if we could start to sit down in neighborhoods and assess the existing stewardship and then look at what the potential stewardship might look like and how that might help a community in terms of redevelopment and revitalization?

A lot is known about how to do pretty solid site assessment, but STEW-MAP is a tool that could inform social assessment.

UO: What kind of lessons would you hope other kinds of urban actors who might NOT identify primarily as stewards will draw from STEW-MAP? I’m talking about consultants like landscape architects or private home gardeners or city planners, municipal employees, policy makers.

LC: Well we’ve done a little bit of testing of using our data with landscape architects. I think there’s always an assessment phase to design, and a lot is known about how to do pretty solid site assessment, but STEW-MAP is a tool that could inform your social assessment. Who are the actors that care for the site, are invested in the site, use the site, surround the site, advocate for it? And that should inform your design. You can do a walk through, look around, but there’s a rich amount of data in there. So I think that’s where it can fit into the design phase.

As for policy—one way it can inform is through new campaigns and community organizing. We’ve gotten a lot of requests for data from the Parks Department, and from the MillionTreesNYC campaign when they’re trying to reach out to new folks to help implement new programs. Also from the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, they had a climate change program focusing on 20 flood-prone neighborhoods and trying to get people to clean storm drains. They wanted to see who might be some of the ‘low hanging fruit,’ the most invested, interested stewards in those neighborhoods. So we could query the database and serve it to them. But we also recognize that it’s incomplete both because not every stewardship group in the city responded to STEW-MAP and because our data reflect a moment in time . And that’s why we really want to make it a tool that can live and grow online and be added to.

I’m really interested in whether there’s a way for STEW-MAP to strengthen the level of the group. To enhance, to build on existing efforts. If you really believe the social capital hypothesis, then these groups matter. Yes individual volunteerism matters, and you will have individuals who show up at a one-time cleanup day, totally unaffiliated. But actually coming together as a group has some meaning. Could putting a group on a map highlight something that’s there to a funder, to a policy maker? Could it prevent someone from reinventing the wheel to realize, perhaps, that there’s already this kind of latent group that just needs to be catalyzed? How could you take a group that exists but is operating at sort of a low level and not doing much and enhance it through partnership?


ES: I’m going to say one more thing – we do a very poor job at archiving our urban social environmental histories. This gets back to your beginning question about what is stewardship, what is forestry. STEW-MAP is a start in many ways to do that, because the act of stewardship is an essential part of urban environmental history. While no group is perfect, stewards are contributing real time and labor in service to the city. The point is they are putting themselves out there, working in the public realm, and working towards a collective good in some way. I’ve met plenty of people who said that they are stewarding the land in various cities because of someone who came before them. Because Ms. Mary used to do it on the corner, and boy, she worked so hard. Or because there was this crazy guy on the block and he always had a vision that this waterfront could be cleaned up. These are the oral histories, our environmental histories, which fuel civic stewardship. While mayoral directives are certainly critical, you know, to provide the funds and agency initiative to plant a million trees, for example – the long-term, civic stewardship comes from a slightly different place. It comes out of these local stories, these emotional stories, these personal ties. My mother was a gardener, or loved trees, and when she passed away, I decided to get involved and do something in my community, or what have you. There are a million stories like that. These are the small little linkages that I think sustain stewardship.

All images courtesy of the US Forest Service, NYC Urban Field Station except second from top, courtesy Living Memorials Project National Registry.

Visit the Forest Service Northern Research Station, New York City Urban Field Station

Learn more about STEW-MAP: The Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project

Explore OASIS, an interactive public source for community and land use maps

For more about the community stewardship movement in Baltimore, visit Parks and People

Yale University’s Urban Resources Initiative

See how these organizations work with stewardship in New York:

Council on the Environment of NYC
New York City Parks Department
Citizens Committee for New York City
NYC Million Trees Campaign
Partnerships for Parks
Brooklyn Botanic Garden — Greenbridge Program

Please see here for a complete list of STEW MAP partners.

For a deeper look at stewardship and urban ecology, these citations can get you started:

Svendsen, Erika and Campbell, Lindsay. 2008. “Urban Ecological Stewardship: Understanding the Structure, Function and Network of Community-based Urban Land Management.” Cities and the Environment. 1(1).

Pickett, S.T.A. and J.M. Grove. 2009. “Urban Ecosystems: What Would Tansley Do?” Urban Ecosystems. 12.

Ernston, Henrik, Sorlin, Sverker, and Thomas Elmqvist. 2008. “Social Movements and Ecosystem Services—The Role of Social Network Structure in Protecting and Managing Urban Green Areas in Stockholm.” Ecology and Society. 13(2).

Sampson, R.J.; Raudenbush, S.W. 1999. “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods.” American Journal of Sociology. 105(3).

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Mike Halliday May 7, 2011

I live in New York City Housing Authority and have contacted my State Senator in the past about landscaping at City Housing property. Particularly, I live in the Lower East Side and NYCHA is often an eyesore and the psychology of our housing developments is that maintenance falls behind the commercial development in our neighboring developments. While some investment in infrastructure is promised by the Clinton Initiative, namely retrofitting NYCHA to be Green-friendly by switching from an old method od home heating, this is not the area of neglect that I would like to see addressed. Landscaping is piece-meal and some gardens are developed individually by residents as part of a Community Gardens program but it is not widely adopted. Instead, there is a distinct presence of parcels of land which have little foiliage in which dogs feces are atomized into the air with dust clouds created by weed-whackers operated by NYCHA grounds crew. With many seniors, families and people with disabilities, I believe that poor people have the right to community gardens. With financial cutbacks, I suggest a flower bulb project and new tree plantings follow-up due to the high incidence of tree sapling mortality from vandalism or neglect. Perhaps, our valued Seniors and other residents can feel the renewal of Spring like that of the Daffodil Project for 9/11 victims. The poor deserve to live in a psychologically beautiful environment, too even when Safety remains an ongoing issue and a corporate sponsor could underwrite the whole project if someone with the understanding of the machination of the Parks Department can liaise with the New York City Housing Authority and duplicate low-maintenance Bulb projects across the Boroughs.