Our Research

Members of the Civic Ecology Lab apply social-ecological systems thinking to understanding learning and stewardship in stressed, disturbed, and disaster environments including cities. Our starting point is groups of people who self-organize to reconnect with nature as a means of societal change. These individuals engage in community gardening, habitat and wildlife restoration, stewardship of neighborhood parks, and community forestry—all of which we refer to as civic ecology practices. Through forming research partnerships with civic ecology stewards, we seek to understand what precipitates these practices as well as their meaning and outcomes for individuals, communities, the environment, and larger governance systems. Although these practices are small, we seek to understand their role in mitigation of, adaptation to, and transformation in light of climate change. We apply the results of our scholarship to strengthen civic ecology practices and to build support for them among the academic, government, and non-profit sectors.

The ten civic ecology hypotheses frame much of the lab’s research. In addition, our research focuses on environmental learning through participation in civic ecology practices, online and hybrid courses, and environmental education more broadly.

Ten Civic Ecology Hypotheses

Emergence: Why and where do civic ecology practices happen?

  1. Civic ecology practices emerge in broken places.
  2. Because of their love for life (biophilia) and love for the places (topophilia) they have lost, civic ecology stewards defy, reclaim, and recreate these broken places.

What are the parts that, pieced together, create civic ecology practices?

  1. Civic ecology practices provide opportunities for learning.
  2. In recreating place, civic ecology practices recreate community.
  3. Civic ecology stewards draw on social-ecological memories to recreate places and communities.
  4. Civic ecology practices produce ecosystem services.
  5. Civic ecology practices foster well-being.

Zooming Out: A systems perspective

  1. Civic ecology practices start out as local, small-scale innovations and expand to encompass multiple partnerships (governance).
  2. Civic ecology practices are embedded in cycles of chaos and renewal, which in turn are nested in social-ecological systems (resilience).

Policy Entrepreneurs: Understanding and enabling

  1. Policy makers have a role to play in growing civic ecology practices.

Ongoing Research Projects

  • Adaptive co-management in village grove restoration in Korea (Eunju Lee)
  • Citizen task forces address forest insect invasions (Sally Whisler Nourani)
  • Civic ecology stewards impacting local environmental policy (Danny Rosenberg Daneri)
  • Climate change communication research use in environmental education (Anne Armstrong)
  • Knowledge from data, knowledge from doing: the inclusionary production of environmental knowledge for management in three civic ecology practices (Philip Silva)
  • Microplastics: Volunteer engagement in a global environmental problem (Bethany Jorgensen)
  • MOOC interactive online learning to engage the public in environmental protection action in the US and China (Yue Li, Marianne Krasny, Zhiyuan Liu, Ryan Baker)
  • Online learning, social media, and small groups (Bryce DuBois, Marianne Krasny)
  • Youth engagement in civic ecology practices (Bryce DuBois, Marianne Krasny, Justin Smith)

Why Is Our Work Important?

We live in a world where change is the norm —whether it be slow deterioration of community and environmental well-being or sudden disaster and conflict. In such a world, one can imagine that nature will fall to the bottom of any list of priorities, as immediate needs for food, shelter, and safety are addressed. Yet it is in these most urbanized and disaster-stricken contexts that we often see people turning to nature and to neighbors for emotional sustenance, often through stewardship actions that enable people to not just connect with,  but also enhance the environment and community.

Through our research, we are beginning to understand the outcomes of these civic ecology practices for individuals, communities, the environment, and governance systems. We also seek to understand larger implications in the face of global environmental threats. Civic ecology practices are an expression of adaptation in communities facing urbanization, climate change, and other forms of stress, and play a role in transformation of social-ecological systems following decline and sudden disaster. Thus they offer microcosms for the study of human capacity for adaptation and transformation in the face of global change that exerts stresses on communities and ecosystems.

What is Civic Ecology?

Civic ecology is a field of interdisciplinary study concerned with individual, community, and environmental outcomes of community-based environmental stewardship practices, and the interactions of such practices with people and other organisms, communities, governance institutions, and the ecosystems in which these practices take place.

Civic ecology practices refer to local environmental stewardship actions taken to enhance the green infrastructure and community well-being of urban and other human-dominated systems. These practices often emerge after a period of sustained environmental and social deterioration, and are self-organized by community members. Examples include community gardens planted on degraded vacant properties by neighborhood activists in New York City during the high-crime era of the 1970s, and similar efforts today in Detroit and Cleveland. People sometimes turn to civic ecology projects as a source of individual and community resilience after crises, as when people in New Orleans began to plant trees as a means to express their rootedness and will to survive and grow after Hurricane Katrina. Although often initiated by community activists, longer-term civic ecology projects generally involve partnerships with non-profit organizations, government agencies, universities, and the private sector.

Civic ecology education refers to planned educational programs taking place as part of civic ecology practices. Because adults with both practical and scientific knowledge are engaged in civic ecology practices, they provide opportunities for young people and other members of the community to learn from adults holding diverse expertise. For example, in Garden Mosaics, young people work alongside and learn from community gardeners, many of whom are immigrants from agricultural countries or migrants from southern states in the US. The gardeners share knowledge of cultivation practices from a diversity of cultures. In another example, young people engaged in oyster restoration projects in NYC learn from the scientists engaged in these efforts.

What Civic Ecology Is Not

Many people confuse civic ecology practice with citizen science, perhaps because of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s leadership role in designing, researching, and promoting citizen science programs internationally. Citizen science refers to projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to gather data for wildlife and insect populations, studies of plant phenology, and similar types of research in which lay persons play a role. Although sometimes volunteers in citizen science also engage in conservation action, such action is not inherent to the definition of citizen science. In contrast, civic ecology practice by definition implies stewardship action. Other differences include the conceptual frameworks, with citizen science drawing from literature on public participation in scientific research, and civic ecology guided by scholarship in social ecological systems resilience. Related, much of our work in civic ecology is framed by our observations of humans reconnecting to nature in urban, disaster, and other stressed environments; whereas citizen science would focus more broadly on habitats that facilitate the study of population dynamics of birds, insects, and other organisms.

Urban ecological stewardship (or urban environmental stewardship) refers to a wide array of stewardship groups and activities in cities, including self-organized, hands-on greening activities that we call civic ecology practices. We use the term civic ecology to refer not only to these urban restoration and stewardship practices, but to emphasize a theoretical framework for studying the role such practices play in larger social-ecological systems. Within the related fields of human ecology, social ecology, and collaborative natural resources planning and management, civic ecology focuses on a more discretely bounded set of interactions—i.e., interactions within a single civic ecology practice, and between civic ecology practices, government, non-profit organizations, vacant lots, and  other elements of a social-ecological system. In particular, we focus on those interactions that have meaningful and measurable outcomes for people and for larger governance and social-ecological systems and their resilience.