By Neha Mulay
When considering the ways in which one can contribute to the cause of sustainability, the focus often tends to be on individual action in terms of recycling and curbing usage of plastics and limiting our levels of consumption. While individual choices we make as consumers are essential, it is also important to keep in mind that community action and involvement are crucial facets of sustainability.
There has been a rise in Urban Environmental Stewardship efforts, especially in New York City. Environmental Stewardship can be defined as “people’s efforts to take care of the natural world.”
I caught up with Dr. Lindsay Campbell, Research Social Scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, who spoke about the practical aspects of urban environmental stewardship
“Stewardship includes tree planting, engaging in community gardens, conserving landscapes through land trusts, creating historic designations, [and] educational work job-training programs. Stewardship can be something as simple as taking care of a tree on your street, weeding it, watering it. Stewardship is not the same as ownership, it is constituted through taking care and feeling like you have a stake, you could be a steward of public land even though you don’t own it, you could be a steward of the streetscape; this is a really empowering thing in a city with high population density.”
STEW-MAP is an initiative by the USDA Forest Service that encourages the practice of shared stewardship. It is an interactive map that can be used to access the groups in your local community that are working on aspects of conservation or sustainability.
According to Dr.Campbell “One of our core focuses is on civic stewardship, so the role that community groups and nonprofits play in shaping the local environment. These are crucial actors in the governance arena, but they are often not seen or appreciated. STEW-MAP aims to create an inventory of these on a map, who they are, what they do, and how they work in networks.”
Dr.Campbell also adds, “We now have a series of locations across the country and even globally where STEW-MAP has been implemented; it is a growing community of practitioners and researchers interested in stewardship and promoting it.”
The beauty of getting involved in these initiatives is the ability to connect with like-minded individuals and tap into local conservation initiatives that people might otherwise be unaware of.
A study conducted by Stockholm University found that in the neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, there were multiple organizations focused on community-based conservation. Groups such as the Newtown Creek Alliance work on the restoration of Newtown Creek. Other spaces such as the 61 Franklin Street Community Garden work on the creation and maintenance of community gardens.
It is easy to be unaware of the local and community efforts taking place around us, however, there has been an increasing focus on these stewardship efforts. These initiatives often do not receive enough focus or attention, in spite of the essential work that they carry out. Furthermore, often these spaces become interdisciplinary venues that can connect with multiple different groups and individuals, specifically encouraging an intersectional interaction of art and sustainability.
Dr. Campbell reminisced regarding her first interaction with this intertwining of art, community and sustainability through stewardship efforts:
“The town I grew up in as a child was a tiny town in Michigan, not a lot going on in terms of industry and community events. I lived across from a 40-acre park and my mom started a community theater festival for free and it became this organizing experience for the community around; this was my first experience of parks as these very open and democratic spaces, and parks as a way to catalyze community interest and engagement.”
She explains, “I’ve become interested through our Artists in Residence Program in the parallels between research and artists mode of inquiry- we think of art and science as these binaries, but they are really not; both involve questions regarding how we observe and experience place and how we make meaning out of place.”
The US Forest Service’s Artists in Residence program focuses on situating artists within natural environments as well as actively involving them in stewardship projects. The result of programs like these is creation of the awareness that we are all linked to the environment, in inextricable and irrevocable ways. Drawing artists into stewardship is a fascinating way to celebrate as well as draw attention to the plight of the natural world today.
Stewardship is a wonderfully tangible way of getting involved that not only allows you to enact change at the local level but also enables a sense of community. Change often starts small and through collective action; it is time to shed light on the importance and power of stewardship, especially in vibrant and artistic urban settings such as New York City.
Neha Mulay is a New York based Australian-Indian writer. She believes in the power of poetry, the importance of sustainability and the pleasure of an ethically sourced, perfectly made cup of coffee.