Cultivating Resilient Spaces in the City: A Q&A with Dr. Erika Svendsen

Open Voices is taking the opportunity to get to know some of the different team members from our National Awards grantee projects. You can find previous interviews with other team members here.

When one thinks of the U.S. Forest Service, you wouldn’t necessarily think of New York City. That is not the case for Dr. Erika Svendsen and her colleagues at the New York City Urban Field Station. Her work focuses on how systems of environmental stewardship “shape new forms of governance, collective resilience, sacred space and human well-being,” which made her a perfect partner for the Landscapes of Resilience project.

Drawing on past research on the city, people and the environment, Svendsen and her colleagues will be studying the ways in which the people of Joplin, MO and New York City have each turned to using greening as a mechanism for recovery after natural disasters. We had the opportunity to sit down with Erika and learn more about her work in New York for the project.

Open Voices: What role do you envision for yourself as the team working on the Landscapes of Resilience project heads forward?

Erika Svendsen: I am working as part of a research team and that team involves Keith Tidball from Cornell University and our colleagues at Drury University as well as Lindsay Campbell and Nancy Falxa-Raymond from the US Forest Service, and our interest is in documenting the process of creating sacred spaces; not just creating a place, but identifying the right site for an OSSP and working together toward a cohesive design and program. We are interested in how people come together to leave a legacy on the urban landscape that expresses the social, cultural and sacred meaning of a place.  In my past work, in places that are often underserved by green or open spaces, I’ve found that it’s usually the process of coming together as a community that makes a place sacred, not simply the existence of green space. If green space alone was all we needed to create healthy and vibrant human communities, then we would find the greenest places in the world home to the healthiest populations. It’s not enough just to surround yourself with good design and green, it’s also what we bring to those spaces as a community through engagement, stewardship, education, programming, and more.

In this project in particular, we’re looking at the role of green space and urban nature in the aftermath of an extreme or acute disturbance. We’re lucky in both cases to have been there from the beginning and really understand the process, and to be able to document the process of how groups come together whether in their official capacity as emergency responders or government representatives —  or as  individual volunteers or members of neighborhood groups.  The way in which these folks join together to take on not only the relief tasks that need to be done, but how they innovate, adapt and create new ideas for making a place better is what I find to be quite profound.  The TKF Program is giving us a wonderful opportunity to examine this process a bit more closely so that we can take away some timeless lessons on the creative ways to use greening and public space as a recovery mechanism in the aftermath of tragic events.

Open Voices: Your research is focused on urban environmental stewardship, what has led you to land on the issue of resilience and sacred space as a common thread in your work?

Svendsen: I have the deep belief that people have the ability to do great things.  In terms of helping the environment and development, we need people and social innovation, as the plants and animals won’t save themselves, so to speak. When we talk about conservation, preservation, and cultivating and nurturing our ecosystems, human beings are the only ones who can rise to a level of abstraction to do anything about it on a large scale.  In my career working in urban environments I’ve seen all kinds of people give of their time and make personal sacrifices to do things for the common good, and that has always inspired me.

Urban environments are in many ways no different than our great public landscapes, our national forests and parks. We just experience the majesty of nature on a smaller scale like a community garden, a window box planting, or a street-end waterfront park. All of these spaces evoke the spirit of the forest. In that sense, the act of creation and preservation of urban open space gives us an opportunity to strengthen trust, build social cohesion, and reaffirm the basic elements of democracy and inclusion that are so important to us.

Throughout my urban work, I am still struck by that the people who have the least green space, are often those that give and do the most…For me, working for the Forest Service, it’s an important message for us to understand and hear beyond the city — that there are thousands and thousands of groups in cities who care deeply about the environment and consider themselves stewards.  These folks have a great deal in common with their counterparts in rural communities. I’m inspired by that narrative…seeing people use nature as a catalyst for recovery as it creates an appreciation for the reciprocity between nature and humans.  I have often interacted with people who think that community gardens, volunteer tree plantings and the like are nice stories, but what TKF has done through their national grant-giving is to show that these special and sacred spaces reflect universal and timeless patterns: that people want to live and be with nature – in its various forms, and they also would like to have a say in how those varied landscapes are shaped and developed overtime.

Open Voices: What sort of data are you hoping to gather from this research of the communities participating in the Landscapes of Resilience project?

Svendsen: We’re primarily using a qualitative mixed methods approach, combining interviews, participatory observation and focused site assessments.  We have started in both Joplin and New York by conducting a social and site assessment, going out and understanding who’s out there, what sort of projects and ideas are emerging. New York is a little different than Joplin, which had their site identified very early on. In New York we’re trying to track some of the emerging projects that are springing up throughout the region, but primarily the Jamaica Bay area, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Then we will move on to key informant interviews, one on one, and we’ll be conducting focus groups later on this fall. We also engage in participatory observation, attending events, meetings and activities in particular locations. That process will lead us to identifying one of the Open Spaces Sacred Places for New York City.

One of the things we’d like to do after gathering the research from both the Joplin and New York sites, is to share our findings with our colleagues in other locations doing similar work. And we are fortunate to be uniquely positioned to take this knowledge and understanding back to our own institutions.  In our case, that’s the US Forest Service.  With over a century of experience in emergency response, we are looking forward to hearing what our colleagues think about using nature as a catalyst or mechanism for community recovery.  We’d love to get a sense of how we might develop the proper messaging and programs to build upon a community’s natural inclination to use nature – trees, gardens and parks – as building blocks to rebuild their area.   Our colleagues Keith Tidball and Marianne Kransy of Cornell University just published a book entitled Greening in the Red Zone.  It’s a collection of stories from all over the world demonstrating how greening has played a role in ‘red zones’ or areas of great disturbance and disaster.  This evidence shows that communities understand the accessibility of nature and its healing properties, but how can government and the NGO sector play a greater role in this work?

Open Voices: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Svendsen: The sacred space that is being created in Joplin, and the one that will be developed in New York City are public spaces.  And this is what I think makes them so special.  They will be a part of our everyday landscape and as such, it’s really important that they have a meaning beyond the physical design, a meaning that resonates with the community. Nature is an incredible mechanism because it’s a universal symbol, it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, it belongs to us all.