Exploring an emerging interdisciplinary process: A socio-ecological assessment of New York City parks
Baseline conditions of urban ecological communities are often understudied, making effective management decisions difficult. At the same time, existing government structures often maintain disciplinary silos and do not engage in knowledge sharing with other agencies or institutions. New models of networked and hybrid governance are needed to manage natural resources under dynamic conditions, particularly in urban areas, where diverse constituencies hold multiple values towards urban nature. Here, we take an embedded research approach to examining the development of a socio-ecological assessment of 26 natural areas (forests, wetlands, and saltwater marshes) within New York City parks. As researchers at the New York City Urban Field Station, a partnership of the USDA Forest Service, New York City Parks & Recreation, and the non-profit Natural Areas Conservancy, we reflect on the development of a socio-ecological assessment as integral participants. Our research examines the following question: What enables or supports socio-ecological integration in applied research? Qualitative methods presented here include content analysis of meeting notes, participation observation, and semi-structured interviews. We used grounded theory to identify emergent themes across these three datasets.
The social and ecological research efforts were conceived as supporting each other, and they developed and were deployed in parallel. The social assessment explored the use, value, and meaning of park users. The ecological assessment conducted plot-level measures of vegetation and soil characteristics for park natural areas. Integration meetings were held throughout the process of assessment initiation, data collection, and analysis, with goals of developing a restoration prioritization tool and understanding the interactions among the social and ecological aspects of park natural areas. A number of themes emerged from meeting notes and participant observation, including cross-disciplinary communication barriers, issues of scale, values identification, and research framing. Additionally, content analysis of meeting notes identified a shift in language over time, with new and more interdisciplinary ideas emerging over time. Participant observation in social-ecological meetings identified that integration efforts were more robust in ecological communities with a greater human presence, limiting the socio-ecological integration aspect of assessments for freshwater wetlands and salt marshes. This led to different decision-making approaches for restoration in upland and wetland sites, indicating the potential for different managerial outcomes with or without a socio-ecological integration. We are presenting these results during an intermediate stage of this process; future research will continue this work, reflecting on implementation decisions.