Private property supports a large proportion of the greenspace in cities. Greenspace on private property is subject to more frequent management decisions and actions, but we know little of the motivations driving these decisions or their impact on the ecosystem. The conventional approach of studying urban parks and publicly accessible spaces has skewed our understanding of urban biodiversity, material cycling, and ecosystem services.
Ecologists must practice on private property in order to fully study cities--but few resources currently exist to guide ecologists in conducting field research on private property. To encourage private property research, we ask "what approaches to conducting urban ecology field research on private property exist, and which have been successful?"
We interviewed more than 25 urban ecology researchers with experience accessing and conducting research on private property. Interviewees were identified through the literature, professional organizations, and professional contacts. Researchers were interviewed using a master list of questions to provide the framework for the discussion, while allowing the interviewee to focus on the most important and personally relevant aspects of the question. We collated notes from the interviews and assembled a diverse set of current approaches and lessons learned.
We find the process of conducting urban ecology field research on private property can be broken into five key steps: research design; sampling design; contact, acceptance and access negotiation; data collection and relationship management; and results and post-study contact.
Researchers shared lessons for all steps, some applicable to private property research more broadly and others particular to research in urban ecosystems. For example, researchers must account for access request acceptance rates in their sampling design, as non-responses and rejections are common. Acceptance rate is particularly important when using stratified sampling; researchers commonly had issues with small sample pools for strata. Researchers also reported that liability and property/home owner concerns constrained their choice of methods. Destructive sampling (e.g. killing bees) required additional in depth explanation and reassurances, for example, and researchers avoided digging or tree coring due to worries over property damage.
Three overarching themes emerged that are critical to successful urban ecology research. First, investigators need to adapt their research for the reality of working on private property. Second, communicating clearly and concisely with property owners is crucial. Third, researchers must be adaptable to emerging conditions or unexpected issues throughout the research process.