Greening Cities through Civic Stewardship, Crowd-Resourcing & Social Networks

A guest post by  Lindsay K. Campbell


Top-down. Bottom-up. These are phrases that we often hear about different ways in which decision-making and change occur. The former refers to usually government-led efforts, where elected or appointed officials at higher levels of authority render decisions that are then passed down to be implemented. If there is public engagement in a top-down setting, it usually involves government actors reaching out to citizens as stakeholders to give public comment or reactions to government-led planning and policymaking. The latter refers to grassroots action and social movements that bubble up from the public and place pressure on existing structures in order to effect change. Those targets for change can include government entities, but can also be corporations, NGOs, or broader social fields. These approaches have different strengths and weaknesses; top-down approaches can be efficient, whereas bottom-up approaches can be more inclusive.

Crowd-resourcing and crowd-funding platforms such as and others are powerful tools for bottom-up, neighbor-led action. Ioby helps enable local leaders to develop, organize, and fund projects, from composting education projects, to creating parklets, to advocating for greenways and more. Working with my colleague Erika Svendsen at the US Forest Service and our collaborators, we call these varied forms of local engagement, “environmental stewardship” (Svendsen and Campbell 2008). We have been studying this phenomenon for the last decade in many large cities in the US, beginning first with New York City, where we conducted an assessment of nonprofit and community-based stewardship groups citywide. That assessment, known as the Stewardship Mapping or Assessment Project (or STEW-MAP) aims both to better understand civic engagement around urban environments and to create applied tools, such as maps and databases to help support that network of stewards.


NYC_BK Farm Yards 5

[Students at the High School for Public  Service in East Flatbush worked with BK Farmyards, ioby, and Green Guerillas  on  an urban farm project]

We found that there is a vibrant environmental grassroots, with close to 2,800 civic groups citywide, of which nearly one-third have budgets of under $1,000 per year and about half have no nonprofit, 501c3 status (STEW-MAP 2007; Fisher et al. 2012). Indeed, many of these civic groups either began or remain as a group of friends and neighbors who formed to address a particular issue. We believe that these practices of direct, environmental engagement through conservation, education, management, monitoring, and advocacy represent a social innovation that is changing the way we build and manage our cities. Moreover, we note that these groups are not solely environmental, or are not just “environment for environment’s sake.” Rather, they are using the improvement of the local environment as a way to support youth, seniors, safety, and public health—diverse dimensions of community well-being.


NYC_462 Halsey 4

[Neighbors in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn came together to build raised beds in 462 Halsey Community Garden, a lot that was vacant for almost 20 years]

Yet, it would be an oversimplification to look at bottom-up processes in a vacuum. What this framing of top-down and bottom-up misses is the prevalence of networked forms of decision-making and change that laterally cross sectors and scales. In analyzing these networks, we intend to better understand how the governance of the urban environment takes place—who are the central actors, who are more peripheral actors, and which sector or locales take the lead?   Our stewardship research found that in New York City, there are approximately a dozen professionalized, nonprofit umbrella groups that are playing a crucial brokering role, sharing information and resources between citywide public agencies and the local neighborhood grassroots (Connolly et al. 2013).

These networked relationships present novel pathways for communication and shared action, and create a more flexible, adaptive approach to governance of the urban environment. In examining the network overall, we find that these groups often cluster by ecological function (e.g. focusing on land, water, built environment) or geography (e.g. borough, neighborhood) (Connolly et al. 2014). By creating visualizations, or maps, of these networks, we can better understand the politics of decision-making—such as who the key organizations are and which relationships can become levers for change. In studying New York City, we have found that some of these networks are more government-led and centralized with prominent public policies and capital commitments (e.g. urban forestry), whereas others are more civic-led or polycentric, often taking the forms of loose coalitions (e.g. urban agriculture) (Campbell, in press).


NYC_Bushwick City Farms

[Bushwick City Farms is a volunteer-run open space that teaches environmentally and socially responsible food production]

We also know something about what motivates individual stewards to get involved. These individuals are driven by basic, almost abiding desires to beautify or restore the landscape, to teach others, to relax and unwind, and to create or to re-establish a locus of control (Svendsen 2009). In some cases, they are triggered into action by some sort of disturbance, whether it is personal challenge (loss of a family member, loss of a job, changing neighborhood conditions) or a public crisis (natural disaster, terrorism, economic collapse)(Tidball et al. 2010; Svendsen et al. 2015). However, other stewards may be motivated by a protective instinct, out of a desire to conserve, preserve, and protect local environments that are meaningful to them. We have ongoing research with Johan Enqvist to examine relationships between sense of place and stewardship engagement to learn more about these different drivers.


NYC_Compost for Brooklyn

[Compost for Brooklyn provides free composting opportunities in community gardens and open spaces across Brooklyn]

Finally, we have not yet systematically studied how the smaller, local “cliques” or clusters within the networks form.   How does group A come to know and work with group B? Or, at the sub-group level, how did leader A come to work with member B? These are the micropolitics of local stewardship, and they are the connective tissue that allows networks to form and persist. I hypothesize that online platforms like ioby can help bring together communities of place and communities of interest in order to facilitate group formation and project development. So, for example, residents who live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn can find other New Yorkers interested in community gardening and work together to grow a network of urban greenspace advocates, educators, and resources that draws support from beyond their neighborhood boundaries. Another obvious role that crowd-resourcing sites play is to provide a communication platform and a targeted, time-delimited goal for fundraising that helps nascent groups achieve early successes. With early successes, groups may go on to tackle new efforts, to work in coalition with other groups, and to scale up from the micro to the macro – the average repeat ioby leader raises more than 400% of their original fundraising goal during their second campaign.


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[Pittsburgh’s Kincaid Garden is stewarded by a neighborhood group that has built out new amenities such as a Children’s Discovery Garden and little free library]

Our stewardship study was carried out before the current wave of crowd-resourcing and online tools were available to support this sort of action. As we gear up to repeat our New York City study in 2017, we are eager to detect the difference the new innovations in both civic action (e.g. online tools) and municipal action (e.g. local sustainability and resilience plans) will have had on urban environmental stewardship at the citywide scale. We have also worked with collaborators in cities including Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Juan to replicate the study – so we can begin to understand more about what varies and what is consistent in place-based stewardship in different locales.




Lindsay K. Campbell

ioby Board member Lindsay K. Campbell is a Research Social Scientist for the USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station who is based at the New York City Urban Field Station (a partnership between the Forest Service and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation).  The NYC Urban Field Station is dedicated to improving the quality of life in urban areas by conducting and supporting research about social-ecological systems and natural resource management.  Her current research explores the dynamics of urban natural resource stewardship and sustainability policymaking.  

She is co-PI on several long term, interdisciplinary research projects, including: the Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (STEW-MAP), which maps the social networks and spatial turf of civic, government, and private actors working on environmental stewardship in New York City; the Living Memorials Project, which examines the use and stewardship of open space post-September 11; and “Landscapes of Resilience”, which examines open spaces and sacred spaces in Joplin, MO and New York City. She was a member of the NSF-funded ULTRA-EX team that examined changes in land cover, ecosystem services, and stewardship in New York City’s urban forest and was also a member of the MillionTreesNYC Advisory Committee. She is currently working on a book entitled City of Forests, City of Farms: Constructing Nature in New York City. Lindsay has a PhD in geography from Rutgers University, a Masters in City Planning from MIT, and an AB in Public Policy from Princeton University.  She is a competitive epee fencer at the international level, loves biking the streets of NYC, and lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn.



Works Cited: To read and download any of these publications, visit

Campbell, Lindsay. Book in preparation. City of Forests, City of Farms: Constructing Nature in New York City.

Connolly, James J., Svendsen, Erika S., Fisher, Dana R., and Lindsay K. Campbell 2013. “Organizing urban ecosystem services through environmental stewardship governance in New York City.” Landscape and Urban Planning, 1-9.

Connolly, James J.T.; Svendsen, Erika S.; Fisher, Dana R.; Campbell, Lindsay K. 2014. Networked governance and the management of ecosystem services: The case of urban environmental stewardship in New York City. Ecosystem Services. 10: 187-194.

Fisher, Dana R., Campbell, Lindsay K., and Erika S. Svendsen. 2012. “The Organizational Structure of Urban Environmental Stewardship.” Environmental Politics 21:1, 26-48.

Svendsen, Erika 2009. Cultivating resilience: urban stewardship as a means to improving health and well-being. In: Campbell, Lindsay; Wiesen, Anne, eds. Restorative commons: creating health and well-being through urban landscapes. Gen. Tech Rep. NRS-P-39. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 58-87.

Svendsen, Erika and Lindsay Campbell. 2008. “Understanding Urban Environmental Stewardship” Cities and the Environment 1(1): 1-32.

Svendsen, Erika S., Campbell, Lindsay K., Falxa-Raymond, Nancy, and Gillian Baine. 2015. “Urban Stewardship as a Catalyst for Recovery and Change” In Waterproofing New York, edited by Denise Hoffman Brandt and Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, pp. 104-111. Urban Research Vol. 02. New York, NY: Terreform.

Tidball, Keith G.; Krasny, Marianne E.; Svendsen, Erika; Campbell, Lindsay; Helphand, Kenneth. 2010. Stewardship, learning, and memory in disaster resilience. Environmental Education Research. 16(5-6): 591- 609.