Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Anna Johnson never thought of herself as a “city” girl, but upon arriving in Pittsburgh she was surprised to find a city so carefully built into its environment. “I love how hills or rivers frame almost every view of the city,” she says. “In some urban landscapes, you can forget that there is a nature that is not human nature, but that is not the case in Pittsburgh.”
After calling Pittsburgh home for several years, Johnson moved to Baltimore to earn her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. “I am an urban ecologist now because of my admiration for the ecology of Pittsburgh, and my desire to find ways to better integrate our understanding of human uses and values with the natural processes that drive the diversity and distribution of plant and animal populations,” she says.
When her graduate program offered her funding for research in 2010, Johnson reached out to Dr. Daniel Bain at the University of Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Senior Restoration Ecologist, Erin Copeland to help her design a study in her favorite urban landscape. She chose to focus on the Urban EcoSteward (UES) program to measure the change that is possible when we engage in the ecological well being of our parks.
Urban EcoSteward Program
Urban EcoStewards are members of the Pittsburgh community who volunteer to be responsible for the ecological restoration and care of a quarter acre site in one of the parks. Each EcoSteward is assigned a site coordinator who visits the site with them at least once per year and helps establish a timeline of priorities. For example, the removal of trash on a site is always priority number one in order to promote healthy soil. The removal of invasive species needs to be done before native vegetation can be planted to avoid the young plants having to compete for resources, etc.
While EcoStewards do have to be self-motivated to work on their sites, we don’t send them out into the woods without direction. Every year the program offers a series of trainings that will teach you how to do everything from safely remove trash, to identify invasive plants, or control the erosion of hillsides. These trainings are free and open to the public and you don’t have to be an EcoSteward to attend.
The Urban EcoSteward Program is a partnership between the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Frick Environmental Center, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Allegheny Cleanways, and the Allegheny Land Trust. In 2011 Urban EcoStewards donated over 800 hours of service to our city’s parks.
A Study of Stewardship
In the summer of 2010, Johnson set out into Pittsburgh’s parks to find a way to assess the ecological effectiveness of the Urban Ecosteward Program. “I wanted to know if managed plots, over time, were measurably different than unmanaged plots, in terms of herbaceous plant species abundance and composition,” she says. Her study sought to answer two basic questions…
- Does Urban EcoSteward management decrease the number of invasive plant species in EcoSteward plots?
- Does Urban EcoSteward management increase the number of native, or non-invasive, plant species?
Invasive species are plants or animals, either native or introduced, that outcompete and displace other desirable species. A species may become invasive if it faces less pressure from disease or predation, has a particularly aggressive reproduction strategy, or thrives in areas where human disturbance has occurred. Invasive plants can quickly take over an area, edging out the non-invasive plants that provide critical habitat, biodiversity and beauty in our parks.
Johnson utilized two methods to accumulate the needed data. First, she took data from the hundreds of monitoring forms that EcoStewards fill out periodically to track the progress of their site. Second, she visited a sampling of forested EcoSteward sites which represented a range of management (from 0-5 years) and surveyed plant communities. The data collected represented EcoSteward sites in Highland, Frick, Schneley, and Riverview parks.
The story being told by the UES monitoring forms was clear. “I found that managing a plot for at least two years results in a statistically significant reduction in the number of invasive plant species,” says Johnson. Her own sampling of sites confirmed this finding. “I found a trend of increasing abundance of non-invasive species and decreasing abundance of invasive species, as the duration of EcoSteward management increased.”
From an ecological perspective the Urban EcoStewards are making a difference in our parks. “It is not often that we have such a well-documented example of the positive effects people can have on their environment,” says Johnson. As the EcoStewards continue their work and collect data she is eager to see the patterns that develop. “We don’t really know what our parks, or any urban parks, will look like twenty, fifty, or one hundred years from now,” she says, “but by documenting the work that our EcoStewards do, we are developing an extremely valuable record of the results of long-term ecological stewardship.”
If you have questions about Anna Johnson’s research you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave questions in the comments and we’ll forward them along to her. Learn more about how to become an Urban EcoSteward here, or join us for one of our UES training sessions. Digging in the dirt not for you? Consider making a donation to benefit our parks.