April 27, 2018
Imagine 10,000 people, in almost 70 cities around the globe, all doing the same exact thing at the same exact time. We’re not talking about watching cat videos, or playing Pokémon Go (though cat videos are cool and it’s possible people are still playing Pokémon Go). We’re talking about people all over the world using their phones or digital cameras to capture 500,000+ images of real live creatures (not to mention plants, fungi, and slime molds). What is this thing we speak of? It is called the City Nature Challenge, and it’s likely coming to a city near you.
A Global Urban Trend
The City Nature Challenge is all about increasing understanding of nature in and around cities. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations, “an estimated 54.5 percent of the world’s population live(s) in urban settlements. By 2030, urban areas are projected to house 60 percent of people globally…” With the rapid expansion of urban areas, it is more important than ever to think about how our cities work (or don’t), and to design and build cities that better support humans and wildlife.
But how do we build cities that will function better now and into the future for humans and wildlife? This is a question that urban planners, urban ecologists, conservationists, and museum educators and scientists often ponder. There are no simple or easy answers, but there is one thing that most of us agree on: To build better cities we need data -- lots of data! We need data sets that are solely human-centered: How many people live in a city currently and what will growth look like over the coming years? How many people drive, bike, and take public transit? How many homeless people live in the city? We also need data that revolves around climate and geology which greatly affect us: How much rain falls? How often do earthquakes occur, and with what magnitude? How hot is the city throughout the year? We especially need data on wildlife in the city, and that is where we need you.
How Can You Get Involved?
Scientists Studying the Nature of Cities
All too often, when scientists show cities on biodiversity maps, they are represented as gray areas. These gray blocks are often labeled as “residential” or “developed disturbed land.” Sometimes the gray reflects the low amount of wildlife data available in urban areas, and sometimes it is grayed out because it’s ignored in the scientist’s research, or is treated as as having minimal use as habitat for local species.
But recently, scientists and conservation biologists are increasingly studying nature in cities. Over the last decade this focus has become positively mainstream with many scientists leading urban research projects It isn’t easy. Imagine you are a scientist studying spiders on a residential city block. How can you access every property in order to find the arachnids that you research?
Crowdsourcing Nature in the City
The answer is through crowdsourcing, known to some as citizen science, or as we call it here at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA), community science. This crowdsourcing strategy is exactly what Dr. Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology, did in 2001 when he started the Los Angeles Spider Survey. In the first weekend of the project, over 1,000 spiders were brought into the Museum. Today NHMLA houses almost 6,000 spider specimens from across the L.A. region as a result of the Spider Survey, greatly helping scientists understand what species of spiders live here..
Prior to this L.A.-focused initiative, no one really knew the exact count of spider species in the area, or how they were distributed across the region -- what scientists call a baseline. These baselines are important because, once we know what lives where, we can begin tracking changes over time. We can also ask and answer a lot of new questions. How are plants and animals responding to cities being built up around them? How will climate change affect wildlife in our cities? How does the mix of species change after new species are introduced? What new species can we discover?
We need to think about creating a baseline of data for all species in cities around the world. One platform, eBird has done it for the over 9,000 species of birds throughout the planet. The platform began in 2002 in the western hemisphere, and today over 100 million bird sightings are added to the massive data set each year. Another ambitious platform, iNaturalist, is endeavoring to create a similarly large data set, but this time for all branches of the tree of life. As of January 2018, over 8 million wildlife observations have been added.
How It All Started: L.A. Versus S.F.
In 2016, Alison Young from the California Academy of Sciences and I came up with an idea to celebrate the first ever national Citizen Science Day at our museums. We decided to turn the documentation of nature in our respective cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, into a competition. We capitalized on our cities’ long-standing rivalry -- the Dodgers versus the Giants (debatable), which city has the best burritos (clearly L.A.), and which city has the highest rents (not funny) -- and encouraged Angelenos and San Franciscans to get outside and document nature.
In just days, over 1,000 people submitted almost 20,000 observations to the challenge! Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti got involved and sent in his own picture of a common garden snail to the project.Other rarer species were also documented. In Los Angeles, our famous yet elusive mountain lion, P-22, showed up on a camera trap in Griffith Park to be counted for the challenge. In San Francisco, two iconic endangered species were documented including the Mission blue butterfly and San Francisco garter snake. But, it wasn’t just L.A. and San Francisco residents paying attention, urban nature lovers all over the United States were following the challenge too. Many wanted to join in the fun.
(P.S.: Los Angeles won!)
And So It Grew
Capitalizing on the buzz, we expanded the challenge to cover the entire United States. In 2017, 16 cities across the country took part. From Miami to New York, from Dallas to Seattle, 14 new cities joined in, all trying to take Los Angeles down. That year, in just 5 short days, around 4,000 people submitted over 125,000 observations of wildlife living in U.S. urban areas. Orcas were spotted off the coast of Seattle, a critically imperiled Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly was documented in Miami, and once again, mountain lion P-22 showed up for Los Angeles. A total of 8,629 species were documented, including 393 rare, endangered, or threatened species. There was one species seen in every single city -- tenacious urban dweller, the pigeon! That year Dallas, Texas won for the most number of observations, with almost 25,000!
From the very beginning, Alison and I both said we were starting off with L.A and San Francisco, but that we’d go national in 2017, and international in 2018. Setting goals is something we’re pretty good at, but we didn’t necessarily believe it would expand as rapidly as it has.
This year the City Nature Challenge involves 69 cities, from 17 countries, on 5 continents. Organizers in each city have developed partnerships with over 300 organizations. Although we can’t be certain that we’ll meet this year’s projected 10,000 participants and 500,000 observations, we’ve been pretty good at predicting results in past years. What nature will we find in our cities this year? Will P-22 show up on a camera trap again? Will participants in Mumbai document the charismatic leopards that live in their city? How many rare, endangered, and threatened species will we document? Will kids in Tokyo submit pictures of honeybees just like kids in London? Will pigeons be found in all 69 cities, just like they were in 2017? With people all over the world taking part in the City Nature Challenge this year, being curious and observant and documenting the nature that is local to them, we’re bound to find some surprises!