Posted by Ruth Rivkin (PhD candidate at University of Toronto Mississauga)
We’ve all been there: You’re hard at work sampling on someone’s lawn, in a ditch next to the road, or in a public park, when suddenly you hear a voice shouting “Hey you, what the @#$% are you doing over there?!” So now you have to climb out of whatever location you’re collecting data from, and explain to a curious, and sometimes disgruntled passerby what exactly urban evolution is. Except maybe, depending where you are, you don’t mention the word ‘evolution’.
Here are my tips for explaining to the average city-dweller what I do, and why they should care too. I work in Toronto, Canada, collecting seeds and population demographic information on spotted jewelweed. So in the summer, I spend my time scrambling around ditches and shady-areas in public parks around the city. When someone stops to ask me what I’m doing, my strategy is this: Keep It Simple, Silly. I try to limit my initial answer to three sentences.
- I tell them who I am and what I’m doing (“I’m a researcher at UofT, and I’m collecting seeds from these plants”).
- I tell them why I’m doing this (“I’m studying how plants grow and reproduce in the city”).
- I tell them why what I’m doing is important (“The city has drastic effects on the bees, and I’m trying to figure out what will happen to the plants that rely on them for pollination”).
Then, depending on the person’s level of interest, I talk to them about what we think might be going on and how they might be able to contribute to maintaining a healthy urban ecosystem. Usually by this time, they’ve decided I’m a slightly insane, but harmless oddity in their neighborhood park. But using this strategy has led to some interesting conversations, and hopefully it will for you too. Sometimes, these conversations lead to citizens “helping out” with finding your urban organism or telling you where they’ve spotted more of it.
Do you have any tips on how to engage the public while conducting urban fieldwork? Tell us your stories from the field in the comments, or consider contributing a post on your experiences!