The Human Side of Urban Evolution: Integrating Identity and Community with Research

As life scientists that choose to study species within a city – habitats that are dominated by stochasticity, ecological traps, and, well, humans – we’re sort of like the crazy cousins at the biological sciences family reunion. Indeed, studying a system in which humans are both the drivers and beneficiaries of environmental change can throw a theoretical curveball (or five) into study design. Nonetheless, urban evolution research has helped us tremendously in redefining what we consider nature and strengthened our understanding of evolutionary processes. This is evidenced by recent special issues and articles (Santangelo et al. 2018; Rivkin et al. 2018; Ouyang et al. 2018; Thompson et al. 2018) that provide compelling frameworks and roadmaps to enrich our understanding of the links that exist among anthropogenic drivers and species adaptation in cities.

Dr. Schell (bottom-left) illustrating how a GPS radio-collar works (using his loveable pup, Deja) with a class of 7th  to 8th graders in Northern Colorado

Still, part of the challenge to fully uncovering urban evolution remains outstanding: an intentional and more systematic inclusion of all people. Work in cities requires careful consideration of the human systems in which we work: the way they function, how they are produced, and the people that populate them. Though cities share similar properties, and can have similar evolutionary effects (e.g., Combs et al. 2018 and Miles et al. 2018), we know that not one size fits all: the members of our respective urban communities can greatly vary in culture and ideology. As a result, our work necessitates that we engage with the diversity of peoples in our cities to more holistically recognize the socio-ecological processes that contribute to urban evolution. This work requires that we appreciate how we project ourselves into our respective urban environments, identify our biases, and be mindful of how our work impacts – and is impacted by – the communities in which we work. Such an exercise is certainly not how we’re trained in the life sciences. However, cultivating relationships with community members across various neighborhoods in our cities – either through outreach, the media, community forums, our even policy – should certainly be a requirement to become a more equitable scientist.

So then, how as urban evolutionary biologists can we help? Here are a few suggestions and tips that may help to more successfully and intentionally meld community with research:

1. Be cognizant of who you are

Cover illustration for Dr. J. Drew Lanham’s book, The Home Place | Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature

An understanding of your urban system necessitates an understanding of your presence. This idea is not new in the social sciences: in fact, as Dyson et al. (2018) recently emphasized, this work has been done for decades. However, minimal cross-talk between the life and social sciences exists around recognizing how we project ourselves while performing our work in the field. Moreover, systemic and societal issues unequally distribute the burden of who is required to be cognizant of their identity in public spaces. For instance, as an African American field biologist, not unlike Dr. J. Drew Lanham notes in his book The Home Place, I am intimately aware of my attire, settings, and whom I work with. Why? Because the way in which I am perceived by the community around me may be characteristically distinct from some of my contemporaries. Similar constraints may be more heavily experienced by certain groups than others (e.g., people of color, women, immigrants, non-native English speakers, people with disabilities). Therefore, simply recognizing how your identity may facilitate or hinder your experiences in the field – and understanding that our friends may not have the same experiences – is a good first step.

2. Not all cities – and neighborhoods – are created equally

Pearson et al. 2018 Fig. 1
Fig. 1 adapted from Pearson et al. (2018) demonstrating that the mean perception (red) and reported (green) concern for the environment are incongruent for many diverse segments of the US population. Here, minority groups are perceived to have little environmental concern, when in actuality their reported concern is as much or higher than their white contemporaries

The disparate distribution of wealth in and among cities scales to affect urban growth, affluence, and infrastructure. In addition, emigration and immigration of people into cities are influenced by the resources and policies that may facilitate or hinder travel. Further, socio-political conflict may have profound butterfly effects on where people settle. These factors in combination can have longstanding consequences for the way cities function, which in turn will influence how species evolve in those cities. As life scientists, we trained to investigate the systemic issues of income inequality, urban policy, or even urban planning. However, we do have a charge to diversify the communities we engage with across ethnic, racial, and economic lines. This will therefore require creative solutions that provide community science not just to the most privileged, but also to those in more disenfranchised neighborhoods. For example, working with professionals at cultural institutions (e.g., zoos and museums), nonprofit organizations, and government can help to amplify urban evolution research across multiple communities, making our science more accessible to a diverse audience. Such an endeavor can reciprocally provide us a platform to learn more about the intrinsic values diverse segments of our communities hold, and deconstruct shared cultural stereotypes about environmental science, generally. Such a concept was recently typified by Pearson et al. (2018), who emphasize that our stereotypes about other’s environmental attitudes can pose a significant barrier to broadening public engagement in environmental issues. The broader takeaway here: be a champion for urban community engagement and embrace the diversity of peoples in your city. They’re contributing to your narrative!

3. Befriend a social scientist(s) sooner rather than later

Dr. Schell (left) and staff from the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) and Northwest Trek (NWT) preparing camera traps in Tacoma, WA. Cultural institutions like zoos and museums provide an excellent resource for marrying science with community outreach and engagement.

Dr. Schell (left) and staff from the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) and Northwest Trek (NWT) preparing camera traps in Tacoma, WA. Cultural institutions like zoos and museums provide an excellent resource for marrying science with community outreach and engagement. There are myriad social science studies (spanning more than a half century) that demonstrate how individual-level identity influences community-level dynamics in people. Non-human species that inhabit cities are not immune to these processes; nay, they are adapting to them. Hence, a little inspiration from our academic colleagues in the social sciences may go a long way, as insights gained from our colleagues can help us develop a deeper understanding of the urban systems we work in. Concurrently, it is important to consider how environmental equity and justice plays a role in who visits nature preserves, city parks, and golf courses in our cities – and how they use them. By developing an understanding of diversity and inclusion in cities, we can begin to disentangle how individual-level processes contribute to community-level responses, for both humans and nonhumans alike. Talk to your friendly neighborhood sociologist/anthropologist/psychologist today!

In sum, by being more intentional about integrating the human side of urban evolution into our research program, we can broaden participation in our ever-growing field while simultaneously helping us to better approximate the fundamental principles of life in cities.

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