Being a Public Scholar means contributing to the betterment of our communities in the near term and into the future. I am so grateful to the Public Scholars Initiative for providing the support to allow me and my team to help the City of Vancouver plan for a more biodiverse, sustainable future for all Vancouverites, envisioned by Vancouverites.

Dr. Kai Chan and Dr. Matthew Mitchell
Research Description

Cities are growing rapidly, changing some of the most biodiverse lands on Earth. As a result, urbanization is a leading cause of the biodiversity loss crisis. Yet, urban residents rely on biodiversity in green spaces and outside our windows to support our mental and physical wellbeing, as well as for the pollination, water filtration, cultural practices and other essential services for a functioning society. City governments therefore increasingly seek to manage and support biodiversity in their cities, but they face competing priorities and lack the depth of information needed to predict the effects of policies, plans, and actions. Moreover, the many, diverse people living in cities have wide-ranging needs and knowledge. As such, local governments hoping to enrich urban biodiversity must consider a broad range of scientific knowledge about many species and habitats, but must also integrate diverse experiences and ways of knowing beyond science to reflect the diversity of urban populations. This project is a collaborative effort to braid multiple ways of knowing and types of expertise into urban biodiversity planning for the city of Vancouver. We employ an adapted expert elicitation workshop approach and interviews to prompt diverse participants about their ecological knowledge and values, and will use this co-created knowledge to generate visualizations of a future, biodiverse Vancouver and the policy steps that we can take to get there. We will also use this co-created knowledge to inform investigations of social-ecological interventions on the ground (like private lawn “meadowing” and modifications to public garbage bins) through pilot programs with city residents and governments. I am working together with my colleagues Jo Fitzgibbons and Dana Johnson on this collaborative, interdisciplinary PhD project, a first of its kind for the Public Scholars Initiative.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

I entered a graduate program to study and contribute to solving our world’s social-ecological crises, like social injustice and biodiversity loss. The crises require urgent, effective actions be taken. Yet, PhD research often remains a step removed from the actions and change it seeks to investigate, inform, and enable. Being a Public Scholar means breaking that barrier during the PhD, contributing to the betterment of our communities in the near term and into the future. I have been privileged to spend the last 10 years working and learning in higher-education and nonprofits to prepare me for this opportunity, and did not want to spend the next four years locked in an ivory tower like so many other graduate students. I am so grateful to the Public Scholars Initiative for providing the support to allow me and my team to help the City of Vancouver plan for a more biodiverse, sustainable future for all Vancouverites, envisioned by Vancouverites. I am also incredibly grateful to join a community of like-minded scholars who share these sorts of goals and for the advocacy of the program, so that we may together lift each other up in going against the grain of the “traditional” PhD.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The Public Scholars Initiative facilitates PhD students in breaking the boundaries and dogma within academia about the PhD with the goal of better contributing to the public good. This involves encouraging students to generate products outside of the research to publication pipeline: for example, creating community-oriented works (e.g., books, films, artwork, public exhibits, infrastructure) or those that facilitate planning and policy (e.g., innovative methods in decision-making, landscape designs, evidence in support of effective interventions). For our work, specifically, this means allowing my collaborators and I to co-develop our dissertation research and outputs, changing the PhD from a typically solitary endeavor to one of interdisciplinary collaboration for the betterment of our learning, scholarship, and impact. My collaborators, Dana Johnson and Jo Fitzgibbons, are two fellow PhD students and Public Scholars with expertise in environmental psychology, urban planning, and more. I am incredibly grateful to be able to work with such a brilliant, talented, and creative duo who simultaneously teach me, broaden my perspective, and expand my existing capabilities, allowing us to co-create a dissertation that pushes boundaries. We hope that by demonstrating the feasibility of a collaborative dissertation within the Public Scholars Initiative, other students can more easily follow suit.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

Through working in both science and practice, I’ve seen the promise of science to thoroughly investigate problems and find promising solutions and practice to effect change on the ground, but these worlds often remain at arms length. I aim to be a point of communication and integration between them – whether through an interdisciplinary professorship with close ties to practice and policy making, working at a non-profit, NGO, or government agency that draws on science to inform their actions, or informing policymaking as a scientific advisor. Our PhD work will set the stage for this type of career path by providing first-hand experience in collaborative visioning and decision-making processes for pathways to a biodiverse, sustainable Vancouver, testing social-ecological interventions with on-the-ground pilot programs involving city residents, and working with the City of Vancouver to inform their policies, plans, and practice.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

Our team’s diverse expertise in ecology, urban planning, environmental governance, conservation psychology and more has positioned us to design an interdisciplinary research project that aims to result in a comprehensive set of public and academic outputs. Working together has exposed each of us to diverse ways of knowing, methodological techniques, conceptual and theoretical lenses, and myriad goals for this work. Further, we can leverage our unique competencies and networks to reach a wide set of practice-oriented and academic communities as we design, conduct, and disseminate this research. We are working together with the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation to develop this project. We have had multiple meetings with staff to understand their current policy goals to motivate this research project. Moreover, each of us has or will work for these organizations to gain an embedded understanding of their needs. These mutually-beneficial placements allow us to gain in-depth, experiential and informal ethnographic understandings of how urban governance works, and we provide our partners with thorough information pertinent to their needs and practice. We plan to engage multiple and diverse knowledge-holders in workshops and interviews about urban biodiversity. These broad “experts” include researchers, local and traditional knowledge holders, people with lived experience and varied formal education, and people with cultural values and knowledge about urban nature. In short, through our research, we are co-producing knowledge together with diverse city residents, connecting them to Vancouver’s governance processes and sharing our opportunity to shape practice with them.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

Our research is in direct response to current urban policy developments; Vancouver is now striving to strategically plan to support biodiversity throughout the city through a series of regulations and changes to the urbanscape yet to be finalized. However, there are multiple types of knowledge that could inform the development of regulations and other instruments to augment and protect urban biodiversity - a potential resource that goes largely untapped because 1) it is difficult and time consuming for government staff to lead such processes, and 2) they often default to finding (or forcing) “consensus” rather than meaningfully braiding and uplifting multiple ways of knowing. We explore the question: What (and where) are the opportunities to foster wellbeing for people and nature through urban form, practices and land use in Vancouver? The findings of this question can be used to inform the creation of regulations, changes to land-use plans, and on-the-ground interventions that benefit both people and nature in the city. Moreover, we hope to elicit findings that can shed light on how public engagement and workshop practices can be improved to uplift and honor (rather than incorporate or assimilate) multiple ways of knowing. Such findings could be used to advance epistemic justice in both research and practice.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

From 2016-2017, I worked at a non-profit whose mission was to conserve Central African biodiversity, like primates and sea turtles, while supporting the livelihoods of local peoples. While the immediate impact of this work was immensely gratifying, I felt that some of the social-ecological interventions (like ecotourism and artisan crafting programs) may have missed the mark at times by potentially involving the wrong people or the wrong types of actions to achieve sustainability for local biodiversity and the people that depend on it. I felt that science could have served to improve our work, but I did not have the skills to conduct these investigations. So then, from 2017-2021, I worked as a technician in a global change ecology lab, learning the scientific skills needed to investigate the processes enabling corals’ adaptation to climate change and inform regional conservation strategies for corals. Yet, my work in this lab was entirely among ecologists and was removed from the on-the-ground interventions critical to effecting change. I knew that formulating solutions to complex, wicked problems like biodiversity loss and social inequity would require interdisciplinary, social-ecological science integrated with practice. Therefore, in applying to graduate school, I sought to do social-ecological research that is simultaneously impactful, applied, and curiosity-driven, contributing directly to the sustainability and equity of cities. I ultimately found an incredible match in the CHANS and Mitchell Labs in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC, my collaborators Dana and Jo, and now in the Public Scholars Initiative.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I saw that, while both of my advisors, Drs. Kai Chan and Matthew Mitchell, are trained ecologists, they have training beyond ecology, experience working in interdisciplinary teams, and a demonstrated commitment to innovative and impactful applied research. More than that, my early conversations with Kai and Matt confirmed that we share similar motivations for our work – especially contributing to the public good. My department, the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, is a rare find among universities with expertise that spans the social and natural sciences, quantitative and qualitative methods, applied and theoretical research, and work experiences beyond academica, including planning and policy, law, engineering, and more. Beyond the institution, I sought to change my surroundings to learn and experience new perspectives, cultures, and ways of life, in addition to new forms of urban governance and infrastructure. Vancouver has a reputation as a leader in urban sustainability and environmental governance, and I hope to later bring my learnings and experiences from Vancouver back to my hometown, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Lastly, I love to hike, bike, snowboard, try new foods, and am a songwriter and musician, and Vancouver has so much to offer for all of these aspects.