GREEN SURGE in the field
- assessment of biocultural diversity across European cities

By Kati Vierikko, Jari Niemelä, Birgit Elands, Ingo Kowarik, Leonie Fischer, Jamin Honold, and Anders Busse Nielsen

Within the first project year the EU-funded research project GREEN SURGE has matured from conceptual ideas to empirical field work. In the following we will focus on field work conducted in summer 2014, related to the empirical investigation of biocultural diversity in urban green spaces. But what is biocultural diversity, why is it relevant, and how can we study it?

Why this new concept of biocultural diversity?
Biocultural diversity (BCD) is not a new concept. It has been used especially in ethnobotanical research on analysing interlinkages between biological diversity, and cultural and linguistic diversity of indigenous people in developing countries. Indeed there is a strong correlation between linguistic and biological diversity globally. However, in the GREEN SURGE project we decided a somewhat different approach to analyse BCD in urban settings. We want to look at how biodiversity in cities is interpreted and expressed by residents with different sociological and ethnical backgrounds, and what kind of daily practices related to the use and management of urban green areas there are in cities. We developed the idea of the biocultural cup (Fig. 1). The urban BCD concept draws attention to the multiplicity of interactions between humans and nature (bottom of the cup) as well as to the physical environment of green areas and different planning concepts such as urban green infrastructure as biocultural expressions (second layer). Finally, it also considers the question who loses or benefits from current traditions in managing green areas, and how  BCD can be created together with stakeholders (third layer).

In GREEN SURGE we will study how different cultural groups value and interact with green areas with different levels of biological diversity. We will critically analyse how previous and current trends in planning have shaped biodiversity in cities. However, without the third and last layer, the cup would stay half empty and the critical step towards shared learning would be lost. The BCD approach provides a research platform to conduct transdisciplinary research to identify both ‘carrying and caring capacity of human-nature’ to support economic, ecological, cultural and social sustainability in cities.

figur 1

Figure 1: Research model of layered research approach to biocultural diversity. Leaving the cup half-full means that the important step of critical reflections and shared learning will be lost. This raises the chance of a narrowed-down perspective of what BCD might entail and the risk that questions of ’who looses and who benefits’ are not articulated.

What is BCD? 
In the GREEN SURGE project we have adopted a broad definition of BCD: “The diversity of life in all its manifestation (biological, cultural, linguistic) and systemic interactions among these. Urban biocultural diversity is a concept emphasizing the links between biological and cultural diversity in cities or city regions.”  

Why is BCD in cities relevant? 
Humans have always preferred to settle down and develop cultural centres in areas rich in biodiversity and natural resources. Today cities are biologically and culturally diverse meeting points, however, urban growth and adopting global lifestyles can threaten both biological and cultural diversity. This trend was recognised in the Florence Declaration on the links between biological and cultural diversity, agreed upon by the participants of the First European Conference for the Implementation of Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity (UNESCO-SCBD Programme) in April 2014. The importance of BCD in urban areas is stated in the Declaration as follows: “Recognizing the vital importance of cultural and biological diversity for present and future generations and the well-being of contemporary societies in urban and rural settings”. We need policy instruments to “encourage bottom-up development and participatory research between researchers and local communities” (Florence Declaration 2014) to maintain BCD for future generations. Our full-cup BCD approach offers a new way of conducting research. Three layers of BCD research help first to understand diversity of human-nature interaction, and then identify cultural expressions of nature to create BCD together with local communities.

How can BCD be assessed and measured?
In summer 2014, the GREEN SURGE team performed a pre-test in Berlin to test adequate methods for assessing BCD in selected urban greenspaces . First, biodiversity was measured at the species level (plant species) in plots with high, medium and low biodiversity in parks, forests, wastelands and at road verges. Second, a survey was conducted via two different media (paper-and-pencil, online survey). Both survey methods used manipulated photos from the previously sampled plots to disclose how different groups of urban residents value and interact with biodiversity in the different types of green spaces. Besides biodiversity, the survey assessed detailed information on respondents’ socio-cultural backgrounds. Based on the experience of this pre-test, the same approach will be applied during 2015 in GREEN SURGE’s five Urban Learning Lab cities (Bari, Berlin, Edinburgh, Ljubljana, Malmö).

With this approach we aim at exploring the following main hypotheses:

1. Urban dwellers perceive differences in species richness, and these perceptions relate to existing differences in biodiversity.

2. Different biodiversity levels influence the valuation and use of green spaces by urban dwellers.

3. Socio-cultural differences among the respondents significantly affect the valuation of biodiversity and the use of green spaces.

4. Biocultural assessments vary among European cities, and considering these differences will support policies that aim to strengthen functions of the green infrastructure at the regional scale.

What type of material did you collect in Malmö this summer?
We carried out vegetation surveys and photo documentation of biodiversity in four different types of urban green space. In each types of green space we surveyed plots representing low, medium and high levels of biodiversity.

Which type of green infrastructure did you visit?
We surveyed parks (focus on park meadows), street trees, woodland and wastelands throughout the city of Malmö.

Did you receive any on-site feedback on the empirical work?
Being out there with camera, book etc., and marking out plots with flagged sticks caught the curiosity of many green space visitors passing by. Some of them asked what we were doing, and then told us how much they loved the place. One woman cared much for a local tract of abandoned land because of all the wildflowers. She often picks flowers here to bring them home to her apartment. She invited us up for a coffee, when she heard about our work.

(The picture shows this woman and Sabine Bounché-Pillon from Blois, France who joined me for the field work as visiting researcher)

What does the City of Malmö think about this study – are Malmö city officials interested in the BCD concept and its application?
The Malmö colleagues see application of the biocultural concept as a way to bridge and merge the city’s rich biodiversity with its rich cultural diversity, with more than 40% of the residents being of other ethnical origin than Swedish.