STEW-MAP: The Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project

Volunteers planting a forest with MillionTreesNYC Photo Credit: Credit: NYC Parks

Why do STEW-MAP?

As our cities, towns, and public lands face all kinds of challenges ranging from overstressed infrastructure to extreme weather, community-based civic groups often find themselves on the frontlines of response; these groups are capable of being nimble and coming up with effective locally-driven solutions. In addition, today’s forest land managers face a range of urgent challenges, among them catastrophic wildfires, more public demand, degraded watersheds, and epidemics of forest insects and disease. All of these could benefit from an approach of shared stewardship, which STEW-MAP enables. STEW-MAP recognizes that there is an opportunity to discover and link the capacities of a range of stewardship groups, and complement the capacities of government, to create communities that are stronger, healthier, greener, and more resilient.

STEW-MAP does this by helping communities, governments, land management agencies, and nonprofits understand the social fabric of a landscape. STEW-MAP helps land managers make more informed decisions with stakeholders and stewards in mind. STEW-MAP data can accelerate landscape-scale conservation by promoting coordination, collaboration, and synergies across mixed ownerships and among diverse stewardship groups. STEW-MAP provides network information that can be crucial for emergency preparedness and recovery. The data can also help identify shifting social dynamics associated with megatrends affecting landscapes from city street corners to our nation’s forests.

Applications range from developing conservation goals or policies; to conducting and coordinating resource assessments, planning, and monitoring efforts; to effectively educating, messaging, and/or engaging stakeholder

Click the list below to read stories of how STEW-MAP has been used by different partners:

STEW-MAP data have been used by the New York City Parks Department from the very beginning of the MillionTreesNYC Project. In 2007, a public-private partnership between the NYC Parks Department and New York Restoration Project launched a campaign with the lofty goal of planting one million new trees across New York City. In order to garner the support necessary to conduct this large-scale, multi-million dollar project, NYC Parks made the case for trees as an important economic, and well as environmental investment, using research conducted by the USDA Forest Service. Projects such as i-Tree and the Urban Tree Canopy research provided context for where to plant the new trees, which would include street trees as well as more dense tree plantings in natural areas. Considering the scope and timeline of the project, the campaign leaders decided to convene and advisory board made up of over 400 people representing over 100 organizations familiar with the various components of the project. These groups and individuals already had expertise in environmental education and engagement, as well as access to existing networks. Sub-committees within the advisory board included public policy initiatives, marketing and PR, and stewardship and education. The stewardship team was especially concerned with the long-term survival of the newly planted trees, and attempted to shift the focus of the campaign from only planting to both planting and care.

Laying the groundwork for long-term stewardship of new trees required a lot of community outreach. Small grants were distributed to organizations with existing stewardship work, including many of the botanical gardens across the cities. But reaching community members required a deeper understanding of the neighborhoods in question. Bram Gunther, former chief of NYC Parks Forestry, Horticulture, and Natural Resources, explains, “Without understanding local actors and stewards it would been harder to get the trees in the ground in natural areas.” By partnering with existing stewardship groups, Million Trees amassed community investment in the new trees. “Their care was key in making these plantings meaningful to the community, and giving the trees a ‘leg up’ as they were establishing themselves,” says Gunther. STEW-MAP was an important bridge in this part of the project. The Forest Service shared neighborhood-specific lists of community stewardship groups with Parks and NYRP, which enabled them to target their outreach and access existing networks of volunteers.

When MillionTreesNYC finished in 2015, NYC Parks Stewardship was created to essentially care for and build on all that work we accomplished. Nichole Henderson-Roy, Senior Manager at Parks Stewardship, explains, "As million trees phased out, New York City stewardship became more prominent. Our goal and our focus is both to bring in those new folks who have never heard of us before, but also help sustain some of the folks who did come in from those million trees years, and have that energy and that memory." Parks Stewardship was created in the hopes that the energy generated around million trees could be applied to ongoing acts of stewardship in the city. Their purpose is to connect New Yorkers to outdoor spaces beyond the major parks they may already visit, including the less familiar forested areas and wetlands, and the everyday nature of street trees and pocket parks. Their staff is situated to train people about the technical aspects of stewardship, like plant identification and invasive removal, so that anyone can gain the knowledge and comfort necessary to engage in stewardship, whether on a one-time or everyday basis.

One of the struggles facing new programs like Parks Stewardship is a lack of awareness. "People don’t realize they can go out there and do these activities, they don’t realize that these opportunities are available", says Henderson-Roy. She wants to be the bridge that connects New Yorkers to stewardship in a friendly and accessible way that encourages people to stay involved. "Million Trees officially ended about two years ago, and so we started that transition, because there was that big question of how will this work continue, even after a lot of time and resources and people power, including putting these trees into the ground, what is the next step?", says Henderson-Roy. "And so we realized people do want to come out, people want to be active, they want to share, and so we kind of became this funnel piece to make sure they had the resources and the training to be able to do that properly really, because it’s not just going in and pulling something out from the ground, you gotta know what you’re doing, and we want to make sure people have that information and also that comfort."

Key to this mission is the ability to reach out to groups and individuals that may be able to serve as stewards. Nichole, who has been working with community groups for years, first learned about STEW-MAP as an outreach coordinator with Partnerships for Parks. In that role, she had to identify and connect with existing groups, and STEW-MAP gave her a place to start. "There were a couple of groups that I was even trying to see if they were still active or updated, and kind of cross-listing in our systems. That was sort of a challenge but even having somewhere to start is important….when you are in this kind of work, starting from anywhere, like just having one starting point, even a name to help people identify is just really great," she says. In her current role, Henderson-Roy sees potential in STEW-MAP as a tool both to connect Parks Stewardship with groups looking for resources and support, and to help those groups identify and form partnerships with one-another. The groups she refers to can be anything from two people who organize annual cleanups to groups with 10 or more employees, with budget, non-profit status, and connections to council members or other people in positions of power. STEW-MAP is the only public interface that tracks all of these groups, regardless of size and legal status. While Parks Stewardship may not be able to provide the necessary tools and resources for all of these groups, they can assist in connecting groups to each other based on their needs and services offered.

In addition to fielding requests from existing groups, Parks Stewardship sometimes targets specific neighborhood and looks for existing groups to partner with. One example is the Green Neighborhoods Program, an 11-month program that identifies neighborhoods with high need to focus on through stewardship work. Choosing these neighborhoods is a multi-step process that uses physical GIS layers to identify areas with a lot of young street trees as well as natural areas with a wetland component. Additionally, staff looks at the accessibility of these areas to public transit, and the level of interest of neighborhood residents. Henderson-Roy sees STEW-MAP as a valuable tool in identifying future Green Neighborhoods, because it offers a social layer to their existing process. She envisions being able to quickly point out areas where there are gaps and overlaps in stewardship, and then easily reaching out to the groups identified.

Further, Henderson-Roy looks forward to seeing the 2017 STEW-MAP data and identifying other potential hubs of stewardship to focus their efforts. Parks Stewardship has already found certain neighborhoods that continuously turn out volunteers, and is curious to see potential for volunteer engagement in additional areas. She explains, "Because everyone is short on resources and everyone is short on people...I get projects [from Parks] in areas where they really need volunteer support, and so my program acts as the bridge between them as the land managers and us as the connectors between people, so it will be really great to be able to even more closely identify folks from a specific neighborhood with the potential of matching up for these projects."

The nature of seasonal parks work makes it even more important to have living documentation of stewardship groups for new staff to be able to access and gain an understanding of the stewardship network. "[Turnover] is the nature of the business and we’re used to that, but any way that we can combat that with tools like this is fantastic," she says. Once the 2017 STEW-MAP data is cleaned and public, Henderson-Roy sees even further potential in using STEW-MAP to bring people together physically to network and share resources and ideas.

Gowanus Canal Conservancy, the environmental steward for the Gowanus Canal and Watershed, is an example of a STEW-MAP group that is both a respondent and potential data user. Andrea Parker, the Executive Director of GCC, explained that their mission is to "work to facilitate and steward an emerging network of open spaces around the canal through activating and empowering stewardship of the watershed". Gowanus, a rapidly changing neighborhood in Brooklyn, is famous for the highly contaminated Gowanus Canal, which was declared a Superfund site by the EPA in 2010. Over the next 10-15 years, the canal will be dredged and the sides and floor of the canal will be replaced with sheet tile and concrete. Parker said that the GCC is working to ensure that the voice of the community is included in Gowanus Canal planning. STEW-MAP has been an important tool is ensuring that GCC connects with new partners in a continually changing neighborhood. in this fight is one of the reasons Parker thinks STEW-MAP is important.

Parker first came across STEW-MAP in an article she read while in grad school for Landscape Architecture in Virginia. She was instantly intrigued by the concept and the network imagery that showed the connections between the many civic stewardship groups. GCC is situated as a community steward in multiple networks. "We have the neighborhood network that we work very closely with, and then we have kind of the larger city-wide CSO organizing network, as well as the larger citywide stewardship network, which I think is important because there’s kind of three scales at which we’re working," says Parker, "In addition to the community organizations, another layer to the network that we work with is green space organizations in Gowanus, so friends of parks, and block associations, and then the Park Slope Civic Council, like other folks that have stewardship I think the concept of STEW-MAP has helped us sort of grow those kinds of relationships." By using STEW-MAP, Parker could easily select and view all of the stewardship groups in the Gowanus Watershed, identifying potential new partners and visualizing the overlapping turfs in which they work. Conversely, smaller stewardship groups in the area could use STEW-MAP to find groups who, like GCC, have volunteers available to support their efforts.

GCC’s network relationships have been supported by STEW-MAP data in some concrete ways as well. Two years ago, when trying to figure out how to best steward bioswales, GCC partnered with the Forest Service to convene relevant groups. "We had that bioswale roundtable a couple of years ago, which was basically like STEW-MAP actualized, that all of these groups that are thinking about bioswale stewardship were in one room together." Parker says. Creating a list of stewardship groups that focus on bioswales was possible in part because of STEW-MAP data, which Forest Service researchers used to identify participants of the roundtable. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy has also partnered with the Urban Field Station on some grant applications, and is interested in working towards building out a STEW-MAP tool that allows stewards to track their work and impact in real-time.

In reflecting on the impact of STEW-MAP, Parker shares, "I think it’s really important for us to be on the map. We know that [the Forest Service] works with the city and other citywide entities and I think it’s really important for us to be on the map, so other entities see where we are actively stewarding areas and where making connections will advance our work and the work others are doing." Changes in the Gowanus Canal will likely lead to more stewardship efforts, and the 2017 STEW-MAP data will allow Parker to locate new groups that have emerged in the area. "And then if there are other connections that can come from it that’s great." As Gowanus continues to change, these connections will become crucial. The 2017 STEW-MAP data, available this summer, will also allow Parker to locate new groups that have emerged in the area. "Neighborhood groups and nonprofits are essential to supporting the city’s stewardship of open spaces, and we want to ensure that we are all noticed."

Open data workshop for community groups
Open data workshop for community groups, photo by Elena Hermosa

I think the most relevant piece for STEW-MAP is the work we do for community based organizations and nonprofits," Jessis Braden says, speaking of the consulting services, training, and pro-bono work they do with external clients who have similar missions around supporting community. "Our goals are to enable these groups to advocate for themselves, tell stories, and campaign", she adds, noting that over half of the groups they work for have an environmental focus.

Braden first learned about STEW-MAP as an employee of the New York City Parks Department, when their partners at the Forest Service were gearing up to do the first STEW-MAP survey in 2006. The goal of capturing the work of civic stewardship groups resonated with her, and she was excited about the prospect of scientific qualitative data, something that is often hard to come by. Years later, she found herself teaching a GIS for sustainability course at Pratt, and she wanted her students to experience working with the unique dataset. "We had a section about community assets, so we introduced STEW-MAP as a way of thinking about social infrastructure since that type of data is so hard to find", Braden says. Her students had never seen a dataset like that, and were intrigued by the possibilities of combining STEW-MAP data with more traditional kinds of open data. Braden explains, "STEW-MAP is so helpful for us because it captures a lot of qualitative information that we don’t typically have. STEW-MAP just gives us much more nuance about the social fabric of neighborhoods than we could ever glean from municipal open data."

In addition to the work they do with students, SAVI strives to help their community based partners further their mission with data. "Our work has two primary focus areas, one being our analytical consulting projects and the other, which we find really exciting, is helping others to understand information and data through education to make sure they're using it in the best way possible," Braden says. Part of helping their partners is about learning from them, and recognizing the value of their knowledge of their own communities. She adds, "It’s about understanding the capacity of people in these neighborhoods, because [nonprofits] have an intimate on-the-ground knowledge that we’ll never have. ll of the data they bring to us is extraordinarily useful to combine both with STEW-MAP, plus general open data - this is what allows us to truly understand a community. and STEW-MAP is a vital piece of the puzzles." For SAVI, using STEW-MAP data will deepen their knowledge of urban communities and allow them to better serve their clients.

Braden would love to see STEW-MAP data made into an interactive tool, "because this data is so complex, the ability to pick and choose what you want to focus on for one moment is going to be really critical in utilizing it for storytelling." This complexity is certainly a challenge, but it is one that SAVI looks forward to taking on. "I’m just very curious about what haven’t we thought of yet, what other ways can we find to communicate both the turfs, and the capacity of the groups in different ways". Looking forward, Jessie is eager about the prospect of working with the 2017 STEW-MAP data and finding new ways to share it with the public.

The overlap between environmental stewardship and community resilience is often overlooked, yet it is key to understanding how to best leverage resources to inform emergency preparedness efforts. The Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, a major data provider and STEW-MAP partner, recognizes the potential for collaboration between stewardship work and emergency preparedness to build stronger and more resilient New York City neighborhoods. Erika Lindsey, Senior Policy Advisor, describes their work, saying,"we’re focused on supporting resiliency and preparedness for the impacts of climate change with neighborhood-specific strategies". The Office of Recovery and Resiliency, or ORR, was originally the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, charged with implementing PlaNYC, the citywide planning report from the Mayor’s Office. After Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg created the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, which convened staff from multiple agencies to come together and create a plan for preparing the city for future climate-related disasters. Lindsey explains. "After the report was released, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency was created to implement the strategies that were developed."

Lindsey focuses on neighborhood-specific emergency preparedness strategies and works with many grassroots and community-based organizations. She realizes that the ties between people and sense of social cohesion are crucial in determining a community’s ability to bounce back from disaster, and she tries to support the groups on the ground to become more resilient in whatever way they need. "We maintain relationships with these groups and listen to their resiliency and preparedness needs. so if they tell us they need someone to sit down with them and do a plan then we’ll connect them to the agency that can help them….and if they tell us ‘we’ve got it, we just need to be connected to funds,’ then we will try to connect them that way."

ORR’s connection to these many community groups made the agency a crucial stakeholder and advisor for STEW-MAP 2017. The Social and Economic Resiliency team from ORR was pulled into the process early on in the development of the survey. Even before joining the STEW-MAP advisory board, Lindsey had heard of the project from conversations with colleagues in the data visualization and mapping circles. "I was aware of the previous STEW-MAP, but I hadn’t yet known that they were going to update it, at the time it was aligned with a few other mapping initiatives that were happening, so it made perfect sense as another way that data can help inform how we try to measure social capital and community resilience," she remembers.

ORR was excited to collaborate with STEW-MAP because of the possibilities the data and public map would open up for community groups looking to engage in disaster preparedness and recovery. "I feel like STEW-MAP did a good job of capturing some of the smaller groups that might not necessarily come up in some of the ways that we engage with other community organizations", Lindsey says. She notes that recognizing the efforts of these smaller groups is an important part of building social resilience, "because you are targeting groups that are already civically engaged, and that is one of the indicators of social resilience so it was very in line with our goals." She adds, "and also we want to support any efforts that will help build social cohesion, so if these groups can look each other up and it helps them connect to each other that is also beneficial."

Although the connection between stewardship groups and disaster preparedness might not jump out automatically, Lindsey thinks they have more in common that people might realize. "I think that there are links that might not be obvious, I’m again thinking of groups that work with seniors and stewardship groups, there are opportunities for people to support each other, and people may not be aware of the stewardship and this is a way to get them plugged in...I feel like these groups are dealing with the same challenges and the same adversaries, so there is an opportunity for them to coordinate and benefit. In an emergency, hopefully one or both of those groups will be prepared and they can collaborate and be helpful to one-another," Lindsey says. By visualizing the spatial relationships of all of these groups, and the opportunity to overlay it with other datasets, ORR will be able to point groups towards STEW-MAP to support them in connecting and supporting one-another in the face of future disasters.

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Last modified: June 17, 2019