Scientists & Staff

Erika Svendsen

Erika Svendsen

Research Social Scientist
290 Broadway, 26th Floor
New York, NY, 10007
Phone: 212-637-3598

Contact Erika Svendsen

Current Research

My research interests involve all aspects of urban environmental stewardship and how systems of stewardship shape new forms of governance, collective resilience, sacred space and human well-being. I study these systems from the perspective of individuals and organizations.

STEWARDSHIP MAPPING. In 2007, Forest Service social scientist Lindsay Campbell and I developed a project called STEW-Map, a tool for mapping stewardship groups in terms of their characteristics, distributions and relationships. The first STEW-Map project took place in New York City and has since expanded to Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, and Los Angeles. You can learn more about STEW-Map here:

THE GREEN, GREY AND HUMAN. In 2012, I began a new collaboration on integrating grey and green infrastructure to improve the health and well-being of urban populations. My partners and I have established a systems framework that highlights critical relationships between grey and green elements of cities and human health and well-being. By understanding the underlying structure of urban spaces and the importance of social interactions, urban planners, decision makers, and community members can capitalize on opportunities to leverage resources to improve health equity and well-being. We have published ‘think pieces' on this topic and are continuing to expand this work using an expanded definition of ‘sacredness' to understand human motivations and inspire positive change.

SACRED SPACE. Recently, my colleagues and I received a grant from the TKF Foundation, a private non-profit that funds publicly accessible urban green space. The project, entitled Landscapes of Resilience: Understanding the Creation and Stewardship of Open Spaces Sacred Places, focuses on acute disasters (such as the Joplin tornado and Hurricane Sandy on the east coast) and compares these disturbances with chronic, longer term economic disruption in our communities. We are studying when, where, how and why residents use greening activities as a mechanism for resilience and restoration. You can learn more about this project here: for more details.

THE GREAT URBAN OUTDOORS. Working in collaboration with NYC Parks and the Natural Areas Conservancy, we started a new research project in 2013 to understand how people use the urban outdoors. We've begun our work in parks, wetlands and neighborhood areas located near Jamaica Bay, New York. Many of these communities were impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Observation data is currently being collected and will be integrated into a larger study designed to capture the enduring aspects of why, how, when, and where urban residents engage with the outdoors.

URBAN FIELD STATION. In addition to my current research, I am part of the New York City Urban Field Station. The field station's mission is to improve the quality of life in urban areas by conducting and supporting research about social-ecological systems and natural resource management. It began as a partnership between the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station and the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. Here is a link to the NYC Urban Field Station site:

Research Interests

My research interests involve all aspects of urban environmental stewardship and how systems of stewardship shape new forms of governance, collective resilience, sacred space and human well-being. I study these systems from the perspective of individuals and organizations.

Past Research

LIVING MEMORIALS. One of my first research projects with the U.S. Forest Service resulted in a multi-year study to understand the meaning of community-based memorials and acts of environmental stewardship after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Living Memorials Project documented and investigated over 700 memorials nationwide, made them accessible in an on-line national registry, and findings were synthesized in articles, presentations and multi-media exhibits. Our research examines the emergence of September 11 memorials as part of a social-ecological process of resilience and the ways in which ordinary space becomes sacred. Our partnership with artists and designers enabled us to produce an exhibit, Land-Markings: 12 Journeys through 9/11 Living Memorials at the National Park Service's Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street. We were honored to receive the 2007 EDRA/Places Award for Living Memorials National Research: 9-11 and the Public Landscape.

Why This Research is Important

We need different ‘ways of knowing' to create new knowledge and cultivate all types of innovation. This is particularly important as we continue to invest in green infrastructure, support ecosystems services and find ways to adapt to a changing climate. Not unlike our vast wilderness areas in the American West, our urban forests have much to teach us about our relationship to air, land and water, -- to the world around us. Understanding people, as a dynamic and persistent pulse in our social-ecological systems, is essential to shaping and improving our environment.


  • Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture,Planning and Preservation, Ph.D. , 2010
  • Yale University, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, M.E.S. , 1993
  • Allegheny College, B.A. , 1990

Professional Organizations

  • New York City Urban Field Staton (2013 - Current)
  • The Nature of Cities (2013 - Current)
  • American Sociological Association (2011 - Current)
  • Million Trees NYC (2007 - Current)
  • Vibrant Cities Urban Forests (2011 - 2013)

Featured Publications & Products

Publications & Products

National Research Highlights

Photo of the Baltimore skyline.  Baltimore is one of four urban research locations officially chartered as an Urban Field Station within the Northern Research Station.  As an engaged network, our urban field stations are national and international assets. Morgan Grove, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

IITF and NRS each established a Charter for Urban Field Stations and Networks

Year: 2016

IITF and NRS officially established charters for Urban Research Stations in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia to develop and deliver knowledge that contributes to the understanding of urban social-ecological systems and the adaptation of practices that lead to sustainable, resilient, equitable, and healthy urban environments. The charters formalized long-standing field station investments.

Million Trees NYC Volunteers in Action City of New York / NYC Parks - NYC Parks

Tree Planting Programs a Gateway to Strong Civic Engagement

Year: 2015

This study examined how tree planting projects can make an important difference to the social fabric of dense urban communities. Qualitative interview data show strong links between environmental stewardship and civic engagement. Research by a Forest Service scientist and her partners culminated in a book on the social importance of natural resource initiatives and how individual efforts to reshape communities serve to strengthen civic engagement.

Social assessment crew member interviews park user on Jamaica Bay. Joana Chan, USDA Forest Service

Scientists Assess Social Meaning of Jamaica Bay Region Parkland

Year: 2014

The Jamaica Bay region of New York City is a focus of resiliency planning and adaptive management efforts. Working with natural resource managers and ecologists from the Natural Areas Conservancy and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, Forest Service social scientists developed a method to assess the use and social meaning of parkland in the region. These social data will be integrated with ecological assessment data to inform management strategies and practices citywide.

MillionTreesNYC Training Program participants at a volunteer planting day in Staten Island, NY. Brian Aucoin, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Forest Service Partnership with MillionTreesNYC

Year: 2013

The demand for a well-trained green-collar labor force will increase as many cities implement sustainability and green infrastructure plans. Additionally, many green jobs training programs are intended to provide pathways out of poverty for low-skilled workers. Forest Service scientists investigated young-adult graduates of green-jobs training programs in New York City and found not just positive environmental attitudes and behaviors but also increased self-confidence in young graduates.

Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2014