Journal Club: Urban biodiversity and citizen science

Next week's Journal Club will be interactive, see here for what that entails, and the selection will be the article I assigned oh so long ago on bat gantries.


I encountered a pleasant surprise while searching for this week's Journal Club selection. When I am reviewing the article, I intend to use a limited access article that those outside of academia may find interesting, but don't have a chance to read. I started by looking at the Wiley journal Conservation Biology, but lo and behold, they're moving to an open/free access model! This is fantastic news, but now I must search elsewhere for an article to review.

Let's look instead at the latest issue of the ESA's Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment... Wait, it's also entirely open access for the February edition. Cool! This is not to be confused with the Nature owned Frontiers in line of publications, all of which are open access.

Alright, third time's the charm - it's strange to be actively seeking closed access publications - and after a long search and a bit of cheating (oh Google Scholar, never leave us), I found the following paper: "Biodiversity in my (back)yard: towards a framework for citizen engagement in exploring biodiversity and ecosystem services in residential gardens" by Carijn Beumer and Pim Martens, published in Sustainability Science. Beumer is a research fellow, having just defended her thesis on urban gardening, at Maastricht University, where Martens is her supervisor and the Chair of Sustainable Development (among other accolades). Beumer is also the research coordinator for Operatie Steenbreek, promoting the greening up of urban spaces to increase urban biodiversity.


"Cultural landscapes generate many ecological values. Much of the cultural landscape exists as private or semi-private domestic gardens. These domestic gardens are hidden treasures of information on small-scale urban landscape design, urban biodiversity and the relation between citizens and their direct living environments. In this paper, an indicator framework is proposed that aims to engage citizens in experiencing and exploring biodiversity and ecosystem services in their own domestic outdoor spaces. By integrating ecological and cultural factors related to garden biodiversity the framework intends to fill a gap in existing research on domestic gardens that has until now either focused on ecological factors, or on preferences of garden owners. The framework has been developed by analysing pictures of front-yards in Phoenix (AZ, USA) and Maastricht (the Netherlands). With the BIMBY [Biodiversity in My (Back) Yard] framework we aim to contribute to an inclusive trans-disciplinary and transformational dialogue on ecosystem services, green infrastructure and biodiversity conservation in the context of the sustainable development of cities."


When I read the abstract of this paper, I was immediately drawn to it. First, I like any play on words, so calling the framework BIMBY (a play on the phrase NIMBY, or Not In My Back Yard) is brilliant. Second, during my Bachelor degree at the University of Alberta, I held a summer position with Nature Alberta and their Living By Water program. My job was to assess the property of cabin owners who lived in lakeside communities - my lake was Pigeon Lake, which most Albertans will know as one of the largest cottage communities of the province.
Pigeon Lake - Kim Ferguson, 2010
Property owners would invite me to their space to determine their impact on the health of the lake, and to help them improve. Follow-up visits are performed two years later. Everything from soap without sulfates, to pesticide use, to diversifying their shoreline vegetation, the program covers a lot of areas and is free to participate in. It made me appreciate the dialogue than occurs between the scientific community and civilians, and support initiatives to encourage civic participation in science and sustainability measures.

The BIMBY model advocated in this article sounds great, though there may be some issues regarding the tradeoff between accessibility to non-scientists and the usefulness of data collected with the program. A major concern I initially thought of was why this paper is in a closed-access journal - surely, communities interested in participating in such a program should be able to access the results of the study! It soon became apparent that there is a bit of refinement required for the BIMBY framework before it can be rolled-out and promoted to communities. With that in mind, what else about this paper?


The abstract is a fairly concise version of the paper as a whole, and includes a succinct representation of the issue at hand in the introduction. The ecological and cultural aspects of urban greenspace was assessed using photos, followed by consultation with a selection of residents, community leaders, and sustainability experts.  The result would be twofold: a framework that can be used by civilians, and an indicator set to be used by researchers. The framework would essentially be a tool that individuals should be able to use to assess the biodiversity and ecological value of their front/backyard. Researchers can then improve on this assessment using images and the indicator table.

The two cities studied are Maastricht, NL, and Phoenix, USA, and are totally different in terms of climate, so good on the researchers for diversifying their sample group. Indeed, it was a major goal of the project to be able to have a flexible framework that can be used in a variety of geographical areas. Both cities face their own challenges with regards to urban biodiversity as well - Phoenix is located in the desert and as such faces water shortages but is able to grow outward to deal with population booms, while Maastricht is of much higher urban density that will not face desertification any time soon. The researchers also sampled a variety of neighbourhoods in both cities, keeping in mind neighbourhood age and average house prices (the latter is acting as a proxy for socioeconomic background of those living there).

The statistics used in this study are more for refining the framework than for providing information about backyard biodiversity in Maastricht or Phoenix. I found the statistics to be really boring, quite frankly, but that's not a bad thing! Statistical analysis was not the goal of the study, as the results were used in the creation of the indicator framework. What I would be interested in, statistically, is having a trained ecologist and a homeowner assess the same backyard and see how different that assessment is. But that's more for curiosity than for actual usefulness, so I'll leave it at that.


There are three main areas that users would address with the framework: the habitat type, the ecological factors of the space, and the cultural factors of the space. This ranges includes drainage, soil cover, native vs exotic species, weeds, birdhouses, pesticide use, maintenance, walls, swimming pools, etc. Some of these aspects contribute to urban biodiversity, while others detract from urban biodiversity. This will then result in a score or assessment of the property. The framework that the authors have come up with isn't the easiest thing to look at, but I have a feeling that with some input from graphic designers it can easily be implemented as a grassroots or community solution. I say that because as soon as you look at it, it's a lot to take in. This makes complete sense for scientific paper - space is limited - but would need to be dressed up quite a bit for public use. Meanwhile, the indicator table for researchers is very complete, just fantastic.

So what else needs to be done? The authors state that in order to be more useful to both researchers and users, this framework needs to be used to make biome-specific programs, and I agree. A homeowner in Phoenix faces different concerns than those of a renter in Maastricht for a variety of reasons, both ecological and cultural. So some refinement of the framework is required, as well as collaboration with various stakeholders. 


This study aims to advance citizen science with the use of a framework to assess urban biodiversity in private spaces. This would succeed in both generating data for researchers to use as well as involving individuals in spaces they have access to and can improve. This is a case of leading the horse to water though - participants will likely have to already be interested in their environmental impact to participate and act on what the assessment would tell them to improve in their backyard. So community support would definitely be needed for a BIMBY framework to generate enough useful data points (something the authors don't directly address in the paper). However, I really recommend this paper; it was a great read, offers a useable and useful framework, and offers quite a bit to think on regarding urban biodiversity (city planners, take note!).


1) What do you think? If you were given a chart explaining the different ways that you can look at your garden and determine if it makes your city a greener space, would you use it? Would you seek to improve your garden based on the results?

2) Is it too easy to think that such assessment can be carried out by citizen science projects alone? It is certainly cost effective for governments, but can useful conclusions be derived from simple data collection? Is it devaluing the work done by researchers in order to save money?

3) One individual in the study said that while it was interesting to assess her garden on aspects she had never considered before, the layers of the framework were a bit difficult to understand. When it comes to deciding between useful data to researchers and accessibility to users, how much is too much compromise before no valuable data can be gleaned from the information? [this is a jerk of a question, I know - think of it as a thought exercise].

4) How do you ensure that it is accessible for those who do not speak the language of the framework? Do you devote time to providing translations, or do you aim for the mainstream? Is there another way?


Update: There is a new article related to this project AND it's open access! You can find it here:


Beumers, C. and P. Martens, 2015. "Biodiversity in my (back)yard: towards a framework for citizen engagement in exploring biodiversity and ecosystem services in residential gardens." Sustainability Science 10(1): 87-100. Published January 2015, available online since September 2014.

You can find both Carijn Beumer and Prof. Pim Martens on Twitter - @CarijnB and @pim_martens, respectively


  1. Dear Kim,

    Thanks so much for your review! I am very excited about it! It is just great how you manage to make the contents of our 'closed-behind-the walls-of-an-academic-journal' paper accessible to a larger audience.
    We were simply lacking the funds for an Open Access publication.

    Yesterday I resubmitted the follow up paper of this one with the results of the pilot studies in Maastricht and Phoenix to the journal Urban Ecosystems (again no Open Access, unfortunately). Hopefully they'll accept it for publication soon!

    Kind Regards,

    1. Hey Carijn,

      Thanks for taking the time to get in touch about your research! I completely understand the issues with publishing Open Access, monetary among them, so I hope it didn't come off as negative that you kept the publication Closed Access.

      I have high hopes for the BIMBY model, and congratulations on your work and recent defense. I'll keep an eye out for your upcoming publications.



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