A Yale-led ecological coalition is working to advance sustainability in Baltimore’s parks, and ultimately, to redefine the field of urban ecology.

The Earth Stewardship Initiative brings together ecology student fellows from across the U.S. to work with ecologists and conservation advocates to develop recommendations for green space projects — recreational or aesthetic spaces in urban environments, including parks — which they then pitch to community and city leaders. Alexander Felson, professor in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the School of Architecture, started the program last year as a way to give young ecology students hands-on experience they might not get otherwise.

“We use the design process as a teaching medium,” Felson said.

Last year, the ESI team worked on a demonstration project involving green infrastructure in Sacramento’s American River Parkway. This year, Felson and his colleagues selected three locations in Baltimore on which to focus. The first is Patterson Park, one of the oldest parks in the city, and the second is the Upper Middle Branch, an open area along the waterfront. The last is Harlem Park, an economically depressed neighborhood that is home to many vacant lots and neglected small parks. Each park was already the site of an ongoing project.

According to ESI project manager Caroline Dumont MED ’98, the 18 student fellows — two of whom are current F&ES students and one of whom is a 2015 alumnus — worked in Baltimore for six days in August to develop a set of recommendations that included, in Patterson Park, creating “no-mow zones” within the grassy areas and introducing new plant species to increase biodiversity within the park. In the Upper Middle Branch, they advised developing “outfall labs” that would allow ecologists and visitors to monitor the ecological health of the harbor and, in Harlem Park, renovating and reclaiming the neighborhood’s distinctive “inner-block” parks to restore a sense of local community, she added.

The projects continue to develop through communication with leaders in Baltimore, facilitated by an ecological urban design course Felson offers to allow students to build on the framework developed during ESI’s fieldwork, Felson said. Both of the current F&ES fellows are involved in the course. Recommendations for all three locations are set to be implemented into real-world projects, he added.

ESI schedules its projects to coincide with the annual meetings of the Ecological Society of America, the largest society of professional ecologists in the world, whose members help the ESI student fellows connect with local experts and leaders and develop their recommendations.

In Baltimore, those recommendations focused mostly on integrating research through a bottom-up, grassroots process that attempted to address what Felson described as “cultural and community challenges” in the city — including urban blight, poverty and gentrification. In Sacramento, ESI focused on large-scale infrastructure projects, mostly concerning the transport and control of water, Felson said.

In both cases, Felson said, the key has been the placement of the ecological approach within the design process. He identified a divide in urban ecology between “studying” — gathering data from an existing urban environment — and “shaping” — developing design experiments that themselves create environments from which ecologists can gather data. Historically, studying is the preferred method of research among ecologists, Felson said, but ESI fellows focus on the latter, which Felson said he advocates for as the future of urban ecology.

“The way in which you can get viable sustainable projects is not just about building things that we think are going to function sustainably but [about] actually developing projects that have embedded research components that help to find and provide information and feedback,” Felson said, adding that shaping is especially important in light of the current and future expansion of green infrastructure projects and the lack of existing research. Developers of green infrastructure projects currently rely on limited information, he said.

With this active approach to ecology, ESI student fellows involve the members of the communities in which their research takes place, according to Amber Collett FES ’17, an ESI student fellow who now works as a teaching fellow for Felson’s course. She said she felt this interaction was particularly impactful.

“When you walk through Harlem Park as an outsider, it can feel very vacant. There are lots of vacant homes. There are lots of vacant lots. There are homes that are literally crumbling into the parks or into the lots next to them,” Collett said. “I think it was very meaningful for us to have a conversation with people who are really invested in that space and were so hopeful about the future of that space as well.”

Dumont said ESI tentatively plans to next work in Portland, Oregon, during ESA’s conference there in August 2017.

Three Yale undergraduates worked for ESI’s Baltimore project, in the roles of project coordinator, intern and research assistant.