To explore the breadth of urban focused ecology citizen science projects in Australia, we undertook an analysis from August through to November of 2020 of existing Australian citizen science projects using the Australian Citizen Science Association’s (ACSA) Citizen Science Project Finder (2020), which is hosted by the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). The ALA is a digital, open infrastructure that pulls together Australian biodiversity data from multiple sources, making it accessible and reusable (Belbin et al. 2021). ACSA is a member-based association that seeks to advance citizen science through the sharing of knowledge, collaboration, capacity building and advocacy. The ACSA Project Finder was designed as a resource to discover and connect with citizen science projects in Australia, by helping members of the citizen science community learn about each other’s projects and provide opportunities to volunteer or get involved. To undertake our analysis, we refined our search terms to ‘active’ and ‘ecology’ projects which focused on urban areas. Our analysis excludes ad hoc citizen science (which is not tied to a project and therefore not included in the Project Finder) that can be undertaken using one of the many applications for collecting data e.g. iNaturalist, eBird. We excluded them as they are not discreet projects but rather a means to collect data at any time and in any environment. Their exclusion from our analysis does not mean that we do not perceive value in this approach and recognise that ad hoc observations are providing valuable data (Mesaglio and Callaghan 2021). We also acknowledge there are additional citizen science projects not listed in the Project Finder, such as school-based projects or those with fixed participants. Still, our approach provides a snapshot of the range of urban focused citizen science projects in Australia on which to base our recommendations.
Despite the benefits of urban based citizen science ecology projects, only 19 (or 5.3%) out of a total of 458 active citizen science projects (192 active and ecology projects) listed in the ACSAs Project Finder (Table 1) had a specific focus on urban environments. Given the number of people living in urban environments in Australia, this constitutes a significant underrepresentation of projects tailored for urban dwellers. Furthermore, most of the 19 projects focused on four major cities in Australia (Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide) with notable omissions of other capitals (e.g. Melbourne Victoria, Hobart Tasmania, Darwin Northern Territory) and other major cities throughout Australia (although four projects were not city specific). Many of the 19 identified projects also did not provide an easy way to participate in the project such as easy links to platforms to record and upload data (with some projects requesting participants email or phone in information) (Table 1). We were also unable to find any scientific papers where results from any of the 19 projects had been published. While the age of some of the projects can partially be attributed to this gap (Table 1), publications would further strengthen the validity of a citizen science approach in urban environments and add another metric of project success.
Encouragingly, some of the urban projects did make use of phone applications (7 out of 19) which are often the easiest way to increase participation and also ensure data collected has appropriate metadata (time and date) which are essential for quality assurance and quality control. In addition, nearly all projects ensured the data were accessible to the participants and general public with provision to centralised databases such as the ALA or websites where data could be easily viewed and queried, including easy export of data (Table 1). Seventeen projects were listed as ongoing with no clear time frames or progress steps embedded into the design (based on entries into the Project Finder). This makes it difficult for participants to understand how long their contribution will be required and when key milestones will be met. Without clear targets, participation is more likely to wane or limit initial uptake. For seven of the projects we were able to easily query the data and report on the number of observations contributed (Table 2).
Of the 19 projects focused on urban environments, eight facilitated broad census-type approaches focused on birds or all flora and fauna in a region (Table 1). While documenting broad-scale urban wildlife patterns is of course extremely important and useful, the potential exists for urban citizen science projects that are more targeted and guided by narrower research questions. For example, van der Ree et al. (2006) found that some species are adapting to urban environments and thriving or re-colonising areas they were once extirpated from, often in response to increased availability of resources and habitat. As cities continue to grow and expand, exploration of which species are able to persist and recolonise in urban and peri-urban environments and which have been pushed out is incredibly valuable. Additionally, projects seeking to understand what morphological, biological or ecological species traits lend themselves to urban environments would be incredibly important for policy-makers and urban planners. For example, in our analysis only Big City Birds (Fig. 1) had an explicit aim of understanding species adaptations to living in urban environments.
Regarding more narrowly targeted research, citizen science projects could be potentially valuable for documenting threatened species’ distribution and persistence in urban environments. Recent literature has documented the importance of cities as refuges for threatened species (Soanes and Lentini 2019). Ives et al. (2015) found that 30% of Australia’s threatened species occur in cities and that a small subset of these are actually highly restricted to cities, especially for flora, such as the fringed spider orchid (Caladenia thysanochila) whose distribution is found entirely within a region of Melbourne. Additional research is required to identify and develop focused recovery planning and active management and improvement of urban habitat (van der Ree et al. 2006; Ives et al. 2015; Soanes et al. 2018). However, despite the potential for citizen science projects to contribute to this goal, only two of the 19 projects found focused on a threatened species: The Bring Back the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly project and the Angle Stemmed Myrtle projects (both based in Brisbane). Increasing the number of such projects focus on threatened species in cities could generate the information needed to help shape urban conservation actions and urban design.
Indeed, increasing the awareness of the importance of cities for the protection of populations in a variety of urban habitats remains an ongoing challenge (Soanes et al. 2018; Soanes and Lentini 2019). Many spaces in urban environments such as riparian corridors, road verges and disused railway lines can play an important role in connecting habitat patches across urban areas (Soanes et al. 2018). For example, trees along median strips can facilitate gene flow and connectivity among populations (Threlfall and Kendal 2018). Our search of the Project Finder did not find any citizen science projects with the aim of understanding abundance and patterns of persistence over time in different types of habitat in the urban environment. Citizen science projects that focus on this information could help to generate information needed by planners and raise the profile of urban areas for achieving conservation outcomes (Callaghan et al. 2018).