Backyard Bias Equals Racial Bias in Citizen Science

Citizen science is a marvelous way of getting ordinary folks involved in conservation – think of bird counts, bug hunts, or frog watch projects. It brings science out of the universities and laboratories and back into the public arena.

Many environmental citizen science projects start from the backyard. In theory, anyone can participate, as all they need is a backyard. And that is the problem.

I am interested in citizen’s science assumptions about who has access to backyards. People living in houses tend to have front gardens and backyards. Socio-economic status determines who is more likely to live in a house. In other words, rich people live in houses, and poor people are more likely to live in apartments. These obviously don’t usually come with backyards. So citizen science projects based on access to backyards are more likely to engage middle-class home owners.

Race is tightly linked to socio-economic status in Toronto. The rich tend to be white, and the poor tend to Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC). Therefore, citizen science projects based on access to a backyard are racially skewed, as they are more likely to attract white home owners.

This applies to my home turf of Regent Park. It is in the same ward as Rosedale and Cabbagetown. Rosedale is the richest area in Toronto, and peopled by those with pale faces and hair that falls down from their heads. A lot of that hair is dyed various shades of ash, honey or strawberry blond. Mansions, dogs and luxury cars line the ‘hood’s leafy streets. Rosedale’s backyards are large, but not nearly as big as the sense of entitlement of the rich.

Cabbagetown is more diverse than Rosedale – as it includes an army of Filipino nannies caring for white children. The houses and backyards are smaller, the dogs are about the same, and the streets are also leafy.

Regent Park is one of the most multicultural neighbourhoods in Toronto. One sees lots of people with hijabs, dreadlocks and black hair on the concrete-lined streets. Regent Park is also one of the poorest areas in Toronto (all be it rapidly gentrifying). Here, most people live in apartments or condos. These don’t come with backyards.

Regent Park, Rosedale and Cabbagetown are within a half an hour walk of each other. The demographics of the three areas, and who has a backyard, neatly illustrates how race and place are linked in Toronto.

Outside of the city, the highest concentration of backyards are in the suburbs and rural areas. Here race and place are once again linked in Toronto: the city is multicultural, the suburbs and countryside are mainly white. It is people from the suburbs are the most likely to participate in citizen science projects.

Backyards are not the only places where nature lives, especially in the city. Citizen science projects can broaden their focus to include collecting data from city parks, city streets or what can be seen from an apartment balcony. This benefits citizen science projects in a number of ways.

First, it creates opportunities for Black, Indigenous and other people of colour to participate in the projects, as these are the nature spaces that they have access to. Second, it might give a truer picture of nature in an area, highlighting for example, where there is an abundance of birds, trees and butterflies. And, just as important, where these are absent.

Third, it might encourage citizen science projects to think about how racial bias shapes where data is collected, who does the collecting. I am making two assumptions here: that citizen science projects are actually interested in diversity; and that they want to demolish the wall of whiteness in conservation, and the broader environmental field.

I have spent many happy hours doing citizen science projects – counting birds, moths and butterflies, and identifying plants. They were hours well wasted.

A cardinal in my old backyard sparked my love affair with birdwatching. From my new apartment balcony in the downtown of the city, I learned about raptors from watching a pair of red-tail hawks doing their courtship flight.

In my local city park, I watched Black children stop their play, and stand still, captivated by a Cooper’s hawk perching on a fence post. What if citizen science projects reached out to these kids, and let them know that watching the nature in their neighbourhood, in a city park, is an important part of conservation? These kids don’t have access to a backyard, but that is no reason why citizen science can’t include them and their nature observations.

© Jacqueline L. Scott. You can support the blog here.

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