Co-creating a greenspace is only the beginning; conservation practitioners must also communicate progress and maintain community member’s trust throughout a project’s duration15. Despite residents’ involvement in the co-design process, feelings of “bait and switch” can arise if a developing habitat aesthetically diverges from their expectations. For instance, non-native weedy vegetation may become more abundant within a planting than anticipated. Thus, frequent discussions of all possible or transitory site outcomes, including visual representations of a habitat’s vegetation9,14, can help avoid feelings of contention or disinvestment. Likewise, research tools can be misunderstood and cause concern if not effectively described. For example, neighbors have expressed apprehensions that our native bee traps were releasing stinging insects when in fact they removed the insects for further study. This confusion could have been avoided by better communication at the project’s onset and throughout continued interactions with residents.
To effectively engage a large and diverse urban community, researchers must evaluate multiple options to share their activities and findings14,16. We created a project website, educational video, and social media presence; these have been successful in communicating with other researchers and the media but have largely failed to reach residents. We found that one-on-one discussions of project aims, progress, and outcomes through daily interactions on-site or at community events were far more effective, but still did not reach all stakeholders. For example, our research activity occurred during the day, limiting interactions with those who were away at work, and a high turnover rate in housing occupancy created an influx of new residents unfamiliar with the project. Also, residents may be more comfortable interacting with neighbors or local organizations rather than visiting researchers. To address these issues, scientists should consider pre-existing channels of communication (e.g. neighborhood watch groups, religious organizations, community centers) that are self-identified by community leaders.
Building community relationships requires more than disseminating information; researchers need to actively solicit community opinions in order to gauge and address needs. Regular polling of community opinions through focus groups or surveys can inform habitat management to help resolve community concerns such as aesthetics or perceived safety. While an ecologist may see diverse native plants flourishing, dense and tall plantings can inspire fear of criminal activity17 and community members may consider such habitats as eye-sores indistinguishable from abandoned properties11. Such issues can be mitigated through “cues to care”—the physical signs of intention and upkeep11 advocated by design professionals. These cues can indicate a greenspace has purpose, help combat negative perceptions, and illustrate community consideration11. Common practices such as signage, neatly-mown borders, fences, and/or mulched flower beds around a conservation site can convey a site’s purpose and contribute to community approval9,11. For example, abundant signage and neatly-mown edges were noted as significant factors promoting public support for urban meadows in Bedford and Luton, UK9. We employed similar cues to care and framed our pocket prairie habitats with a mown border, fence, and mulched roadside edge (Fig. 1b). Yet, we received complaints from residents who did not perceive our mown borders as intentional and assumed we had abandoned our mowing efforts. Concern was also expressed that the mulch was a health hazard as stray cats might use it as litter. This illustrates how widely recommended cues to care are not effective in all settings and failure to engage residents in management planning may result in confusion or elicit unanticipated, negative feedback. Conversely, if residents are involved in determining cues to care, creative solutions generating greater satisfaction can be found. For example, hand-painted flags designed by elementary school students were an effective cue to care for the off-season within a sunflower planting in St. Louis, Missouri5 (Fig. 1f).
It is important for community leaders, scientists, and neighbors to recognize the difficulty in reconciling a community’s diverging opinions of greenspace goals. Even with open communication, projects will face challenges in meeting community expectations. For instance, some Cleveland, OH residents prefer the tidy appearance of fabric flowers over the living vegetation of a habitat planting. After 4 years, we are still trying to develop a strategy to meet this concern. Meanwhile, we have also received many positive comments, with residents enjoying the color of our plantings, asking to pick flowers for bouquets, or declaring their general support for helping declining bees. We highlight these variable responses as both precaution and encouragement. It is unlikely that urban conservation sites will garner universal public support2, but iterative assessments and modifications of a site’s management or design can ameliorate some community concerns and shift how greenspace is viewed and valued long-term.