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The image is one of Bill Stewart's research projects

A Few Minutes With Bill Stewart

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara speaks with Bill Stewart, a professor in the department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, to discuss Stewart's research on the development of parks and conservation areas to enhance a public sense of place and promote environmental awareness.

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VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I spent a few minutes with Bill Stewart, professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism to discuss his research on the development of parks and conservation areas to enhance a public sense of place and promote environmental awareness.

And, Bill, I like to ask all the faculty when I meet with them this question. And that, is what inspires your research?

BILL STEWART:Yeah. Well, Vince, thank you for inviting me to be at this podcast. It's really great to be here and to talk with you about this.

VINCE LARA: You bet.

BILL STEWART:What inspires my research? There's a handful of things that do that. When I was a child, I was born and raised in Michigan. And my family was very much an outdoor enthusiast family. So I went to a lot of parks. I liked all four seasons. Winter activities, springtime romps, and summertime camping and swimming. I've always enjoyed being out in nature. And so that sort laid a foundation.

I went to my various programming. I had a previous life before I was an academic, and that previous life took on a couple of different job changes. I spent two years working for an oil company, and as a marketing technologist in a chemical and petroleum additives division. And that was really interesting to get a view of what life was like from the business side of an oil industry. I realized that there were some things that bothered me about the imprint that oil industry left on the environment, and I knew that they're working hard at trying to reduce waste and pollution. But I thought it'd be better to maybe get more information about what I need to work for an oil company, or any sort of business to help with the environment.

And then I went back to school for my MBA at the University of Chicago. And I went to work for a consulting company, a worldwide consulting company. And I was in their construction engineering systems division. And I went around to a lot-- I thought it'd be great to be a consultant where I help people with what they need to do.

And I found myself working for a company that built large petrochemical refinery plants in various places. I read some of their cultural impact statements and their environmental impact statements. And I thought to myself that there's so much more to valuing nature than simply how many natives to move from one place to another, or how flat they need to make the earth to put the cement slab on to make it a refinery.

And so I went back to school at University of Arizona and the School of Natural Resources for another master's and a PhD. Looking largely at forestry and watershed management, but I cared not so much about technical aspects of that. But I cared about how communities and individuals relate to development of natural resources. And that's led me on this journey that I've been doing now for, gosh, 35 years or more. Where I really like to understand what other people think about nature, about why they value the places that they do, what some of their meanings are, and appreciate ways in which they connect with the natural environment.

VINCE LARA: You got your undergrad at Illinois, correct?

BILL STEWART:Yeah, I came here from undergraduate. I was in chemistry here. And I love learning about chemistry. It was just a fabulous undergraduate experience for me. And so it's sort of need to come back to my alma mater to teach and do research.

VINCE LARA: What led you to academia? Because, like you said, you had this career before teaching. So, what was the path here?

BILL STEWART:Yeah. Good question, Vince. I can tell you're good at this. What led me to an academic was that I've always liked reading and writing. And I came to find out during, let's say my previous life, that I liked reading and writing what I want to read and write about. And I thought that an academic-- although I clearly have some large public values that I work under at University of Illinois, I care about community well-being, public health, sustainability. Those are large questions that drive my research. But I could choose ways in which I implement those strategies through my teaching and scholarship.

And I found that the life of the academic to be one where I could be very productive, and I could blur the lines between my work and my let's just say non-work time. I really like doing what I do. And one of the interesting things is when people ask me if I'm going to work this weekend-- friends of mine in the community-- I have to pause a bit. Because I've always, I guess, worked on the weekend. I just like to read and write about things that I care about in my teaching and research.

VINCE LARA: Interesting. So, your research involves conservation planning. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BILL STEWART:Yeah conservation planning, it's a really huge concept. And my window into conservation planning has to do with bringing in stakeholders. Stakeholders are those people who are affected by or can affect environmental decision making. Often of a public need nature, like building a park, or developing a wetland, restoring a prairie. Those would be examples of environmental park development projects.

And for me, conservation planning is about working with communities to, at least in the Midwest here, to look at this corn or bean field on the outskirts of town that's going to be a new development, and ask themselves to imagine what would that be like as a park. So they see it as a current cornfield, and they're are wondering how to imagine what they need to be when they make that into some subdivisions and divide that up.

And to some extent it's about land use planning, but to another extent it's also about adding value to people's lives. Each town has their unique heritage and their sense of identity on a landscape. And it's fun to work with communities to understand what their own sense of history is about. And often, parks tend to be emblematic of those kinds of values that people have had historically in any given area their relationship with the locale.

For example, I think of Urbana and Champaign. They're supposedly twin cities in ways that were clearly fraternal twins. You've got Urbana, whose parks are largely natural areas. They have this relationship with nature that says, nature should be restored and sort of untouched by humans. That the best kind of nature, the idealized park, is an environment where people are there to visit. And we've restored sort of a pristine nature, to some extent. Champaign parks are very different. Champaign parks have more of, I want to say, a progressive narrative of humans and nature. Where humans play a role of gardening, and they make them beautiful, and they're meant for places for people to walk and have activities.

So although that they still have some very similar amenities, Urbana Park District has more natural areas. Champaign Park District has more cultural areas. And they're very different views of what each town is like.

VINCE LARA: Interesting. Are we getting better at quantifying what a park means to an area? Whether it's economically, or in non-tangible ways, are we getting better about understanding what green space means?

BILL STEWART:Yeah, that's a great question there. I think of the notion of, what does any sort of environment mean as being one of place? The concept of place and place making really underscores a lot of my research. A sense of place is a uniqueness of a meaning that people feel as attachment to an environment. And their sense of place at a personal level where you might think about your grandmother's pasture, and the personal relationship you have with that pasture, or your grandmother's backyard.

When I think about community sense of place, is there something collective about the community that makes its relationship with its local environments unique to that locale? And so, your question is, are we getting better at quantifying that? Just to step back from that, I'd like to think we're getting better understanding those relationships. Those relationships come in many kinds, as you mentioned. There's the economic valuation, there is a personal valuation, there's sociological, there's emotional, there's spirituality. There's all sorts of ways in which we connect with environments.

And I'm going to say that we're just tapping the surface of the iceberg in understanding ways that people and communities have come to identify and care about their environments. And that kind of research is urgently needed. We've got, at least when I was first born back in 1955-- I'm dating myself here-- there is 2.5 billion people on the Earth. Right now I think we've got 7.5 billion people on the Earth. So in my lifetime alone-- I'm 65 this year-- the Earth's population has tripled. And in that time period there's been-- I've never noticed any one year the increase in people. But across my lifespan I've noticed there is coming to be a scarcity of wild lands, of open space, of wetlands, of spots that you could go out and enjoy nature.

And so I think that the more information we have about how people connect with an environment, I think the better off we'll be as a society. Because we need to know that those empty spaces, supposedly that really are out of production, in fact are really valuable to people.

VINCE LARA: Now, you direct the Park and Environmental Behavior Research Lab. And as a researcher, you always have projects going on. Are there any that you have going on currently that you're-- you're excited about all of them, I'm sure. But are there any that you want to talk about that are top of mind for you?

BILL STEWART:Yeah. You're right on that. I've got the neatest group of graduate students and research projects that I'm currently doing. And they've added a lot of value to my life and my students' lives. I guess there's two that come to mind.

One has to do with the evaluation Chicago's large lot program. As you may know, there's an urban vacancy problem across most of the world's cities. And it's particularly acute in the northern tier of this country, through the Rust Belt, I'm going to say. Where people have moved out of the city and urban areas for various reasons. Often they abandon their house, and they abandon their house. At times, a city will come in and fold the house into its foundation, or just haul it off. And so this left with what was once a thriving neighborhood in an urban area has become a lot of empty lots there.

Just to give you some examples of this, Philadelphia has about 40,000 vacant lots. Buffalo has about 15 vacant lots. Cleveland about 25,000. Detroit has 125,000 vacant lots to the tune of 25 square miles in Detroit. Chicago has about 35,000 vacant lots. And I will say that these vacant lots are not evenly distributed around the city. They happen only in certain neighborhoods. And what Chicago has done, which is very innovative and quite bold, they developed this green healthy neighborhood plan in 2012. And a cornerstone of that plan to sell off these vacant lots to someone that owned property on the block for $1. And so for $1, if you own property on the block, you could purchase let's say in the vacant lot next to you and do whatever you wanted to with it.

And so I'm evaluating the social and environmental impacts of that large lot policy. And, it's good news. We found that it connects people to their sense of place, it connects people to their neighbors, which their neighbors help them further garden their spot, and they help to pick up debris. They've come to know their neighbors in a tighter fashion that creates this sense of place that was much stronger than what it used to be. Where the lights used to have a past, because it wasn't-- people would look out on the block and say, wow, that's where so-and-so used to live, that's what this other family used to live. And now they see empty lots. So it sort of was a lot with a past and not a future.

Now with this large lot policy, these lots have been bought up, now have a future for them. And so these neighborhoods, the people who stayed behind, they care deeply about their neighborhoods. They stayed behind not because they're desperate. But because of family or community reasons, they decided to stay and slug it out through the hard times. And now they're finally getting rewarded if they own property. They can, if they want to, purchase that lot and create a new vision of what that block could be by repurposing a once vacant lot.

VINCE LARA: Now, you're obviously excited about the large lot research that you're doing. Is there other research-- and I like to call these moonshot projects, because they're kind of off into the distance. They might not be attainable currently. But are there things that, given the resources and the time and the amount of graduate research assistants you need, that you think about? That you write down, you scribble on a piece of paper maybe at 3:00 in the morning and you're like, oh, I wish I had the time to do this.

BILL STEWART:Yeah, that's a really good question. So, I should step back just a minute and say that my research all revolves around a concept called place making. Where people, families, communities, individuals, they aspire to make their place something different and better than what it currently is. And that's where the large lot project comes in. It's about place making in an urban environment.

I guess I would continue on that line, as long as we're talking about the large lot project, there is another moonshot project that deals with more of an urban ecological nature. Where I really have partnered with my colleagues Carena van Riper in Department of Natural Resource and Environmental Sciences, Paul Gobster, who is a landscape architect with the Forest Service. And Alessandro Rigolon, who's a planner now with the University of Utah. That's the large lot team.

There's another forthcoming possibility, and I hope we get the invitation through the National Science Foundation, to invite us to submit a full blown proposal for what's called a leader project, or long term ecological change for urban areas. And that's largely working with ecologists out of Chicago that are based in various universities up there. And they're looking for ways to couple social issues along with ecological issues. No longer can we study the ecology of a system and not be concerned about what-- let's include people in this ecological understanding.

So, I think it'd be really a neat challenge for myself and my students to do a more stronger coupling of healing communities with ecological communities, and try to understand just a baseline description of what is the nature of that relationship. And to some extent, are there interventions that can happen through policy triggers that the city can do-- much like the large lot program-- to further facilitate a healthy social ecological resilience? To make human communities more ready to respond to changes in their future.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Bill Stewart. To hear more about Illinois and the College of Applied Health Sciences, find our podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and iHeartRadio by searching a few minutes. See you next time.

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