Laura Pfeifer on urban ecology and community leadership

Laura Pfeifer is the founder and editor of Regina Urban Ecology, and is the Regina organizer of Jane’s Walk. The Regina Urban Ecology blog is intended to discuss the broad and nuanced issues of urban development, with a focus on the city of Regina. For those of you who do not know what Jane’s Walks are, you can read in more detail about them at janeswalk.net. The goals of Jane’s Walks are very broad, but in essence they are an attempt to bring communities together for earnest discussion about local urban development issues.

We are very pleased to present the following interview that we recently conducted with Laura.

We contacted you for this interview because we know that you have been actively involved in efforts to improve the sustainability of urban living.  Can you tell us a bit about your background and experience in this area?

My background is in urban ecological systems. I did my master’s at McGill University in Montreal focusing on urban water systems and the interactions between people and the environment in cities – how our choices and interactions impact ecological quality, and in turn how those ecosystem functions might impact our well-being.

Much of the work I have done focuses on water quality in urban streams, however, I have a real passion for all things urban – art, design, and community planning in addition to social-ecological interactions.

What initially sparked your interest in these topics?

I did my B.Sc. at the University of Regina with a focus on ecology and limnology (fresh water systems). During my undergrad, I did an honours project looking at water quality in Wascana Creek and the Qu’Appelle River. At that point I started to get really interested in urban ecosystems and the impacts that people exert on them. Since then I have tried to read and learn more about urban ecology, but also some planning literature and the complex factors that impact urban development.

I’ve also tried to get involved in local development issues and have started to facilitate a few ways for citizens to get involved. I created the Regina Urban Ecology blog as a way to engage other citizens in a dialogue about the way Regina is developing as a city and also to discuss cities in general.

What do you think is the greatest challenge, or set of challenges, facing our society today?

Wow – what a question! There are a lot of challenges that the world is facing – degradation of ecosystems, poverty, disease transmission, famine, climate change – but there are a lot of people working hard to come up with bold and innovative responses to those challenges. I think that one big challenge to overcome is citizen apathy. I think that if more people step up to the plate, do their part, and accept that we all have a role to play in making the world a better place, great things can happen.

Why do you think these issues are so important? How much awareness do you think the general public has of this issue?

I think that overcoming citizen apathy is an important issue because it is so overarching. People get paralyzed by the assumption that their actions and thoughts don’t matter or that things will never get better, but they are proved wrong by every success and step forward that is made. I think if more people accepted responsibility for the impacts of their actions the world would be drastically different. In the end, people need to be empowered to know that they can make change happen.

Many people worry that they don’t know enough to speak out or participate in a dialogue, or that there is someone who’d be better at it, and this way of thinking keeps people immobile.  However, it is the unease you feel about a global or local problem that is enough to get involved, ask questions, learn more, and dream of solutions… you just have to start.

What work are you involved with that is trying to help better our society, and how successful have you been?

Through the Regina Urban Ecology blog, I’ve been trying to engage local citizens to discuss Regina how it currently is – the good and the bad, and more importantly to start coming up with ways that we can improve the city we live in. So far I think it has been quite successful, we’ve averaged about 80-100 hits per day and many topics have raised a healthy debate about the current status quo and possibilities for the future. I try to give a lot of focus to simple DIY things that people can do to make the city a more interesting place to be.

A few years ago I also took on the role of organizing an event called Jane’s Walk for Regina. It is an event that started in Toronto in 2007 and is inspired by the writings of Jane Jacobs (a writer and urbanist) – they are free community walking tours that are given and taken by anyone. Since the walks are self-curated, the content is boundless. Walks have included art, architecture, sustainability, walkability, personal anecdotes, you name it.

I was truly inspired by the event when I heard about it but had no idea if anyone would sign up to lead a walk, or would come to take a walk in Regina. At the time (early 2009) I felt/worried that Reginans were disinterested in urban issues and wouldn’t embrace the concept that they could be experts of their city and get involved in how it functioned. The opposite was true – 11 people signed up to give walks and approximately 400 people came out to participate in our first year – one walk had 70 people show up!  We have now run Jane’s Walk for two years and it is a really rewarding experience that reminds me daily how many people in Regina want to be more engaged in their city.  It encourages me to keep going.

What do you think is the best way for an interested member of the general public to help bring about positive change in our society?

People often feel that they don’t have a place to question or contribute to their community or their city, however, you’d be surprised how little it takes to really make change happen. The Jane’s Walk event in Regina pulled out 400 people and was organized by one person! Many Reginans are hungry for these types of initiatives.

Simple actions can make really profound change. Get to know your neighbours so that you form a network of support, talk to people who care about issues that are important to you and ask how you can get involved (even in small ways), and don’t be afraid to ask questions about why things are the way they are – everyone is continually learning and we learn best when we share information and ideas with each other.

Lastly, don’t shy away from taking responsibility for your neighbourhood or city. It is not just the role of the City administration to make Regina a great place to be. We all need to share that liability and responsibility for great things to happen. Never doubt that you play an important role.

Thank you very much Laura for your insight! We enjoy your work and look forward to seeing what you do in the future.

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