Whether you are interested in a particular species of animal or plant such as native birds, particular habitats like rocky shores, or in certain problems such as the spread of weeds through neighbouring bushland, you will be better off if you share your concerns and efforts with others.
Why bother with a network? Nobody can achieve much working alone. There is too much to do and, if there is no-one with whom you can share the tasks, the failures and the successes, you are likely to get fed up. Co-operating with other people will encourage you when the going gets tough and the successes will make them all the more enjoyable.

If you are already part of a group of people interested in certain environmental issues, it is still worth trying to network your group with other interested groups. This will allow you to teach others what you have learned and to learn from other people's experiences. You will develop friendships with people with similar concerns and be introduced to new ideas and problems.

More importantly, people that cooperate n networks will achieve a lot more than they will alone. If you are interested in finding out what lives on your local shore, how people use  neighbouring bushland or which birds use urban parks, you will learn a lot more if you share the study with others. Different people can monitor the areas at different times, so that you can discover differences in the plants and animals or the behaviour of the people from time to time. Alternatively, you can divide up a very large task into manageable bits. For example, the local school might be interested in monitoring birds in local bushland as part of their ecology course, Scouts or Guides - as part of their community awareness program - might study the ways that people use the bush and the local bushwalking club might census the the different plants that are growing in the area. Each group can concentrate on those things that they find most interesting or useful, but, when the information is put together, you will learn a lot more about your neighbouring bushland than any of you will alone.

Back to Top

What is a network? Networks do not have to be confined to your immediate neighbourhood. People with the same interests may live many kilometres away. If different groups of people collect similar information in different places, this can be put together to give everyone a much broader and realistic picture of nature. For example, if a number of different patches of mangrove forest are studiedin the same way, you will be able to measure how different you local mangrove forest is to many others. This information is essential if you have reason to believe that your study area is damaged. You will need to know how similar or different it is from other areas. With this information, you will be able to replace guesswork with data and may provide a factual basis for your concerns. This can only be done if the information you collect can be directly compared with information other people collect. This involves working together.

Similarly, different schools across a city or state might monitor birds in their school grounds using the same methods. Comparing these findings can provide information about how different birds respond to their surroundings in urban and rural areas. This may be important if you are interested in landscaping your grounds to be more attractive to local birds.

Making any information you collect available to other people allows better use to be made of it. Decisions about management or use of natural habitats rely on data. The more data that are made available to those making these decision - as long as the data are reliable and accurate - the more sensible such decisions should be. People who collect data about natural habitats have a responsibility to share it with other people. That is why professional scientists publish their research in journals, reports and books. Nowadays, local community groups are demanding more say in the decisions about their local neighbourhood. This is to be applauded, but such decisions need to to be made on the basis of facts, not emotions. Sharing reliable information will provide a better background for coming to such decisions.

Back to Top

Who can form a network? Anyone with an interest in the environment an the desire to learn about it can network with other interested people. Environmental scientists have loose and tight networks within which they interact. Some of these are available to community groups, but for the most part you are going to have to form your own. Informal networks can be developed in the local neighbourhood, perhaps starting with just a few friends and neighbours. Teachers may be prepared to join you and use their field excursions to collect information relevant to your particular concerns, thereby giving students direct involvement in community issues. Alternatively, you could join neighbourhood organisations and take your concerns to them. These may include Parents and Citizens associations, Scout or Guide groups, photography, bushwalking, art or diving clubs. There may already be an environmental group working locally. Instead of joining it, you might want to establish your own local group that can work co-operatively with, but independent of, the main group.

All community groups will benefit from cooperating with a network of interested people. What each person gets out will ultimately depend on what each person puts into the network. The more people who can be persuaded to contribute, the better off all will be.

Back to Top

How can you form a network? Networks can be loosely or tightly arranged, but it is absolutely essential that you keep in touch and keep talking to one another. For example, scientists have loose networks of colleagues with similar interests and with whom they share ideas and information. This is often informal, via phone or email, at seminars or social gatherings. Many also interact via organised networks, such as the Ecological Society of Australia or the Australian Zoological Society. These organisations provide a forum where scientists come together at regular intervals to present their data in formal talks, in addition to sharing information over a cup of coffee or a beer.

Local community groups can follow similar lines and develop relatively informal networks or join existing organisations. The latter may have resources which you could use but they may not be able to assist you with your particular interests because of their own agendas. It is therefore worth pursuing both options until you are more sure of your program. Here are a few pointers that may help you get going.

1. Get in touch

If you are concerned about a local environmental problem or habitat, start searching for people with common interests in your local neighbourhood. Neighbourhood newspapers or community radio stations often list meetings or gatherings of local clubs. Visit these and share your concerns them. If you cannot find organisations interested in your concerns, a notice on the community notice board in the library or shopping centre may do the trick. Otherwise talk to neighbours and friends. You will soon have a small group of people interested in the same things you are.

2. Make sure you are really interested in the same things

Once there are a few of you, the going gets easier. You must now get together to decide the details of what you are interested in. Unless you all have similar concerns and agree about how these should be addressed, a network will not be very productive. Get together one day, introduce yourselves and describe in a few words why you are there. Then arrange for someone to write these reasons down and make sure you all agree about your concerns and interests. This may sound very formal and unnecessary but it is an essential first step if you are going to be able to cooperate later, especially with other groups of people that may be some distance away. To get other people to share your concerns and interests you must be able to explain clearly what these are. If you are each going to take on the task of spreading the word - the best way to widen the range of people who may join you - you need to be sure that you are all "talking the same language". A network will fall apart if people have not come together with a common purpose.

3. Approach other neighbourhood groups

Ask local Scout or Guide groups if they will help you with your project. They are often interested in taking environmental problems on board if these are bought to their attention, but will probably appreciate assistance and guidance in return. Local schools may also become involved in neighbourhood studies if they fit with the schools agenda and do not impose an additional workload on the teachers. If you have time, you may offer assistance during the excursion in exchange for the information collected by the students.

art teachers may be prepared to take a class into  the forest to draw the animals and plants they found there. You may, in return offer to collate these into a field guide, which science teachers could use on their excursions and you could use for your own studies.

Local clubs may also be interested in getting involved if it is made clear how they may help you and, perhaps, benefit from involvement on your project. Art or photography clubs may provide you with pictures of the animals and plants which you can use to prepare field guides. Diving clubs may give you information about the sots of habitats that are off your local beaches.

Prepare a summary which BRIEFLY explains what you are interested in, wat you are trying to do about it, who you are approaching and how people can help. Attach a sheet for their names and addresses and a list of their interests which they can use to tell you what they offer the network and what they expect to get out of it. Encourage lateral thinking - if people are prepared to help you with your investigation, even if it isn't near and dear to their hearts, ask them to tell you how you might help them in return. Approach potentially interested organisations by phone rather  than by mail because this is more personal. If they seem interested, send them the summary immediately and ask for a reply relatively quickly.

4. Once started, keep moving

Once you have got this far, it is necessary to move relatively quickly. If it is left too long, interest will wane. Therefore, don't necessarily wait for replies from all the letters that you send out, but organise a meeting as soon as you have some interest. Even though this meeting can be informal, prepare and stick to an agenda and have someone friendly who will run the meeting and keep everyone on track. Otherwise you may get distracted by new problems and lose the plot before working out where to go next. Nevertheless, be flexible and prepared to alter your priorities if they are not held by most people there.

At this meeting you will need to identify and agree upon:

  1. The interest or problem that brought you all together.
  2. How to proceed (in broad terms at this stage). For example, will you do any study yourselves, will you approach others to join you, will you see whether others can do the study for you?
  3. Who can you approach for help or advice?
  4. A timetable for what you will do next and when it will be done.

There is a number of organisations that might be able to assist you with advice or practical help. These are listed in Appendix 1. They may be able to assist you directly, or direct you to other  help if they themselves are unable to assist. Remember most of these people are also very busy. Before approaching them you must be quite clear about what your concerns and interests are, what you wish to do about them, what help you are looking for and what you can offer in return. If you are not clear about these, you are wasting your own and other people's valuable time.

What can a community network find out? It is important to realise that decisions about management of the environment need to be based on accurate reliable information. This information is collected in many different ways. The design of a sampling programme to collect good environmental data is not easy and requires specialist training and knowledge. Networks of community groups will not be able to collect information for such decision-making unless they get good advice about how to set up and carry out such a study. This information can only be got from those that know- those that do such work. Unfortunately, all too often, information that is collected is not the information needed to address particular concerns. Many community groups have been misled to believe their data are important to the scientific community but they cannot be useful unless they have been collected in an appropriate scientific manner. This usually occurs because community groups are not aware of the problem rather than choosing to ignore them. These Guidelines are not designed to describe how to sample the environment in order to manage it better. That would take many more pages and introduce very complex concepts and techniques. These Guidelines can, however, teach you how to learn a bit about local habitats - what lives in them, how people use them, how similar they are to other places and to share this knowledge with others. This increased awareness will also allow you to discuss your environmental concerns with more confidence and knowledge.

To do this we have detailed how to study particular problems or habitats that you are interested in. These Guidelines are general and can be applied to many different habitats, interests or concerns. They are also specific in that they explain the sort of information that is needed to answer different sorts of questions and how this information should be collected and interpreted. They can teach you how to collect simple but accurate information about animals and plants. These data will not tell you why your rocky shore is different from someone else's, or why there are fewer birds in your school grounds than the one down the street, or why there is more privet bush this year than last year. They should help you to measure whether these differences or changes are indeed real and should therefore help you to focus your concerns.

Back to Top

Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities
email: rgraham@pacific.net.au