One Big Backyard: Empowering Communities to Combat Climate Change

Central Park is often fondly referred to as “New York City’s backyard,” a place for play, relaxation, and renewal in nature. But as much as the Park feels like an escape—from the pace of city life, the demands of work, or the heat of a sweltering summer—it has not been spared the effects of climate change. This communal backyard has brought New Yorkers face-to-face with the reality of a warming planet.

The summer of 2021 reads like a case study in the ways extreme weather events can impact a landscape. That July, Central Park faced at least four official heat waves; in August, at least two. On September 1 of that year, Hurricane Ida brought a record 3.15 inches of rain to Central Park in one hour, exceeding the precipitation record of 1.9 inches set just 10 days prior. Meanwhile, January 2023 was the warmest on record, with temperatures in NYC remaining above average on all 31 days, and the unprecedented lack of snow made headlines as Central Park Conservancy staff grappled with the consequences it had on the Park’s lawns.


Climate change isn’t just apparent in extreme events like hurricanes and heat waves. It’s also felt in the smaller, less newsworthy moments that affect communities on a day-to-day basis. Greenspaces like Central Park can serve neighborhoods at the hyper-local level with flood mitigation, cooling, and improved air quality. On a broader level, parks offer a space for researchers and community members alike to observe the effects of climate change in real time. By giving people a space to experience and connect with nature, local parks can help us feel empowered—and inclined—to take action and protect their environment.

“Climate change research can take on both quantitative and qualitative forms,” says Michelle Mueller-Gamez, Manager of Sustainability and Climate Research at the Central Park Conservancy. “Quantitative data involves things you can measure—temperatures, rainfall, and the like. By contrast, qualitative data involves asking people about their experiences—what they’ve noticed and felt in their environments.”

Inviting community members into the climate change conversation is crucial for Michelle and her Conservancy colleagues. “The more we can demystify climate change, the more people will feel empowered to act,” says Michelle. “Data doesn’t have to be complicated to be valuable. Have you noticed that trees are blossoming earlier in the spring or losing their leaves later in the fall? That’s really important information that researchers can use!”

Helping other parks is a core tenet of the Conservancy’s work, but we’re also always learning from them. How can individuals connect to their local greenspaces—including Central Park—and feel empowered to fight climate change? We’re talking to people with ties to different open spaces to find out. First up is Julia Kumari Drapkin, former climate science reporter and CEO of ISeeChange, a climate data platform. Julia emphasizes that the more we are paying attention to climate change over time, the more we’re able to understand what it’s doing to us.

Check back as we continue the conversation with new voices and perspectives.

Julia Kumari Drapkin on community-led data collection and the fight for climate equity

April 2023

On the eve of the Hurricane Katrina anniversary in 2022, another hurricane, Ida, bore down on the Louisiana Coast. My own family’s exodus out of Ida’s path was brutal—12 hours in standstill traffic with a grumpy toddler in the backseat—but at least we had the option to leave. Many Louisianans didn’t, and it was those left at home, sweltering in 105-degree heat with no power for days or even weeks, who truly bore the brunt of the storm.

Ida left a trail of damage that started in Venezuela and ended in Quebec, and it gained considerable news coverage. But when the news crews left and my New Orleans community once again began picking up the pieces, I saw the kinds of destruction that are becoming more and more common, even without a hurricane. Flooding, heat, and poor air quality are the everyday effects of climate change—and they have a profound impact on human health, particularly in underserved communities.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem climate change presents, yet its urgency and ubiquity are also challenging us homo sapiens to do something truly remarkable: work together across communities, classes, and geographies toward collective response. You might call it the end of NIMBYism, because now it’s all one big backyard.

In 2015, I founded ISeeChange, a data and engagement platform designed to help cities combat climate change. The platform sources resident-generated information and climate data to help inform policy decisions at the hyper-local level. And it’s working. Over the course of two years and 29 storm events, New Orleans residents used our platform to document and measure their neighborhood experiences with storms and flooding. The data generated by those citizens helped the project engineers and the city to reallocate $4.8 million to low-income areas and more than double the size of underground stormwater storage. These projects will additionally provide public parks, football and baseball fields for the local high school, and rain gardens and residential tree canopy for a neighborhood that lost much of its green assets to Hurricane Katrina. ISeeChange data has since helped the City of Miami generate $20 million in stormwater infrastructure investments and is now working with Miami Dade County to track flooding, urban heat, and pollution.

Everyday citizens are experts in their own communities. And when it comes to meeting the challenge of the climate crisis, every person and community has a role to play in our shared backyard.

Julia Kumari Drapkin is the CEO and founder of ISeeChange, a climate data and engagement platform to help cities combat climate change. Drapkin founded ISeeChange after reporting natural disasters and climate change for 12 years across the globe and in her own backyard on the Gulf Coast.

Heidi Hart on transforming climate grief into climate action

September 2023

Like Central Park, Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen works as both greenspace and gathering place. Its old yellow wall divides it from the busy streets, and its gnarled trees and weathered stones invite a slower pace. Known as the resting place for Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, it began as a welfare cemetery for those unable to afford higher-status burials. Today it functions as a “welfare space” in a broader sense, giving city-dwellers a place to walk and eat and chat outside the usual bustle.

Spaces like Assistens Cemetery also work as portals to deeper sensory engagement with the natural world. Several years ago I led a soundwalk there, an exercise in quiet listening to whatever came into the sound-field, from magpies’ calls and our feet crunching on damp gravel to a crying baby and a motorcycle just outside the perimeter. We noticed that our range of perception widened, with awareness that even this carefully tended greenspace was part of a larger, threatened planet.

In her book The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard writes, “In normal life, a human body is rarely understood to exist outside its own skin,” but “[c]limate change creates a new language, in which you have to be all over the place. It makes every animal body implicated in the whole world.” A more recent walk in Assistens Cemetery brought this idea clearly to light. My recent curatorial project on climate grief included a “Lost Species Walk,” in which performance artist Julia Adzuki brought an ash tree trunk strung with piano wires into the cemetery. Participants were able to touch the tree’s “skin” or even lie inside it, sensing the wires’ vibrations, the strings tuned to palpable musical intervals. We paused to reflect on threatened and lost species from our various homes across the world.

The walk ended at a tall beech trunk with its own memorial plaque, as it had died from a fungus years before. Instead of remaining in a state of grief, we started to play rhythmic patterns with our fingers on the ash tree instrument and then planted acorns at the beech tree’s base. Our own bodies found a humbler place among the human and nonhuman, living and dead, and with the not-yet-sprouted trees we hope will keep each city’s open spaces green.

Heidi Hart is an arts researcher, educator, and practitioner with a focus on sound and music in environmental art. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD from Duke University. She serves as a guest researcher at SixtyEight Art Institute in Copenhagen and at Linnaeus University, Sweden.