Fledged in Vancouver Canada over an initial year of focused research and development, we brought together 6 core partner organisations: Virago Productions, Savage Media (theatre arts), the Institute for Urban Ecology at Douglas College (ecology + academic), the Vancouver Natural History Society (citizen science + education) the Roundhouse Arts + Community Centre, and the Canadian Wildlife Service/Environment Canada.
A multi-sector advisory + insight group was also created. It included the Founding Director of the UBC Sustainability office + program, an urban planner, a landscape architect, Environment Canada, local businesses, sustainability-focused NGOs, and the Squamish Nation.
Non-invasive research approaches of participant observation and feedback were included to assess efficacy of SongBird and its initiatives. This assisted us in making alterations along the way.
The Society for Arts + Ecology in Practice was created in late 2000 to formalise SongBIrd initiatives under one umbrella, and to grow a portfolio of related partnerships and initiatives informed by what was learned through the field study of SongBird initiatives.
The legacy of SongBird's successful multi-sector, intercultural and public engagement can be seen in ongoing civic initiatives, planning decisions, and in the work of university research students.
SONGBIRDS WERE THEN, AS THEY ARE NOW,
CANARIES IN THE COALMINE; INDICATORS OF BIODIVERSITY HEALTH/LOSS + CLIMATE IMPACTS.
RADICAL CREATIVITY for FUTURE FLOURISHING
SongBird was designed based on the belief that the arts are vital in bringing transformative change to socio-cultural understandings, behaviours, policies and institutions if we are to turn the tide of an increasingly industrialized world toward a future of sustainable flourishing for all life.
The choice of songbirds as a focus was strategic. Birdwatching and gardening were (and remain to this day) the fastest growing "hobbies" in North America. At a time when "environmental" meant "confrontation" for many in an exceptionally culturally diverse and fast growing city, this focus created non-confrontational, safe, and even celebratory paths into daunting and complex issues.
Urban areas have been steadily growing. They have a massive footprint, and bringing change to the urban - from consumer behaviours, to infrastructure, to encouraging planning and development policies that embrace urban biocultural diversity, or the biophilic city approach - can reveal cities as exemplars for global change. Each SongBird initiative, event, process, while place specific, was in fact designed as a template that could be taken up and adapted for any urban centre, and each SongBird event was free to attend, encouraging and welcoming participation of all without barriers.
Believing that transformation, once seeded, is slow and mostly "silent" until the tipping point to change is reached, we designed annual initiatives as well as one-time events and educational outreach. We used participant observation and feedback frameworks as the least intrusive to gain a sense of outcomes, and outcome potential. This indicated what was working, and what needed to be tweaked in design and strategy. Beloved annual events are anticipated by publics, who gain enough affinity and knowledge to leverage civic policy. Some of the best moments came when a city planning department called for policy advice on building specs for a sensitive site, when an organic coffee roaster decided to use only shade-grown coffee, and when a schoolchild volunteered that he and friends now visited the wild park by his school to listen for estuary birds and identify plants instead of previous pass-times.
SongBird won local, national and international accolades for its pioneering work in arts-led hybrid alliances and initiatives. Nearly 20 years after it was shelved, the impact of the SongBird project on the City of Vancouver is found in their annual Migratory Bird Day, in the uptake of the Stanley Park Ecology Society of regular work with artists after SongBird was their first arts partner, and more. The sustainability design focused City Studio through the University of British Columbia studied SongBird and its outcomes. The annual Dawn Chorus migrated to the city of Victoria, and excerpts from the SongBird Oratorio were reworked for choir and performed in 2018. Two decades later, SongBird continues to attract attention from researchers and practitioners internationally.