The University of New Mexico Department of Geography & Environmental Studies recently launched a new center focused on community engagement and outreach. The new R.H. Mallory Center for Community Geography works to bring together UNM and the public to address critical human environment issues and work on projects that use UNM expertise and resources to benefit local communities, according to GES professor and Center director Maria Lane.

Screenshot_2021-04-19 City Nature Challenge 2021 ABQ 2

City Nature Challenge
In one of its first events, the Center for Community Geography is helping to organize a community-wide citizen science effort, collaborating with numerous city partners in the City Nature Challenge, and encouraging UNM students and other residents of the Albuquerque metro area to participate in documenting urban nature and help scientists collect data on the biodiversity of the region.

The City Nature Challenge begins Friday, April 30 and runs through Monday, May 3. To take part in the Challenge, participants can download the free iNaturalist app to their phones or other devices, create an account, and start making observations of wildlife in and around their homes and neighborhoods. Wildlife includes any plant, animal, fungi, slime mold or evidence of life such as scat, fur, tracks, shells, or carcasses in Bernalillo, Valencia, or Sandoval counties. Take photos and upload them to the app and note the location of the organism or evidence of life. Participants can also go to to identify and discuss findings.

Lane said she hopes UNM students will join the City Nature challenge this year, particularly because the City of Phoenix recently challenged Albuquerque to see which city could generate more participation. “It’s a great excuse for a study break before the last week of classes, and we need everyone out there if we are going to beat Phoenix,” she said.

 “We are also working with the Albuquerque Backyard Refuge Program to produce a map they can use to find and focus efficiently on target areas for ‘wildlife gardening.’ The Center is currently funding the mapping project directly, rather than coordinating it through a class or student research project,” said Lane. Wildlife gardening entails nurturing back yards as part of an ecologically rich system of private and public, rural and urban lands that can all contribute to helping wildlife and community thrive.

"Accidental geographer"
You don’t have to major in or have a degree to be interested and participate in Geography, Lane said.

Albuquerque business owner Robert Mallory, for whom the Center is named, calls himself an “accidental geographer.” Beyond his professional work, he also sees geography awareness as part of being an informed citizen and thinks that a person who is skilled at finding connections and orienting the world is a powerful community member.

“The great thing about geography is that it’s focused on spatial relationships, and interactions between humans and the environment means it is wide-reaching. We consider many people geographers even when they don’t have the formal title. Robert is an alumnus of the GES program at UNM and utilizes spatial thinking in his work on acoustics – he refers to himself as a geographer  ̶  well, ‘accidental’. He’s also been an important member of the geography community for several years as an advisory board member for GES and through the new alumni chapter. His goal is to connect more students with Geography and help them do good work that keeps them engaged with the subject,” Lane explained.

The Center for Community Geography supports community-engaged research and learning in human-environment dynamics. It engages directly with community groups and partners in work ranging from environmental change, natural resource conservation, and water management, to cultural preservation, human health, and community planning. The Center bolsters UNM’s commitment to community engagement by providing direct support for learners, researchers, and community partners who work specifically on human-environment issues.

The Center for Community Geography launched in fall 2020 and will spend its first year in a listening and building phase. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous constraints for university operations, Lane is optimistic that a slower pace will provide more of an opportunity for UNM personal to listen to what the community needs. The center will put its effort into three main areas: service-learning, community-engaged research, and public events on human-environment topics.

“Our goal right now is to talk with groups and communities in central New Mexico to find out where and how student geographers, faculty researchers, and geospatial technologies can be of help. Once we know where we can be useful, we will set up protocols to fund research and teaching approaches that make a difference,” she said.

The Center for Community Geography does not offer classes, but collaborates with professors to provide opportunities for students to apply for grants, join projects, or conduct research. While the Center is a part of the Geography Department anyone can get involved, contact the Center through its website, or propose new ideas.

The Center recently announced funding opportunities for students and faculty, focusing on projects that help bring community concerns and knowledge into the classroom. Faculty can apply for $1,000 seed funding to connect with community needs in next year’s classes. And students can apply for $1,000 fellowships for research that engages with community priorities. Application guidelines are available on the Center website.

“Our goal is to leverage the work of UNM learners and researchers for community benefit. We recognize that community members/groups outside academia are knowledge producers, and we want to learn from them and join forces to make progress on human-environment issues that matter to all of us,” Lane said.

“Right now, my Critical Cartography class, GEOG413/513, is working with several partners, including the National Trails-National Park Service, Bernalillo County, Gutierrez-Hubbel House, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, and Coronado Historic Site to develop Story Maps that contribute to an ongoing effort to develop the historic corridor of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro,” Lane said. “This is a big project, and they asked if we could do a cartographic project to help people engage with the trail and various sites throughout Bernalillo County. Students are learning about critical cartography and community engagement while simultaneously helping with a community-based project. I think there are lots of potential project like this, where UNM has the resources and expertise to help community groups with ongoing work. And in return, the students get a richer learning experience.”

Students are also involved in funding a Food and Natural Resources class to make a contribution to food security in the community; independent-study projects where grad students are working with the New Mexico Forestry Department, Tijeras Creek Watershed Coalition, and Rio Grande Water Fund; and coordinating the City Nature Challenge 2021.

Anyone interested in partnering with the Center is encouraged to email Lane.

“We are starting small, and this year has necessarily been slow due to the pandemic, but we intend to grow the Center into an important resource for UNM and our wider community,” Lane remarked. “We encourage anyone interested in human-environment issues to reach out to us with your ideas. The Center is open to all faculty, students, and community members, not just geographers!”

Follow the Center for Community Geography on Twitter and Instagram.