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➤ Is it the BBC? No, it’s the Backpack

Published on December 13, 2014, by in All, News and musings.

Ecologists have many strange and wonderful tools at their disposal; they wield nets, dig holes, probe soils, stare through binoculars and carry all manner of electronic detectors. And they can be found everywhere from chest deep in water, to up a tree or scuffling around under shrubs. These activities can look relatively normal when taking place in a field, a woodland, or on a saltmarsh, but look rather more peculiar in a back garden or city street.

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The backpack all set up and ready to take to the streets

This year, we took our field data collection a step further and built an entirely new piece of equipment that looked quite bizarre by any measure – ‘the backpack’. Over the course of the summer this has been variously mistaken for a BBC film unit, a detector of supernatural beings, and, perhaps most difficult to imagine, a hearing aid!

One of the aims of the F3UES project is to describe the biodiversity and ecosystem services provided in urban areas across large scales. Over the summer in 2013, we visited different green spaces in Bedford, Luton and Milton Keynes and the surrounding towns and surveyed biodiversity and measured ecosystem service provision. This year we wanted to find out what peoples’ experience of biodiversity is while walking through their towns, which sorts of urban areas have the most healthy, or pleasant, environments, and whether that has anything to do with the amount of green space and the types of plants nearby.

To address these questions we picked 112 routes of 1 km in length that covered a wide range of different types of urban development, and included many different types of environment, from ancient woodlands to agricultural areas, and suburban housing to industrial estates. Along the routes we counted birds and butterflies and recorded all the trees. Then the backpack followed. The backpack was fitted out with equipment that measured air temperature and humidity, particles in the air, and a device that looked like a microphone that in fact recorded how noisy an area is. In addition to noise levels, we also measured the types of sounds you hear in different parts of the city. This allows us to capture the experience of being in that location for a moment in time. The sound bites we recorded are a little like those you can listen to in the wonderful London Sound Survey project, where you can explore the sounds along London’s diverse waterways. It is amazing what sound can conjure up. Finally, we took a series of photographs at specific points along the route to record the visual characteristics of the environment.

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The backpack in action in two very different urban environments

All the equipment to do these measurements had to be held steady for many, many hours each day, and that’s why it was all rigged up to this amazing backpack. Combined, the data collected will create a picture of the environmental quality at hundreds of points around the study area.

For everyone who came across us over the summer, thanks for saying hello and for staying quiet when the sign: “Sorry, I cannot speak. I am recording surrounding sounds” was showing. We appreciate your patience and for taking an interest in our work once the sound recorder was out of range! And, just for the record, no, we didn’t detect any supernatural beings!

Briony Norton

 
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