EcoTour: Using Mobile Technologies to Engage with Local EnvironmentsShannon Butts, Madison Jones, Jacob Greene, Jason Crider, and Kenny Anderson
A unique system of uplands and freshwater wetlands, Alachua County’s Paynes Prairie became Florida’s first state preserve in 1971 and is home to more than 20 biological communities and over 400 species of wildlife. Visitors often walk the La Chua Trail or the newly opened Sweetwater Wetlands Park in hopes of seeing alligators, bison, wild horses or a vast array of birds. However, while Paynes Prairie offers many spaces for viewing the natural world in its splendor, the preserve lacks on-site educational spaces that make visible the environmental threats to the Prairie. The purpose of this grant is to fund an open access digital walking tour that connects the ecological history of Paynes Prairie to the physical environment. Using an interactive map and augmented reality technology, we will create a downloadable mobile application for the La Chua Trail and the Sweetwater Sink that helps users visualize the complex ecology of the prairie’s natural environment, human development, and community interaction.
Paynes Prairie encompasses over 21,000 acres of savanna and over 121,000 acres of watershed directly connected to the Alachua County Sink and the Floridan Aquifer and was deemed the “Great Alachua Savanna” by William Bartram in 1774. Yet, over a hundred years of development, redevelopment, and polluted stormwater runoff have degraded Florida’s water systems, affecting the delicate ecology of Paynes Prairie as well as the local hydrology. In the 1920s and 30s, canal systems cut through the Alachua Savannah and rerouted water coming into the Prairie Basin and the Alachua Sink. Construction of US Route 441 and later I-75 divided sections of the land and further altered the ecological balance. Subsequent urbanization and development throughout Gainesville increased water pollution and sewage runoff. Additionally, years of wood treatments and illegal dumping at the Cabot/Koppers superfund site leached creosote, chromated copper arsenate and other harmful toxins into the soil, contaminating the Floridan Aquifer, the source of 90% of Florida’s drinking water and the source of much of the prairie’s water flow. Overpumping of the Floridan Aquifer by bottled water companies and corporate farming interests has placed additional strain on these connected ecosystems.
Since becoming a state preserve, state and local organizations such as the Alachua County Trust and the Springs Eternal Project have worked to restore the natural environment and educate the community about the prairie’s biological diversity, cultural history, and environmental importance. Building on the momentum of community projects, EcoTour: Visualizing the Environment of Paynes Prairie extends environmental education into the digital realm to help spread awareness concerning the ecological threats the park faces. Overall, EcoTour works to promote:
- Ecological awareness and environmental literacy within local communities
- Independent exploration of the Paynes Prairie preservation area
- Collaborative public writing that encourages the community to participate in both preservation efforts as well as community education
- Educational methods for engaging environmental activism that others can extend and reproduce
EcoTour creates a platform for ecological awareness that visitors can use while in the park space. Similar to an audio walking tour, the downloadable app will allow users to walk through the La Chua trail and the Sweetwater sink and learn more about the ecological diversity and the ecological threats within the preservation area. Different than a traditional pamphlet or map, EcoTour provides access to a large repository of information using technology that most people already have in their pocket, a technology that can evolve and update in real time with the environment.