In remembrance of Dr Liz Barber, our colleague, friend and advocate for ecology and public health

Image on left: Dr Liz Barber standing smiling at camera while leaning on fence. Image on right: climate activists holding up protest signs on a dirt road.

From left to right: Dr Liz Barber (image courtesy of Lee Barber); Liz’s activism on climate with Health on the Frontline in 2019 (image courtesy of Health on the Frontline).

 

Linda Selvey, The University of Queensland; Fran Boyle, The University of Queensland; Julie Dean, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland; Emily Krusz, The University of Queensland; Kate Rears, The University of Queensland Alumni; Danielle Shanahan, Zealandia Ecosanctuary & Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington; Britta Wigginton, The University of Queensland

 

In remembrance of our dear friend and colleague, Dr Liz Barber, one year after her tragic death on 30 October 2021, we share a small part of her legacy. The depth of Liz’s work legacy is too substantial to capture in any one text. Here, we offer just some of her contributions to ecology and public health and remember the remarkable values she lived by across her career, community, and relationships.

 

Liz’s PhD research: Growing up healthy in the city

Liz’s PhD was founded on her deep commitment to the health and wellbeing of those most disadvantaged in society, along with protection of the ecologies that support life on Earth. Her PhD dissertation identified important pathways through which spending time in nature play can fundamentally enhance children’s development and wellbeing (Barber, 2019).

Liz was driven by curiosity, deep thoughtfulness, and a fierce passion for finding solutions to the complex challenges faced in our society. Most poignantly, she rose to the challenge of children’s health and biodiversity as a priority equity issue. Her PhD was leading edge in its intersection of public health and conservation ecology, and through her use of diverse data sources and methods. Liz embraced mixed methods approaches in a way that showed rare insight into how detailed qualitative exploration of children’s play could be combined with ‘big data’ at a landscape level. Liz wove together threads of evidence that created novel insights into the world of nature play, children’s health and conservation. Her findings suggested that natural features in parks—such as the amount and type of publicly available parks and extent of tree cover—had the potential to help children in their development, and even counter the social disadvantages that some children experience.

Part of Liz’s approach, coined a “play-along”, was pioneering in the collection and integration of different types of data about how young children and their parents play in park spaces. Her observational research was profoundly child-centric, and she closely observed children playing in playgrounds and in more natural settings. She combined data from video footage of how children played, what children and their parents said (and did) during and after their experience, how active the child was (measured via an accelerometer) and the children’s photos of their favourite places. Liz looked, in fine-grained detail, at ways in which young children may benefit from playing in park spaces. She proposed that careful attention to the ways that city parks and gardens are designed could help draw children to nature spaces and in turn to experience a broader range of benefits beyond the most oft-considered benefits of physical activity. Such benefits might extend to supporting opportunities for children’s experimental play, emergent literacy, teachable moments about risk, mindful attention in searching for wildlife, and a sense of escape and ‘being away’.

If what Liz did in her PhD was meaningful, so too was the way in which she did it. We smile as we remember Liz’s stories about the little cart she used to carry equipment across the park, and how children wanted to ride around in the cart rather than be observed in their play. Her sensitivity to the beauty and fascination of nature are also seen in the gorgeous watercolour images by Anna Persson interspersed in her PhD thesis, illustrating some of the natural features the children encountered in the “play-along”. Liz won peoples’ hearts in her talks about her research, for example collecting the ‘People’s Choice Award’ at a University of Queensland Research Higher Degree conference and presenting internationally, including in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the USA. The way Liz brought her vibrant care and humanity into her scholarship is beautifully conveyed in the last words of her PhD:

 

Going forward in the study of pathways between nature and human health, it is important for researchers to value qualities such as joy, curiosity and connection as these may be vital to human flourishing, preservation of the natural environment and maintaining the pathways that join these two global priorities (p. 143).

 

Liz’s passions for the natural environment, community, and health equity are also evident in the impact she made at The University of Queensland’s School of Public Health (SPH) through the Eco Club she initiated, focusing on caring for the Earth and each other. Likewise, her relational, equity-minded impact on the Medical Degree Program and Indigenous Health curriculums in the Faculty of Medicine will be long lasting. In her teaching, she was described by students as “encouraging, welcoming, nurturing, knowledgeable and dynamic”. Liz brought a contagious energy to the classroom, where she invited playfulness tempered with a commitment to difficult conversations. Her teaching was most inspiring to witness and be held by.

Liz cared deeply for her community and sought to fight for the health and rights of our planet and of the First Nations people to whom these lands belong. Outside the academy, Liz’s efforts to protect Country are most poignantly exemplified by her advocacy in central Queensland in 2019 with Health on the Frontline (see above photo). Along with friends and colleagues, she blockaded a worker’s camp, housing workers who were building a new coal mine (known as the Adani Coal Mine) on Wangan and Jagalingou Country. Even in her final days, Liz devoted significant and precious time to visits with family, friends, colleagues and to climate activism. On a sleepless night in hospital in her last few days she made phone calls to publicly known fossil-fuel investors in Australia, most notably Gina Rinehart, to discuss their complicity in the climate crisis.

 

Some closing words

Now, one year after losing our dear friend and colleague, Liz, our memories of her passion, strength, and courage remain as strong as they always were. Liz left us in what should have been the summertime of her life. The seeds she planted are nothing short of remarkable. We hope that in sharing just some of Liz’s gifts to our planet, they may continue to grow for years to come.

 

References

Barber, E. (2019). Growing up healthy in the city: Pathways to child health and development benefits from nature. (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Retrieved from https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:ca99124

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