Urban Ecology: What is on the Horizon?

Posted on Posted in Cities, Environment, Urban Ecology

Stemming from some related research, as well as some discussions with ecologists, a few months ago I became intrigued by the loose realm that is known as Urban Ecology in various fields. Here are some of the results of the reading.

The field has been to this point an amorphous discipline that pulls from themes in ecology, social sciences, urban development, engineering, and other fields to varying degrees of success. In perusing the background reading, the field seems to suffer from cross-talk, whereby scholars from different disciplines do mutually relevant work but have difficulty scaling the barriers of language and method. Several centers of excellence, spurred at least in part by the National Science Foundation, seem to have sprung up in educational programs at Arizona  State University and the University of Washington. These all have the noble goals of spurring disciplinary experts who are literate in multiple fields, certainly a situation one encounters in the real world. Arizona State is currently the most active, with Phoenix being a current Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Site, and ASU having received an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Grant.

In looking for analysis tools in the urban ecology literature, so far I have discovered a few models in urban ecology that try to incorporate human institutions and social structures into a study of the urban ecosystem. As Pickett et al (2001) identified, do we look at Ecology in Cities or Ecology of Cities, and if so, where do humans fall into the framework? They propose the Human Ecosystems Model for Urban Ecology. Alberti et al (2003) have a bit simpler one that models drivers for urban land use while incorporating human social structure and processes. Collins et al (2000) and Grimm et al (2000) also have approaches. There are, no doubt, others out there that I have not discovered, so I do not mean to slight anybody. Pickett provides an easy introduction through the Human Ecosystem Framework model, which has plenty of space for incorporating human cultural norms, as well as for the institutions. This model, however, does have a framework for the natural process and environment in the Ecosystem Structure and Processes block, but I am having trouble seeing where the historical and cultural influences provided by the built environment fit into this model. I guess it would slide under Socio-Economic Resources. Otherwise, everything is there with some plying, but I think the model serves useful to help one identify all of the possible factors around the concept, rather than helping to lead one to an effective analysis.

Collins et al explored whether you could build on traditional ecology models to incorporate human and urban dynamics. They pose a pertinent question: if you incorporate humans and their structures, are they treated similar to other organisms so that an apartment building is basically a large anthill (my insert), or are humans, their institutions, and their effects on the environment inherently separate? This is a relevant question to ask considering the situation above; I will come back to this point. The Collins framework also argued for incorporating space, time, and other social elements, and the authors stated in the article that at least regarding city-fringe relationships, a multi-disciplinary approach with ecological concepts at its core could be a powerful tool. Other models look at the urban ecology idea spatially as well, such as the ecological footprint for an urban area (see Luck et al 2001). This approach, however, does not capture individual choices or actions, instead looking at the whole urban system by means of aggregate data. The Alberti Integrated Model perhaps may provide a structure to talk about many situations because, as the authors say, it attempts to incorporate individual human interactions with the biophysical environment. Its goal from the onset seems to be addressing large-scale land-use patterns (the authors give the example of sprawl in the paper) by describing the drivers and patterns that emerge from those drivers, but perhaps it has other worthwhile uses.

Finally, I came last across a paper by Grimm et al (2000) that describes integrated, multi-disciplinary approaches to long-term ecological studies, taking data from the LTER sites in Phoenix and Baltimore. The idea of Ecology in Cities and Ecology of Cities is again emphasized (note that Pickett and Grove are co-authors of each paper), and perhaps elaborated on a little more. The Ecology in Cities approach, about which the authors note many studies already exist, includes questions such as, “How do ecological patterns and processes differ in cities as compared with other environments”, and “What is the effect of the city (i.e., a concentration of human population and activities) on the ecology of organisms” near and around the city. Although this article is the oldest amongst the ones mentioned above, it actually seems to have the most specific model. Developed in order to further their research goals of studying land-use and ecological patterns, the model accounts for existing environments, both physical and ecological, as well as social patterns, and describes changes in human behavior and environmental processes. While the authors say that they can still study Ecology in Cities, this approach, they argue, allows for a more holistic approach, incorporating more human components and other drivers.

With the current obsession with green technologies, sustainable living, and resource reduction, urban ecology is attempting to present a framework to capture how to make a city more sustainable. It is quite interdisciplinary, though, so it may be absorbed into other fields, or branch off or splinter. Certainly something to watch.

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