Ecologists on Urban Ecology

A great roundtable going on right now from The Nature of Cites asking ecologists “What is one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology?”  Consisting of a range of voices from all over the globe, the conversation discusses the larger contributions of ecology, as well as some of the challenges, as mentioned by David Maddox in the intro, including “social ecology, biophilia, justice, poverty, gender, values, the Global South, design, climate change, [and] policy”.  The shift to more of a focus on the urban is relatively new in the fields, and it confronts some of the ways that the science is addressed, and although inevitably if one digs you find out there’s a rich history of urban ecological work from the past. However, this culture-shift in the profession(s) at larger also has the potential to unlock a new disciplinary potential, that can inform larger processes, as mentioned by Maddox:

“…urban ecology routinely includes the aforementioned list of additional topics: social ecology, biophilia, justice, policy, and so on. How does urban ecology advance the state of the art in ecology more generally? It advances our understanding of how our current world works, how it might work better, and it lays foundations to turn that learning towards pressing Anthropocene challenges, both urban and non-urban.”

Some of the highlights for me were learning about ‘Humans as Components of Ecosystemsfrom 1993 published by McDonnell and Pickett, mentioned by Timon McPhearson, who mentioned that “McDonnell and Pickett’s book was seminal to launching urban ecology in the US. Urban ecology is fundamental social-ecological systems research intended to open the eyes of all ecologists to the fact that every ecosystem on earth has human drivers, influence, and impacts on both structure and function of the system.”

Steward Pickett himself is one of the contributors, and he mentions that while we’ve evolved the concept of how succession works and perhaps lost some of its original meaning, it is a relevant concept for ecologists and compatible with the informal processes of urbanization, as he mentions: ” succession, or if you prefer, community dynamics or community assembly, now is the epitome of a contingent, dynamic process conditioned by fluxes of organisms, resources, disturbance, and stressors across complex landscapes.”

Philip Silva connects that“urban ecology is a young field of inquiry” and that “every ecologist should know that urban ecology is very closely related to “sociology of scientific knowledge” when it starts asking questions about the production of knowledge used to manage urban ecosystems.” while Niki Frantzeskaki adds to the focus on human elements “Urban social-ecological systems are coupled, meaning that are interrelated and erosion of social conditions and the institutions therein manifest in unprotected, and unrestored urban ecosystems as. And in turn, deteriorating or unhealthy urban ecosystems do not allow for human to nature relations and fail to support human wellbeing, resulting in depriving urban environments for humans.”

While a new endeavor, Ana Faggi points out that

“Most theoretical concepts of classic ecology that deal with populations, communities, ecosystems and landscapes are applicable to cities; from viability, niche theory, density dependence, succession, interspecific relationships, gain and loss of species, intermediate disturbance, to island theory, edge effects, corridors, significance of habitat heterogeneity, and even the tragedy of the commons.” 

She does add that urban context adds a different approach to applying these elements, with a rich history and literature, along with potentially more complicated due to the dominance of humans as the primary species: “Cities differ in traditions, history, economic and political power. Because of these socio-cultural characteristics it is more difficult to develop a consistent general theoretical framework.”

While I disagree with Downton’s assertion that “…the urban world is more commonly regarded as a blight on the planet than a wonder,” the question of “Where does an organism stop and its environment begin?” is one I’ve not though much about, as it seems obvious, but his example is good, mentioning “…the connected (of course) idea that the built environment is an extension of human physiology in the same way that termite mounds are extensions of termite physiology.”

A broader net beyond the urban/non-urban is the connections to the global, summed up beautifully by Harini Nagendra, who mentions that ecologists “…need to know that the urban now affects every part of the world—however distant, or seemingly pristine. It is futile, indeed impossible to study ecology in isolation from the human thought processes, industrial systems, cultures of consumption, and teletransfers of money and data that imply the urban. But this does not mean that ecology and conservation are doomed—quite the contrary, ecology has entered a most exciting period of knowledge discovery. The interconnectedness of cities, culture and nature requires collaborations between ecologists, economists, social scientists and scholars of the humanities to advance the frontiers of knowledge.”

Marcus Collier references the “novel, mongrel, hybrid, chance, unplanned, brownfield, and concludes:

“For me, what every ecologist needs to know about urban ecology is that urbanised, novel ecosystems, replete with a plethora of urban-adapted species, escaped garden plants, remnants of the past, and unusual species associations, tell us quite a lot about ecological processes in general. However, perhaps they go further and tell us so much more about ourselves, our society, our crazy values, our attitudes and emotions, and what we think of as progress. Urban ecology is the study of the palimpsest. It provides us with glimpses of the past, snapshots of the distant, and potential directions for the future.

Steven Handel connects this to the biophilic as well, hinting at the restorative qualities of urban ecosystems, and the challenges, including “Planning to enhance ecological features in cities often gets push back from people who define nature as a rural feature and thus inappropriate in a commercial zone.”, but that “The concepts of dynamics and hybridity permeate these discussions, and the solid foundations of ecological thought are a basis to build on, incorporating a new understanding of anthropocentric change, including the roles of humans and the unique social, political, and environmental conditions of urban areas.” and “…people who are oblivious to the concept of ecological services can be educated, understanding can be enhanced, and urban ecology can eventually be celebrated. Attitudes change…”  He concludes that:

“People who today see a patch of woodlands as “empty space” can learn the new taxonomy of valuable ecological structure.”

Each individual essay ends with a recommended reading, and many introduces some new ones, including McDonnell & Pickett, mentioned above, Nathalie Blanc’s offering of Braidotti’s intriguing “The Posthuman” and Pippin Anderson referencing Emma Maris’ “Ecology: Ragamuffin Earth” essay in Nature on novel ecosystems which is worth a read.  Others reinforce fundamental texts, like Erik Andersson mentioning one of my favorites, the classic “Land Mosaics” by R.T.T. Forman, which should be essential reading as well.

There’s lots more I’ve not covered, and well work landscape architects diving into these short essays (and many others in the TNOC backlog) for some context on the urban and the ecological and how it can add to and inform our work.


HEADER: The High Line – image by David Maddox

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