What is one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology?

Pippin Anderson, Cape Town.  Erik Andersson, Stockholm.  Marc Barra, Paris.  Nathalie Blanc, Paris.  Marcus Collier, Dublin.  Paul Downton, Melbourne.  Ana Faggi, Buenos Aires.  Niki Frantzeskaki, Rotterdam.  Dagmar Haase, Berlin.  Steven Handel, New Brunswick.  Nadja Kabisch, Berlin.  Timon McPhearson, New York.  Harini Nagendra, Bangalore.  Steward Pickett, Poughkeepsie.  Philip Silva, New York.  Mike Wells, Bath.  Weiqi Zhou, Beijing. 
29 January 2018

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Every month we feature a Global Roundtable in which a group of people respond to a specific question in The Nature of Cities.
List of writers
Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Pippin Anderson, Cape Town To think that one can turn a blind eye to the role of the different soil chemistry, atmospheric conditions of, or significant social presence in cities in exploring ecology in these spaces is naive.
Erik Andersson, Stockholm Ecology is framed by social dynamics, and anyone interested in more than ecological outcomes need to take the humans-in-nature approach to understanding ecological dynamics.
Marc Barra, Paris Urban ecology is an opportunity to reconnect people with nature.
Nathalie Blanc, Paris Our reading of urban ecology is based on the way in which the actors view their environment, according to political, scientific, and more largely cultural injunctions.
Marcus Collier, Dublin Urban ecology is vexing because it is fraught with emotion, opinion, value and fear. Urban ecology is a topsy-turvy world of contrasts.
Paul Downton, Melbourne The one thing that every ecologist should know is that the urban ecosystem is a designed system and an example of extended physiology at a very large scale.
Ana Faggi, Buenos Aires The principal aim of urban ecology is to make cities more livable and environmentally resilient, but this is not an easy task as the social sphere is always decisive.
Niki Frantzeskaki, Rotterdam Three elements are fundamental in the mindset of ecologists of the future, which is the current mindset of urban ecologists: asking different questions; curiosity in multi-disciplinary research; the courage to translate knowledge into policy.
Dagmar Haase, Berlin The more ecologists accept humans and society being part of urban ecosystems—and the complementarity of the social, ecological, and infrastructure-technical systems—the more sustainable and resilient we will be.
Steven Handel, New Brunswick I hope every ecologist will someday know that the structure and function of nature downtown are as interesting and valuable as that memory of nature at their childhood summer camp.
Nadja Kabisch, Berlin Cities are the foreground for experimenting with new approaches towards livability, sustainability and resilience; all of which are important parts of urban ecology.
Timon McPhearson, New York The next generation of ecologists should take a more inclusive definition of ecology: that ecosystems are social-ecological systems. It will help us improve management in all ecosystems, not only in urban areas.
Harini Nagendra, Bangalore We cannot be content only to study and to observe—we must simultaneously engage and act.
Steward Pickett, Poughkeepsie The single thing that ecologists in general should think of when they hear the term “urbanization” is that urban change is very much like the contemporary, dynamic view of community assembly they already know.
Philip Silva, New York Every ecologist should know that urban ecology is very closely related to the “sociology of scientific knowledge” when it starts asking questions about the production of knowledge used to manage urban ecosystems.
Mike Wells, Bath Urban ecology is a framework for exploration and expression of the multiple strategies and mechanisms for positive, creative and supportive interactions between human beings and the natural world.
Weiqi Zhou, Beijing Urban ecology acts as the frontier where ecologists can effectively promote the science-policy interface for local, regional, and global sustainability.
Timon McPhearson

About the Writer:
Timon McPhearson

Dr. Timon McPhearson works directly with designers, planners, and local government to foster sustainable, resilient and just cities. He is Chair of the Environmental Studies program, Director of the Urban Ecology Lab, and faculty at the Tishman Environment and Design Center

Introduction

An ecology for the Anthropocene

Urban ecology has expanded in the last couple decades as a major, global, interdisciplinary field that advances biodiversity, sustainability, and fundamental ecological research in the context of cities and urbanization. With all this accumulated learning, has urban ecology made its mark in the field of ecology more generally?
In some of the most important peer-reviewed ecology journals, and on social media, it seems even the most basic of urban ecology concepts have yet to be appreciated or incorporated in the broader ecology discipline. For example, it’s been 25 years since Humans as Components of Ecosystems was published, and yet many ecologists still don’t see humans as part of how we define and study nature—despite the fact that every ecosystem on earth is affected by, and has effects on, people.

The High Line in New York City. Photo: David Maddox

In November 2017, Nature Ecology and Evolution published a major review of the field of ecology, titled “100 articles every ecologist should read” (behind a paywall, unfortunately). It must be noted that the list was a product of a extensive survey of ecologists. Nevertheless, many ecologists around the world took exception to the lack of gender and racial diversity, and its general lack of inclusivity (see here, here, and here). Notably lacking from these academic discussions has been a recognition of core contributions from urban ecology to how we understand, manage, and plan ecosystems on our urban planet.

It begs the question: what would a reading list be for the discipline of ecology in the Anthropecene? But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

No one disputes that the 100 papers listed by Nature Ecology and Evolution are important in the history of ecology. Indeed, everyone should read these papers. But is this the right list of 100 papers to understand ecology today? There are other papers that should make a reading list for a complete understanding of modern ecology. An alternative version of a “key reading” prompt could be this: what are the 100 papers that every ecologist must read to understand ecology today, in the Anthropocene? Social ecology, biophilia, justice, poverty, gender, values, the Global South, design, climate change, policy; these are just some of the topics that are core material for understanding the broad science of ecology today, These topics are largely missing from the 100 papers list.

And also missing, of course, is urban ecology.

As it happens, 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.

We asked a diverse group to help our non-urban ecological colleagues understand some of the most important contributions from urban ecology for advancing the field of ecology. We asked them this question: What is one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology? (We asked them to suggest a reading also—a start on a reading list.)

Along the way, let’s expand the idea of “ecology”.

David Maddox

About the Writer:
David Maddox

David Maddox, PhD. is committed to the urban ecosystem and its importance for human welfare and livelihoods. He has worked at various levels of government, NGOs, and the private sector. He is Founder and Executive Director of The Nature of Cities. David is also an award-winning playwright, musician, and composer.

Pippin Anderson

About the Writer:
Pippin Anderson

Pippin Anderson, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, is an African urban ecologist who enjoys the untidiness of cities where society and nature must thrive together. FULL BIO

Pippin Anderson

To think that one can turn a blind eye to the role of the different soil chemistry, atmospheric conditions of, or significant social presence in cities in exploring ecology in these spaces is naive.

Ecology in cities is always different to its rural counterpart, and as a result often requires a more creative approach to understanding. I think as long as ecologists try to do pure ecological research in cities, overlooking the presence, and role of, the large human populations that define these areas, will always render their findings problematic. There is that great article by Emma Marris, Ragamuffin Earth, where she presents an analysis of peer-reviewed journal articles and ‘outs’ ecologists who in fact work in, or in close proximity to, cities but fail to engage with the significant drivers pertinent to cities (https://www.nature.com/news/2009/090722/full/460450a.html). To think that one can turn a blind eye to the role of the different soil chemistry, atmospheric conditions of, or significant social presence in cities in exploring ecology in these spaces is naive.

Traditionally trained ecologists, and by that I mean those schooled in pure ecological theory and methods who have been ‘raised’ in pristine environments, are often challenged by the urban context. Here challenges abound. Reference sites are often lacking, sample size and replication constrained by the urban form, access and sampling hampered by safety or issues of social distrust. Field work entails navigating dogs, walls and fences, and budgeting for the fact that at least some field equipment will likely go missing or be vandalized. Ecological study in cities requires something of a maverick attitude. This is by no means to say one can abandon the underpinning requisites of good science, but a creative and adaptive approach needs to be drawn on. In addition to this, an ecologist working in a city must be willing to engage with people. Access at the least, and social insights and perceptions, as well as engaging with land managers are all parts of the study of urban ecology. In addition to these more formal engagements, any greenspace in a city is likely to produce curious citizens, homeless people, and wily children.

These are all elements which must be engaged with or at the very least anticipated, and if encountered, navigated. In my view these are the bits and pieces that make urban ecology fun, and keep us in a learning space; resisting dogged views and mantras. It is possible of course that there may be bits and pieces of remnant land in cities where the system is ticking along as it was before the settlement of the city and in which case that would be a fantastic find. But I would still argue that even if you carried out ecological research in a city and demonstrated that a system was entirely pristine or original in nature your research would still need to first ask “is this urban remnant patch akin to its rural counterpart?” The research would need to include all the relevant urban dimensions to be able to really confidently state this system is unaffected by the myriad of urban drivers. At that point a further interesting question would be “why?” and at that point you are back to doing urban ecology research again!

Suggested reading:
Marris, E. 2009. Ecology: Ragamuffin Earth. Nature 460: Pages 450-453. https://www.nature.com/news/2009/090722/full/460450a.html 

Erik Andersson

About the Writer:
Erik Andersson

Erik Andersson works as associate professor in sustainability science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Erik Andersson

Ecology is framed by social dynamics, and anyone interested in more than ecological outcomes need to take the humans-in-nature approach to understanding ecological dynamics.

The one thing? For the sake of diversity I will choose one of the many things I believe that someone with an interest in ecology and its place in our cities would benefit from being familiar with. I have always had a liking for landscape approaches, especially when applied to cultural landscapes (and yes, cities are very definitely cultural landscapes)—they often combine solid ecological theory with an application where people and their activities are embedded parts. Understanding both the processes driving change and the implications of emergent patterns is essential—and this ideally at a scale where we can try to influence things (always attractive for the more action oriented among us).

To this point, I would suggest two publications: R.T.T. Forman’s Land mosaics from 1995. It offers a solid background to drivers of change and the patterns they create, and the latter key principles for assessing the ecological outcomes. Ecology is framed by social dynamics, and anyone interested in more than ecological outcomes need to take the humans-in-nature approach to understanding ecological dynamics. Understanding this cumulative effect of multiple, sometimes complex, factors is essential if we are to make sense of our cities. And perhaps make them better places.

Suggested reading:
Forman, R. T. T. (1995) Land mosaics. Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University press.

Marc Barra

About the Writer:
Marc Barra

Marc Barra is an ecologist at the Regional Agency for Biodiversity in Paris Region (Natureparif) in France, within the Institute of Planning and Urban Development of the Île-de-France. He is particularly interested in urban ecology and solutions to integrate biodiversity at the city, district and building scales. He is in charge of research projects such as an assessment of the biodiversity of green roofs in the Ile de France and a study on the costs of green and gray infrastructures.

Marc Barra

Urban ecology is an opportunity to reconnect people with nature.

Despite warnings about the state of the planet’s health, ecology lacks recognition and is hardly known as a discipline in its own right. Furthermore, among the ecologist community, urban ecology struggles to find a place. Yet I consider it to be one of the most promising disciplines in our century, when nearly 50% of the population lives in cities and urbanization greatly affects biodiversity.

The one thing that every ecologist should know about urban ecology is that it gives ecology—often perceived negatively—a concrete project and useful applications for the people. Urban ecology has the potential to reconcile cities and their inhabitants with biodiversity. Urban ecology provides our society with solutions, all for better health and a better living environment. I like urban ecology because it is experimental, because it requires interdisciplinary knowledge, because it is uncertain and at the same time, it is a “no-regrets” ecology: increasing biodiversity and reclaiming ecosystems it cannot be worse than not doing it! Urban ecology takes its inspiration in nature: we say “nature-based solutions” for preserving, reclaiming and managing functional ecosystem in order to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects (storms, floods, dryness, heat waves).

Urban ecology has a wide scope of applications from the building scale to the whole city. Urban ecologist can work together with city gardeners to create ecologically-designed and managed green spaces (zero pesticide, no-mowing policy, etc.). Urban ecologist are also working with city planners and urbanists to find space for ecological corridors in planning documents. At the district level, many solutions are being created by land developers and urban ecologist to create “sponge cities”, using soils as natural filters, and bioswales, rain gardens or phyto-purification basins. Under our feet, the challenge of urban soil rehabilitation is so important. Many research projects try to understand the role of urban soils and encourage “depaving” policies or phyto-remediation for polluted soils. Urban agriculture within community gardens is also an opportunity to enhance nature spaces, even cultivated, in urban areas. At the building level, a wide range of solution has emerged over the last few years to promote green architecture:  green roofs and green living walls are becoming smart solutions to increase biodiversity while reducing urban heat effect and storing more rainwater. Some researchers try to understand how these new ecosystems can contribute to restoring ecological connectivity within cities as well as being new habitats for wildlife.

One of the challenges of smart green cities is to switch from grey to green infrastructure. So far, cities have always used civil engineering techniques largely based on “gray” systems that consume a lot of non-renewable resources and emit pollutants (CO2, NOx) involved in climate change. Green infrastructure based on urban ecology knowledge has reduced the urban environmental footprint and is cost efficient.

Urban ecology is an opportunity to reconnect people with nature. In the next years, citizen science programs or participatory events should play a major role in cities for the success of urban ecology.

Suggested reading:
Dusza, Y.,  S. Barot, Y. Kraepiel, J-C. Lata, L. Abbadie, and X. Raynaud. 2017. Multifunctionality is affected by interactions between green roof plant species, substrate depth, and substrate type. Ecol Evol. 7:2357–2369. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.2691

Nathalie Blanc

About the Writer:
Nathalie Blanc

Nathalie Blanc works as a Research Director at the French National Center for Scientific Research. She is a pioneer of ecocriticism in France, and has published and coordinated research programs on areas including habitability, environmental aesthetics, literature & environment and nature in the city. Her recent book is Form, Art, and Environment: engaging in sustainability, by Routledge in 2016.

Nathalie Blanc

Our reading of urban ecology is based on the way in which the actors view their environment, according to political, scientific, and more largely cultural injunctions.

Since Rio in 1992, urban ecology has developed in three stages: a first step was built around the ideas of transversality of public action, and research grappling with issues of complexity and systemic thinking. The public policies and the urban ones were then sectorized, to the point of developing specialized and non-transversal actions. Research focused on environmental problems in terms of solutions. Today, we see a third phase of public action in environmental matters with a re-territorisalisation of issues and modes of governance around the management of territories. This, above all, represents the exploitation of urban nature considered, in most cases, primarily in productive terms. Nature is put to work, whether it is sewage treatment, agricultural yield, or green roofing, to name just a few examples. Nature is thus called upon to render services. This vision forgets the ecosociosystemic complexity of the human and non-human living.

In truth, we can speak of “locking” when it comes to urban ecology: a set of articulated operating regimes lock a trajectory, condemn to insignificance any possibility of creating other relationships (Stengers, 2014). Thus if it seems that lifestyles are taken into account though works of prospective, they are often not in sync with the current preference for techno-centered solutions in urban planning, and only at the margins address the broader questions of society beyond individuals and consumers needs. How do we strengthen the dynamic for moving toward of adapting populations, collectives and individuals? How to take into account the infinitesimal choices that weave ordinary lives, in the sense of creating an ecological transformation? Finally, how can one account for the dynamics tending to distribute “agencies”, that is, the power to act, to the elements of nature-culture, be they plants, animals, or elements of the substratum? Our reading of urban ecology is based on the way in which the actors view their environment, according to political, scientific, and more largely cultural injunctions.

Suggested reading, in French and English:
Isabelle Stengers, Une autre science est possible ! Manifeste pour un ralentissement des sciences, Paris, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond – La Découverte, 2013.

Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge : Polity Press.

Marcus Collier

About the Writer:
Marcus Collier

Marcus is a sustainability scientist and his research covers a wide range of human-environment interconnectivity, environmental risk and resilience, transdisciplinary methodologies and novel ecosystems.

Marcus Collier

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.

There are so many things that ecologists don’t yet know about urban ecology, none the least of which is the very real likelihood that there is no longer a distinction between what is urban and what is not! The urban landscape is itself an ecosystem, within which there are diverse habitats not too dissimilar in form and function to their wilder, distant counterparts. Can we distinguish between the urban and the urbanising? But that debate is for another day!

Personally, I love urban habitats and urbanised / urbanising species. They are truly resilient; having rapidly and efficiently adapted to the relentless, unsettling pace of human progress. We hear of novel, mongrel, hybrid, chance, unplanned, brownfield habitats. We hear of chance discoveries of rarely seen species and plagues of all-too-often seen species. We marvel to see certain iconic species in cities that we don’t get to see in the wild, we revile at many others. Urban ecology is vexing because it is fraught with emotion, opinion, value and fear. Urban ecology is a topsy-turvy world of contrasts. While scientists will often agree that it is difficult to do urban research (in any field, not just ecology), it can also be very revealing and sometimes wonderful to explore.

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.

Paul Downton

About the Writer:
Paul Downton

Founding convener of Urban Ecology Australia and a recognised ‘ecocity pioneer’, Paul and co-founders are pioneering the Ecocity Design Institute. Paul is also working on an artistic/publishing project coming soon to a crowd-funding site near you!

Paul Downton

There are Brains in the Urban Ecosystem

The urban ecosystem is a designed system and an example of extended physiology at a very large scale.

It is difficult to hazard any sense of optimism about our cities when times are such that “To be aware of the wonders of the living planet is to take on an unbearable burden of grief.” The urban world is more commonly regarded as a blight on the planet than a wonder and offers countless examples of burdensome human behaviour but if we can’t unearth beauty and purpose in its Frankenstein ecology then how can we hope to place our cities “in balance with nature”? Humans are now collectively one of the largest forces in the biosphere and nowhere is our perverse exercise of that power more evident than in the morphology and metabolism of our urban systems.

Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology is that “everything is connected to everything else”  and it’s one of those statements of the obvious that wasn’t obvious to a lot of people until he said it. Another obvious fact that doesn’t have anything like the same degree of familiarity is 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. Where does an organism stop and its environment begin? In The Extended Organism, J. Scott Turner describes how structures made by animals are “the agents whereby organisms adaptively modify flows of matter and energy through the environment.” And how structures like termite mounds, which transform wind energy to serve their termite colonies, are examples of organisms co-opting the environment “into a physiology that extends well beyond their conventionally defined boundaries”. Which is what humans do. It’s what our cities do. Humans modify their environment to make it more suitable for humans. The ability to make shelter is a fundamental requirement for human survival. It is much easier for social creatures like humans to build shelter together, rather than as individuals. Even if an individual was able to make useful shelter through their own efforts, they would still be relying on collectively generated knowledge and most likely collectively developed and manufactured tools. The most simple human settlement is a result of complex interactions between multiple individuals and the end result of their efforts is a means of co-opting and modifying their environment to improve their chances for survival.

In considering the ecology of urban systems it should perhaps be considered that all human settlement is fundamentally about extending the capacity and resilience of human physiology through environmental means and our present-day urban ecologies are extraordinary but flawed attempts at maintaining homeostasis to sustain life.

In The Tinkerer’s Accomplice, Turner continues his exploratory thinking to show “How design emerges from life itself.” After a while you begin to see how the human impulse to design may be an evolutionary result of a basic need to modify our environment in order to survive. I can’t identify just one paper in particular that explores the idea, but I would argue that the one thing that every ecologist should know is that the urban ecosystem is a designed system and an example of extended physiology at a very large scale. Now that this human device is affecting the entire planet it is clear that because consciousness and the propensity of humans to design and manipulate the environment for their own benefit is integral to the function of urban ecosystems, they should be abiding concerns for any ecologist.

Suggested reading:
Turner, J. Scott. 2010. The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. Harvard University Press. 304 pages. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674057531

Ana Faggi

About the Writer:
Ana Faggi

Ana Faggi is a researcher at the Argentine National Council of Research. Her research and teaching focus on regional ecology, restoration and the conservation of biodiversity.

Ana Faggi

The principal aim of urban ecology is to make cities more livable and environmentally resilient, but this is not an easy task as the social sphere is always decisive.

When an area is urbanized, important transformations take place in soils, climate, water bodies and native biota. So far, nothing new for an ecologist that understands that any biotic or abiotic disturbance can trigger changes in the geochemical cycles and in the assemblages of species.

The consequences of city sprawl on the urban ecosystem`s resilience are long-lasting and in most cases irreversible, just as it happens in Nature:  think of the destroying effects that a hurricane or a devastating fire may have on a coastal ecosystem or on a forest.

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.

But the urban ecosystem is a very special one. It is comprised of physical, ecological and social spheres. In the city, humans are the dominant species. Their decisions in city planning and management may make it intricate for the different components to reach a new ecological balance. 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.

To get into the subject, and develop an understanding of the cross-disciplinary nature of urban ecology, every ecologist should first read Pickett and Cadenasso (2017) How many principles of urban ecology are there?.

One of the most applied theories in urban ecological studies is the gradient theory of Mc Donnell and Pickett (1990), recognizing general ecological patterns from the city center to the peripheries. Nevertheless, the theory does not always work in cities where growth is poorly planned such as in Latin America, suggesting the need for more local studies.

What every ecologist should know about urban ecology is that it is mainly an applied discipline where human needs and impacts on the ecosystem are integral parts to solving problems. It principal aim is to make cities more livable and environmentally resilient but this is not an easy task as the social sphere is always decisive.

Most of these problems are wicked ones: difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements. Because they are interdependent, socially complex, and involve behavioral changes, an interdisciplinary approach that goes beyond ecology is the only way out.

Suggested reading:
Mc Donnell, M. J. and Pickett, S. T. A. (1990) The study of ecosystem structure and function along urban-rural gradients: an unexploited opportunity for ecology. Ecology 71,1231–1237.

Dagmar Haase

About the Writer:
Dagmar Haase

Dagmar Haase is a professor in urban ecology and urban land use modelling. Her main interest and activities are in the combination and integration of land-use change modelling and the quantification and assessment of ecosystem services, disservices and socio-environmental justice issues in cities and urban areas including urban land teleconnections.

Dagmar Haase

The more ecologists accept humans and society being part of urban ecosystems—and the complementarity of the social, ecological, and infrastructure-technical systems—the more sustainable and resilient we will be.
The one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology is the role humans play in social-ecological systems which cities are. Even more important is to acknowledge the role of humans and society in past and future dynamics of social-ecological systems. Ecologists have great ideas on how to identify and to explain the role of humans in ecosystem functioning, stability and change. But it is only together with the work of social scientists and economists are they able to understand the magnitude and direction of change to the environment and ecosystems on the one hand, and their impacts on humans, their socio-economic well-being, and the associated short- and long-term.

Ecologists have to acknowledge and to know that society is shaping patterns and flows in urban ecosystems, and that green, blue, and grey are complementary to providing for human well-being. Co-evolution and co-development is thoroughly existing and evident in cities, thus if urban ecologists would know one thing about urban ecosystems, this is it: Humans and nature share the same habitat and they share it together—the more readily ecologists accept humans and society being part of urban ecosystems and the more actively they accept the complementarity of the social, ecological, and infrastructure-technical systems, the more sustainable and resilient our co-evolution will be.
Suggested reading:
Alberti, M. 2015. Eco-evolutionary dynamics in an urbanizing planet. In Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 30:2, pages 114-126. http://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(14)00249-3

Niki Frantzeskaki

About the Writer:
Niki Frantzeskaki

Niki Frantzeskaki is an Associate Professor on Sustainability Transitions’ Governance. She lives in the Netherlands and researches how cities transform, which actors play a role in driving change, and how governance arrangements enable or block transformations in their making across Europe (U.K., Greece, Italy, the Netherlands) and in developing countries, such as Vanuatu, Ghana, and Honduras, as well as in the USA and, recently, Brazil.

Niki Frantzeskaki

Three elements are fundamental in the mindset of ecologists of the future, which is the current mindset of urban ecologists: asking different questions; curiosity in multi-disciplinary research; the courage to translate knowledge into policy.

Every ecologist should know that urban ecosystems evolve and relate to the community/society that lives, being maintained and relates to them. 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.

For this interrelationship to be balanced and ensure mutual benefits, adaptive institutions that guide open, innovative governance for healthy resilient urban socio-ecological systems are very important. Dividing (1) understanding in how urban ecosystems function and benefit humans from (2) understanding how institutions and governance processes that ensure a human-nature relation creates chasms in knowledge and misfit knowledge for urban planning and policy. What therefore every ecologist should know about urban ecology is that he/she needs to be open to interdisciplinary collaborations with social and political scientists for making knowledge of urban ecology relevant and actionable for better institutions and good governance to be realized in cities. He/She needs to recognize not the limits to his/her knowledge but the opportunities to research, learn and apply knowledge in collaborative and co-creative ways (involving also citizens and urban communities) for progressing urban science on socio-ecological systems. It is about the way knowledge is acquired that is changing and how it becomes socially and policy relevant and actionable that changes the role and the skills required for ecologists to “know about urban ecology”.

Three elements are fundamentals in the mindset of ecologists of the future: first, openness in asking different questions and asking questions differently to allow for interdisciplinary inquiry to be relevant; second, curiosity in engaging in multi-disciplinary research processes and learn from them; and third, the courage and passion to translate knowledge on urban socio-ecological systems for policy and society to act upon restoring and protecting urban ecosystems. The ecologists of future cities work in teams, learn from and with other scientists and communities, recognize the value of the discovery of knowledge and of making knowledge actionable for policy and community to pursue livable, just, resilient and sustainable cities.

Suggested reading:
Frantzeskaki, N., and Kabisch, N., (2016), Designing a knowledge co-production operating space for urban environmental governance – Lessons from Rotterdam, the Netherlands and Berlin, Germany, Environmental Science and Policy, 62, 90-98.

Steven Handel

About the Writer:
Steven Handel

Steven Handel is a restoration ecologist and the director of the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), an academic unit at Rutgers University.

Steven Handel

I hope every ecologist will someday know that the structure and function of nature downtown are as interesting and valuable as that memory of nature at their childhood summer camp.
I think most people think that nature, ecology, is where we go when you want to get away from our frantic lives in urban centers. Similarly, adding ecological habitats into urban parcels is so often considered a romantic gesture, a Walt Disney-style decoration. I always want to remind ecologists that for all our affection for the wild places on Earth, it is our metropolises, our most densely populated areas, where ecology is most valuable to people.
Ecological services are well understood to advance human health and happiness. I am sure that is true whether one is in New York’s Times Square or Yosemite Valley in California. But, if one integrates the value of some trees to clean the air with the density of people around those trees, the value of that planting enhancement is magnified by the number of people nearby who will experience less respiratory distress. A line of trees improves the microhabitat for thousands of people on this city street, but only the occasional hiker in that pristine mountain valley. Think of a shade structure, such as tree canopy, in a quiet rural hot spot. The occasional person who passes by gets relief from the brutal sun. Whoopee-do. But, if we put that shade structure near a constant line of commuters or laborers, the value of the local shade is multiplied by the density of people that experience it. It is urban centers where ecological structure has most value to the human population. We must talk about this constantly with decision-makers in our cities.

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. It is certainly true that a hectare of landscape pays less property tax than a strip mall or high-rise; its values don’t usually appear on a municipal balance sheet. But 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. Thousands of people who once considered aluminum cans and bottles as garbage now define them as recyclable resources. People who today see a patch of woodlands as “empty space” can learn the new taxonomy of valuable ecological structure.

Many urban designers and planners today are learning how to include ecological structures and function into their work. Through new curricular offerings and the action of many public groups and media outreach, such as TNOC, new design renderings and criteria are more frequently including ecological features. There is a slow moving increase in the expression of urban ecology in designs, which I believe will become the new normal.

Many public and private land managers/clients have become aware of and are requesting ecological zones in cities. We must continue to stress the real value of these ecological parcels in the mosaic of city plans. The ecological spaces have value beyond the aesthetic aspects of nature that most city slickers see and will someday insist upon. I hope every ecologist will someday know that the structure and function of nature downtown are as interesting and valuable as that memory of nature at their childhood summer camp.

Suggested reading:
Elmqvist, T., Setälä, H., Handel, S.N., van der Ploeg, S., Aronson, J., Blignaut, J.N.,
Gómez-Baggethun, E., Nowak, D.J., Kronenberg, J., and de Groot, R. 2015. Benefits
of restoring ecosystem services in urban areas. Current Opinion in Environmental
Sustainability 14:101-108.

Nadja Kabisch

About the Writer:
Nadja Kabisch

Nadja Kabisch holds a PhD in Geography. Her special interest is on human-environment interactions in cities taking co-benefits from nature-based solutions implementation for human health and social justice into account.

Nadja Kabisch

Cities are the foreground for experimenting with new approaches towards livability, sustainability and resilience; all of which are important parts of urban ecology.

In a tele-connected world, ecosystems are increasingly interacting with social systems—most obviously in urban areas. In the Anthropocene, cities are the primary human habitat and in the demand to deal with social-ecological transformations. Given the current global changes of climate change and urbanisation, and their associated effects on natural systems, social systems and their interactions worldwide, cities are the foreground for experimenting with new approaches towards livability, sustainability and resilience; all of which are important parts of urban ecology.

With increasing densification, loss of open spaces, the environmental burdens of air pollution, noise and heat, developing and maintaining the ecosystems are increasingly important in urban areas. To increase knowledge about the quantity and quality of benefits that urban residents may gain from ecosystems is to increase their quality of life, health and well-being. All known as ecosystem services, understanding their function necessitates interdisciplinary research in urban ecology which bridges knowledge from natural and social science. Even more, the recent scientific advances to include transdisciplinary approaches to interdisciplinary projects opens the field of urban ecology for assessing the implementation of socio-ecological, governance and technical innovations in terms of planning approaches, governance modes and policy experiences across disciplines, policy domains and governmental departments.

I believe that taking an inter-and transdisciplinary social-ecological systems approach to cities, and assessing how urban ecosystem services are provided to city residents in quantity and quality, are important parts of urban ecology to understand social-ecological transformations under global challenges of climate change and urbanisation. This goes hand in hand with potential new avenues for governing and managing urban systems in a knowledge co-production operating space in which scientists, urban planners, policy officers or practitioners can learn from each other and establish relationships and trust in mutual dialogues to find solutions to environmental problems for increasing resilience and sustainability in urban areas (Frantzeskaki et al., 2016).

Suggested reading:
Frantzeskaki, N., Kabisch, N., McPhearson, T. (2016) Advancing urban environmental governance: Understanding theories, practices and processes shaping urban sustainability and resilience. Environmental Science and Policy, 62, Special Issue, Pages 1-144.

Timon McPhearson

About the Writer:
Timon McPhearson

Dr. Timon McPhearson works directly with designers, planners, and local government to foster sustainable, resilient and just cities. He is Chair of the Environmental Studies program, Director of the Urban Ecology Lab, and faculty at the Tishman Environment and Design Center

Timon McPhearson

The next generation of ecologists should take a more inclusive definition of ecology: that ecosystems are social-ecological systems. It will help us improve management in all ecosystems, not only in urban areas.

 It has been 25 years since Humans as Components of Ecosystems (McDonnell and Pickett 1993) was published, so it is a bit shocking to think that decades of research linking social and ecological systems is not part of the main stream of what every ecologist should know. Of course, urban ecology goes back much further to Herbert Sukopp’s work in Berlin post-World War II (Sukopp 2008) and to early Chinese scholars even earlier working on integrating ecosystems into urban life (Wu 2014).

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. Ecologists of every stripe must fundamentally understand that humans are not somehow outside the domain of ecology. In Europe, China and elsewhere, there is a wide embrace of ecosystems as being fundamentally social-ecological systems (Niemela et al. 2011). Translation: humans are part of ecosystems, and humans and other biophysical components of ecosystems are deeply intertwined, with reciprocal influence. There is not an ecosystem on earth that does not have human influence. It feels like going back to basics to argue this point, and yet if there is one thing all ecologists must realize, it is that to study ecology in the Anthropocene, on this urban planet, we must consider ecosystems now as not simply biophysical systems somehow operating in a closed box without human interaction. That box must be opened to link exogenous drivers like climate change but also direct endogenous human actions.

It is an unnecessary, biased, and even counterproductive approach to define what is important in ecology as somehow distinct from the human dominated natural world. Ecosystems do not exist in a biophysical vacuum. Ecosystems exist in the Anthropocene like the rest of us and humans are part of these systems exerting influence on them and affecting fundamental ecological processes. The broader ecology field must recognize that social-ecological system research is an area of study that has made significant advances in how we think about, study, and manage ecosystems in urbanizing and human-dominated socio-ecological contexts all over the world (Vitousek et al. 1997; Grimm et al. 2008). Ecology cannot afford to completely miss the Anthropocene context that all ecosystems exist in, nor the enormous potential that lies in reflexive and respectful human-nature interaction (Alberti et al. 2003).

Urban ecology is a field that is expanding rapidly (McPhearson et al. 2016). The next generation of ecologists should be encouraged, not discouraged, from taking a more inclusive definition of ecology where ecosystems are social-ecological systems which can help us improve management in all ecosystems, not only in urban areas. ­This is a fundamental step to advancing ecology as a source of knowledge that can help shift the needle on some of the most important challenges we face, from climate change, to environmental injustice and pollution, to social inequality in access to health and well-being benefits ecosystems in and outside of cities provide.

Suggested reading:
McDonnell, M., and S.T.A Pickett. 1993. Humans as Components of Ecosystems: The Ecology of Subtle Human Effects and Populated Areas. Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.

Harini Nagendra

About the Writer:
Harini Nagendra

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India, and the author of "Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future" (Oxford University Press, 2016). She uses social and ecological approaches coupled with remote sensing to examine the factors shaping the sustainability of forests and cities in the south Asian context.

Harini Nagendra

We cannot be content only to study and to observe—we must simultaneously engage and act.

Over the 25 or so years that I have worked in the area of ecology, I have been privileged to witness an overall transformation of the discipline, from one that was overwhelmingly interested in “pure” evolutionary and ecological processes in “pristine” areas (i.e. areas where there was no obvious human footprint), to a field that now recognises the ubiquity of human-nature interaction—embracing social-ecological approaches to frame, investigate, interpret and intervene in issues of ecology and conservation. Thus, for instance, while many ecologists once believed that protected areas should be kept isolated from people, we now overwhelmingly recognise the role that so many indigenous communities have played in creating specific ecologies unique to many protected landscapes across the world.

Yet cities remain a particular blind spot for many ecologists—though the field of urban ecology has grown almost exponentially in recent years. Urban systems are arguably one of the most human-dominated of all ecosystems, and it is practically impossible to conduct studies on “pure” ecological or evolutionary processes in a city without acknowledging the role of people. Social-ecological framing lies at the heart of urban ecological research, and this is something that most traditional schools of ecology, across the world, continue to be uncomfortable with.

What should every ecologist know about urban ecology? They 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. And, given the speed at which things are changing, we cannot be content only to study and to observe—we must simultaneously engage and act, which demands further collaborations between scientists, practitioners, city government, activists, and regular citizens—all too often, one of us carries these various categories within ourselves as well, wearing multiple hats!

Thus, at times, I am an urban ecologist, at others I am a mother of a child who loves her local park and lake, the daughter of another mother who is a fierce proponent of urban nature, as well as an educator, an activist, and a neighbour with different—but equally compelling responsibilities to society, community, nature and city. All of us carry these multiple identities within us. Within or outside, we need multiple perspectives for urban ecology to flourish—the knowledge of a street vendor who spends decades selling flowers under a Ficus tree canopy is of as much value as that of a rag picker who keeps the city clean by recycling its trash, and the insights of a cattle grazer who has seen a healthy lake transform into a polluted mess are as important as that of an urban ecologist studying surface water hydrology.

In short, urban ecology can bring much to an ecologist in terms of insights into the interconnectedness of everything—nature, culture, and concrete. For me, at least, this is what it has brought over time—and the complexity is at once humbling and deeply fascinating and educative.

Suggested reading:
Elmqvist, T., M. Fragkias, J. Goodness, B. Guneralp, P.J. Marcotullio, R. I. McDonald, S. Parnell, M. Schewenius, M. Sendstad, K.C. Seto, C. Wilkinson, Eds. 2013. Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Challenges and Opportunities: A Global Assessment. Springer Netherlands. 755 pages. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-94-007-7088-1 

Steward Pickett

About the Writer:
Steward Pickett

Steward Pickett is a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. His research focuses on the ecological structure of urban areas and the temporal dynamics of vegetation.

Steward Pickett

One Thing That All Ecologists Should Know about Urban Ecology

The single thing that ecologists in general should think of when they hear the term “urbanization” is that urban change is very much like the contemporary, dynamic view of community assembly they already know.

Urbanization is like succession: It doesn’t have a single pathway; it doesn’t have a single end point; it influences all ecological systems; and it results from a continuous interaction of migrations, extinctions, interactions, and accidents.

Succession is one of ecology’s oldest ideas. But in its contemporary form, it is poorly appreciated. Too often, it is summarized as the old textbook generalization, involving facilitative species replacement, a regular sequence of dominants, and ending with a stable community. This textbook rendition has fortunately been replaced over the one hundred-year history of the discipline. (Frederic Clements’ magisterial but flawed book that first codified succession theory was 100 years old in 2016.) So 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.

Urbanization can be considered similarly to the evolution of successional thinking. It used to be that urbanization was defined simply as conversion of rural, pastoral, forest, or wild lands to urban cover. That is, urbanization produces cities and towns. The subsequent trajectory following conversion was modeled on North temperate cities that “developed” through the industrial revolution, often changing from focus on natural resource commodification, to industrial production, to sanitary engineering, and finally to post-industrial service. This is urbanization like Clementsian succession. It is directional, step-wise, and terminates in some sort of “advanced” stage. It is also implicitly universal, with all cities following the same logic. Urbanists will immediately see the flaws in this analogy with classical succession. But the similarities with contemporary thinking about succession or community assembly may actually be useful in urban ecology itself, as well as helpful in linking urban ecology with the ecology in general.

If we hypothesize that urbanization and succession are conceptually analogous, the following principles can help guide research and comparison:

  • Urbanization doesn’t have a single pathway. This is especially clear in countries or regions that are only recently industrialized. Even more pointedly some regions have become “cities of consumption” without passing through an industrial or a sanitary state. China, India, and countries in Africa, for example exhibit distinctive trajectories of urban change.
  • Urbanization isn’t only unidirectional. Within urban regions, there are places that grow, and places that thin out. Change in cities, towns, and their connected regions is patchy, just as heterogeneous ecological mosaics of any type can be. Treating urban change as a “red blob” that continuously spreads across a region is one model of urbanization, but it is one that ignores important internal dynamics.
  • Urbanization, like succession, is everywhere. Urbanization isn’t just the production of cities. Urban conditions influence both nearby and distant ecosystems. They do so by distal changes in livelihoods, lifestyles and consumption choices, investment shifts influencing both hinterlands, wild places, and central cities, and infrastructural diffusion across broad regions. The percentage of land covered by cities and towns is a poor index of urban influence in regions and the world.
  • Urbanization, like biotic community assembly, reflects a multitude of interacting processes, influences, and “actors” (that is, species, social groups, institutions, environmental changes, etc.). The complexity of ecologically familiar processes such as feedbacks, priority effects, spatial legacies, indirect effects, natural disturbances, and social perturbations, combine to make urbanization a contingent process. Some drivers will be intentional, and some with be accidental.

The single thing that ecologists in general should think of when they hear the term “urbanization” is that urban change is very much like the contemporary, dynamic view of community assembly they already know.

Suggested reading:
McHale, M. R., S. T. A. Pickett, O. Barbosa, D. N. Bunn, M. L. Cadenasso, D. L. Childers, M. Gartin, G. R. Hess, D. M. Iwaniec, T. McPhearson, M. N. Peterson, A. K. Poole, L. Rivers, S. T. Shutters, and W. Zhou. 2015. The new global urban realm: complex, connected, diffuse, and diverse social-ecological systems. Sustainability 7:5211–5240.

Philip Silva

About the Writer:
Philip Silva

Philip's work focuses on informal adult learning and participatory action research in social-ecological systems. He is dedicated to exploring nature in all of its urban expressions.

Philip Silva

Every ecologist should know that urban ecology is very closely related to the “sociology of scientific knowledge” when it starts asking questions about the production of knowledge used to manage urban ecosystems.

Every ecologist should know that urban ecosystems are, in large part, shaped, structured, and governed by human activity. That much seems obvious—but still worth unpacking for a moment before getting to the one thing I believe every ecologist should know about urban ecology. Some cities are home to patches of landscape that seem untouched by urban development. The municipal park system here in New York City, for example, boasts more than 10,000 acres of grasslands, forests, and wetlands designated as “natural areas”—little bits of Eden that offer an escape from the bright lights of the big city. Yet these natural areas are often manipulated and managed with the same purposeful intensity as any of New York’s hundreds of community gardens, tens of thousands of acres of landscaped parks, and hundreds of thousands of street trees. It takes real human effort to manage even the most “natural” of natural areas, not to mention all the other manicured greenery on offer in a place like New York City. And it takes a working knowledge of urban ecosystems and their many components to guide those efforts. Human knowledge, then, is itself an element of urban ecosystems, and it follows that the social process of creating, codifying, contesting, sharing, and applying that knowledge can be an object of urban ecological research.

So, here’s my main point: 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. Where does the knowledge to manage urban ecosystems come from? A good deal of it likely results from “pure” or “basic” scientific research. Ecologists publish peer reviewed journal articles and well-informed managers read, interpret, and apply that knowledge in practice. Yet urban ecology is a young field of inquiry. Sometimes the knowledge needed for day-to-day management is missing from the scholarly literature. In these cases, professional managers and volunteer stewards construct knowledge outside the bounds of formal science. They may create useful and reliable knowledge through iterative cycles of adaptive management, making incremental changes in practice and collecting data on the outcomes to inform gradual changes in their work over and over again. Or, just as likely, they may create knowledge-in-practice without any use of formal data collection or monitoring, building up storehouses of knowledge about effective practice through daily observations of trial and error. The methods of surfacing and studying these knowledge-making practices—through formal science, through adaptive management, or through communities of practice—should be part of the urban ecology research toolkit, and every urban ecologist should have at least a passing familiarity with the concepts behind those methods.

Suggested reading: Pickering, Andrew. “Chapter One: The Mangle of Practice.” In The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science, 1–34. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Mike Wells

About the Writer:
Mike Wells

Dr Mike Wells FCIEEM is a published ecological consultant ecologist, ecourbanist and green infrastructure specialist with a global outlook and portfolio of projects.

Mike Wells

Urban ecology is a framework for exploration and expression of the multiple strategies and mechanisms for positive, creative and supportive interactions between human beings and the natural world.

The one thing that every ecologist should know about urban ecology is that it can provide us with the tools we need to inspire mankind the consumer to save global biodiversity. It can provide the wisdom to help us fulfil a pressing duty as human beings and stewards of the natural world.

By understanding the intense interactions between human and non-human possible in the urban realm and the particular impacts that these can have to those in ‘nature deficit’ we have an opportunity to reinvigorate, rekindle and super-develop the oft -diminished sense of excitement and amazement that we can feel when we experience other species with which we share this fragile planet—species which we are wantonly, systematically and oh-so rapidly wiping out. In the urban realm we have a ‘captive’ audience—and a very large one—one in regular attendance. One that passes habitats, features and installations sometimes several times a day and draws meaning and wisdom from them directly and indirectly. We can welcome nature actively in new (re)combinations and often strengthen its populations to sally forth into the surrounding denuded and sprayed-out countryside. We can supersize it, display it, give it precedence, celebrate it, place it under the lens at the doorstep of every citizen regardless of income and advantage. We can graphically, artistically and eye-catchingly illustrate its wider global destruction and deterioration, explaining the rates of change in myriad ways, artistic and technological for mass public view. We can illustrate how our consumerism is driving these losses.

All the things that nature does for us in urban and rural areas are vitally important and can nurture respect and interest. But without deep love and wonder at the bizarre, extraneous, not-us, other, startling, gorgeous, frightening, instructive, aesthetically stunning nature of non-human life—the endeavour to widen the constituency for nature will fail. It will fail in the face of the lobby of destruction and ignorance that is currently taking the ascendance amongst certain administrations around the world assisted by progressive technological denaturalisation of our world and lifestyles.

Urban ecology is a framework for exploration and expression of the multiple strategies and mechanisms for positive, creative and supportive interactions between human beings and the natural world that, appropriately applied and expressed, may just redirect mankind away from its current role as they key agent of a new mass species extinction.

We have not much time.

Suggested reading:
McKinney, M.L. 2002. Urbanization, Biodiversity, and Conservation: The impacts of urbanization on native species are poorly studied, but educating a highly urbanized human population about these impacts can greatly improve species conservation in all ecosystems. BioScience, 52:10, Pages 883–890. https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0883:UBAC]2.0.CO;2

Weiqi Zhou

About the Writer:
Weiqi Zhou

Dr. Zhou is broadly interested in urban and landscape ecology with respect to spatial heterogeneity of the landscape. He integrates field observations, remote sensing and modeling to understand the structure of urban socio-ecological systems, and its link to ecological function.

Weiqi Zhou

Urban ecology acts as the frontier where ecologists can effectively promote the science-policy interface for local, regional, and global sustainability.

The one thing that every ecologist should know about urban ecology is that urban areas are hybrid social and ecological systems, and understanding such systems requires ecologists working collaboratively with scholars from all the sciences—natural, social, and engineering, as well as practitioners and decision-makers. For ecological research to be of greatest use, urban ecological studies must extend well beyond scholarly and research disciplines.

The social and biophysical nature of complexity and hybridity of urban ecosystems require urban ecology to take a strong interdisciplinary lens that brings together scholars from disparate fields. This is because discrete research disciplines are inadequate to fully address the complex multi-dimensional nature of urban ecosystems. In fact, urban ecology has been increasingly growing as a field that integrates social, biophysical and engineering sciences, and links directly into practices such as urban planning and urban design. Such need, however, still remains as a grand challenge even after a few decades of development in urban ecology.

Additionally, urban ecology acts as the frontier where ecologists can effectively promote the science-policy interface for local, regional, and global sustainability. Cities play an increasingly important role in each of the three main pillars of sustainability—social, economic, and environmental, and their impacts reach far beyond the boundaries. In fact, cities are essential to a sustainable future. Ecological knowledge about urban ecosystems has become central in understanding the present and future of cities, and therefore, the living conditions of the majority of humans. As cities are where the practitioners and decision-makers live, work, and play, they provide ideal places for ecologists to work together with them to solve real-world urban problems. Consequently, urban ecology provides a platform for ecologists to interact and collaborate with practitioners and decision-makers, and therefore, accelerating uptake of ecological knowledge by practitioners and decision-makers. Consequently, urban ecology can set a model on how ecological research can be adequately directed to real-world problem applications, and thus can be of greater use in solving real-world problems.

Suggested reading:
Pickett S.T.A, M.L. Cadenasso, D.L. Childers, M.J. McDonnell, and W. Zhou. 2016. Evolution and future of urban ecological science: ecology in, of, and for the city. Ecosystem Health and Sustainability 2 (7).

Pippin Anderson

Pippin Anderson

Department of Environmental and Geographical Science and
The African Centre for Cities
University of Cape Town, South Africa

Pippin Anderson works at the University of Cape Town in South Africa where she is lecturer and director of graduate studies in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science and urban ecology researcher at the African Centre for Cities. With a Masters degree in Conservation Biology and a PhD in Plant Ecology, Pippin has always had an interest in peopled-landscapes. In the last few years she has turned her interests to urban ecosystems and this informs her current teaching and research. Pippin lives in a dense suburb close to the city centre in Cape Town, yet from her roof (she goes up there for purposes of sanity) she can see Table Mountain National Park. She loves this dichotomy where city and nature must coexist, with their different temporal and spatial scales, and each so variably imagined by the population of the City. She enjoys grappling with the messiness of the ecology of human dominated landscapes.

14 thoughts on “What is one thing every ecologist should know about urban ecology?

  1. What every (urban) ecologist should also know is that the city is extremely dynamic. It is constantly being remade by architects and urban designers. Both disciplines – architecture vs ecology – are hardly aware of each others knowledge and expertise. Architects and urban designers should work together as so called nature-inclusive design teams. That is the only way to tackle problems, challenges and opportunities given by this constant urban flux. To look at urban nature and ecology from a viewpoint of ecology only, is mot fruitful at all. Ecology will almost always loose out. But when ecology is made an integral part of the design-phase and the brief, it is almost always easy and relatively cheap to improve urban nature.
    http://www.naturalcity.nl/

  2. Following on Erik’s comment – yes, we as ecologists need to listen to designers, planners, real estate agents more about how information in ecology could be made relevant in the world of planning and design. I often find that we (ecologists) do not think about this when we are designing a research project. We think more about what can be published but not what could be implemented. Of course the rub is – publishing in journals means (typically) a reductionist approach with very narrow objectives and reviewers tend to favor these types of articles. Research that would address implementation is fraught with uncertainty and journals do not embrace uncertainty. Maybe there should be a new journal that embraces uncertainty and applied science for implementation. I did have high hopes for the “Solutions” journal that got started a while back – but alas, it is still in the realm of esoteric theoretical and reductionist research.

  3. Discussing more and more on what our roundtable brings forward, I come to see that we advocate and observe the need for a social turn in urban ecology, and the recognition that making ecology science ‘to speak’ to citizens and to speak to policy makers to be the goal of new forms of science-policy-community-practice interfaces. A step forward would be to identify ways of bridging knowledges from different disciplines and different experiences (expert, experiential, practice, observatory). What we need is to showcase how to ‘bridge and waive’ these knowledges rather than deconstruct, or problematize about it. So rethinking our own role in how we bring and bridge new knowledge and how we interact in knowledge making processes is critical. Rethink, reflect and act for the future of livable cities

  4. All – I am often struck by how designers and planners big takeaway from ecology is the “conservation of big patches and corridors” when in reality, the ecology and conservation of species is much more nuanced. In many cases, fragments are very important for a variety of species.

  5. Continuing on the thread started by Mark – there are indeed many different ways ecologists can engage with other interestests and actors and in different ways making sure the the knowledge (and here academia and its structures certainly bias the type of knowledge we produce). We are constrained by inclination as weil as mandate and support, no one can do everything. However, there many complementary ways we can use to pool efforts, and one thing perhaps everyone could try for is a better awareness of different needs and who might be doing what where. Sustainability science and action research have some insights to offer in terms of engaging in a knowledge/change discourse and the different ways this can happen. And the need to be sensitive to local circumstances.

  6. Ah, indeed Harini Nagendra you are spot on – the thing we all need to know as urban ecologists is that ecology in cities is every changing and at a pace not matched elsewhere. Its all about the speed, and with that the degree of urgency.

  7. Mark and Pippin, I completely agree. Working on urban ecology in Bangalore, the most directly applicable research that we have produced is very simple – to catalogue trees due to be felled on roads where infrastructure projects are being proposed, and release this information to the public – where citizen groups have used these data to successfully agitate for tree protection. It’s not rocket science by any means, and certainly not publishable in journals because it’s not “novel” in terms of scientific insights – but it is very relevant, and much needed! On the other hand, as Pippin also points out, there are many ways of engaging with the “real world” and education is certainly one of these. It may not have short term, tangible outcomes in terms of urban conservation but certainly also has a major long term impact. I guess (at least for me) the one place where urban ecology differs from other, more theoretically motivated branches of ecology such as evo-devo studies is the urgency of the imperative to engage with the world of practice and action – however broadly defined.

  8. Pippin – good points. It is not realistic for every researcher to undertake; however, I wager very few think how their results could be implemented in the real world. Academics do not get rewarded by implementation but number of papers and grants. Also impact factors in journals (e.g., # of citations). I would suggest that we need another impact factor – beyond citations of ones’ articles – this impact factor would be how results actually changed some conservation practice in cities for example. Please take a look at this article – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2017.00299/full

  9. I completely agree with your sentiment Mark Hostetler, but wonder if this is something that can be realistically expected of every urban ecologist? Is this something we all ‘should know’? I would think there is something of a continuum (or a venn diagram perhaps) in the ways and spaces that we contribute to beyond our urban ecology. So how our urban ecology manifests beyond knowledge seeking. For me this would be teaching and supervision, for another it might be engaging civic society, and for others working with local government etc.I do think we should all take some responsibility towards promoting and putting our findings out there. So again for me that would be in ‘raising’ knowledge brokers among the next generation of urban ecologists. So perhaps the extra thing we all ‘should know’ is that if we don’t undertake to make some effort to get our work out and about it WILL just sit on a shelf. Who does this and how it is done is not however a universal, single, endeavor.

  10. I would add one more comment to this. We do need more of “The Science of Implementation” – most of our studies just remain on the shelf and never see the light of day. I think we have the knowledge already about what needs to be done – it just now needs to be implemented.

  11. It must be said, that the one thing that every ecologist should know is that power of, and it should be no surprise really, but its love. Love is all you need , not quite, but combined with the need to transmit our own personal passions, and the love in what we know is precious in an adaptive glorious but challenging world. Transmitting energies in a new kind of mass movement, in a new kind of cultural ecology. The secrets is in ourselves, as the messengers, not the keepers of a secret.

    At the beginning of his book The Moth Snowstorm (2016) Michael Macarthy writes of his lifetime witness ( from Birkenhead, coincidentally home of the world’s first public park) of his own adventure from an urban terrace house. He writes near the beginning

    “They are very suggestive, these large scale conceptions. Far reaching images, such as the anthropocene and the Sixth Great Extinction are, help us register the true degree of the planets predicament and the real magnitude of the processes we have set in train which may bring about our own ruin. They are of enormous value. They are talked about daily. Indeed they are generating an academic industry on their own. But they do not necessarily convey the immediacy and astringent character of environmental loss. If loss of nature becomes a sort of essay subject, we miss its immediacy; we may lose sight of its sadness and nastiness, its sharp and bitter taste, the great wounding it really is..”

    And so Michael contrasts this against the joy of his own life’s experience and what he witnesses as “a new kind of love” through observation and science. In the same way when artist David Hockney asked what, messages were in his paintings replied instantly “love life”. Van Gogh would probably have said the same.

    Michael’s book is with a glorious ode to his joy, like Shelly’s ode to the Skylark, in praise of the natural world, that isn’t paradise, but is ours in our origins and in the culture of the world, and and its gift of recovery if given a chance, on a scale that we are capable of in the places we live (70% of the World by 2050). All we are saying is give it that chance, the danger is, as I found our recently when asked to write an article on shoestring ecology is that often this is how creative ecology and imaginative working can be viewed. When the weight of governance and society never gives that spotlight for resources very long, and then it comes to hope, and hope can be hollow if we don’t make our voice heard, and Sustainable Development Goals can be just placating ourselves, and depending on our own good will, and papering over the cracks, if we fall short.

    So we should make these things self evident, in a joyous way. I was heartened to hear Catherine Cullen speak here this week (Feb 9th 2018) in Kuala Lumpa at UN Habitat, “New Urban Agenda” meeting, she has drafted a cultural link to all the individual culture and each individual sustainable Development Goal, and advocates culture as the fourth pillar of sustainability, which is critical for the importnace of the people and nature story, and she has made a wonderful case for this, spilling from her work as Deputy Mayor in Lille and helping Lille win European Capital of Culture for that City, to begin its own new journey.

    http://www.agenda21culture.net/sites/default/files/files/documents/en/indicadores_culturales-eng.pdf

    Defence and promotion through joy is a good start, but it needs that viral edge. It’s the power of the advocate in difficult times that becomes critical, and it’s a political imperative. Keep on Keeping on everyone.

  12. I am intrigued by the ‘call to arms’ that is hinted at in some of these pieces. I wonder if this is something that separates out those ecologists who are happy to work in the urban where the whole ecological endeavor tends to be crisis-ridden from those who stick to ‘pure’ ecology. Perhaps there is something here that made me wonder about urban ecologists. What makes an urban ecologist? Or perhaps what makes a good urban ecologist? Lots of food for thought on this in this round table. I have had to do some self reflection!

  13. For every one person having an impact on a hectare of rural land, there are a dozen or more shaping that same area in urban settings and this is the one thing I would urge every ecologist to remember..
    You could almost claim cities are living organisms. They grow, adapt, develop lesions, sometimes get congested, but invriably they heal and thrive. Or at least they have generally over the past couple of centuries. But now they are facing the enormous challenges of high population, climate change and pollution.
    Cape Town is gripped by a serious water shortage which could drive people from their homes, creating the first noticeable drought refugee crisis.
    Ecologists should be at the forefront of healing our urban centres, working alongside multi-sector specialists from health, development, education, the arts and sociologists to create new ways of meeting the needs of communities with nature at their heart.
    Cities are not separate from nature, they are sculpted landscapes where nature’s free ecosystem services should be embraced.
    Humans are part of nature, let’s swim with the tide instead of trying to master it.

  14. And there is more: cities are the places where humans & nature can co-evolve. There are many ancient organisms that live in city-like cooperatives. They have thrived for millions of years despite generations of change & disruption because they continuous add value to their environment. Sustainability is thus a byproduct of regenerative value creation, doing well by doing good. And cities are hotspots for changing current degenerative value logic into a regenerative one. So rethinking design is key: how can we create living buildings, factories that function like forests, symbiotic relationships between cleantech technologies and ecological habitats and city habitats that house a lot more than just human life…

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