Public Release: 

NSF Funds First Long-Term Studies Of Urban Ecology

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded grants for two long-term studies of urban ecology, representing the first attempts ever made to study the long-term ecology of urban environments.

Through the NSF grants, scientists may soon have answers to such questions as: Is an urban existence good for wildlife? What is "natural"? And do ecological relationships operate in as complex a manner in urban landscapes as in so-called pristine settings?

The awards will involve research on urban environments in the cities of Phoenix, Arizona, and Baltimore, Maryland, through NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. Phoenix and Baltimore will soon become the most thoroughly and scientifically studied urban environments in the world, according to Scott Collins, director of NSF 's LTER program.

"Factors that control urban ecosystems are not only environmental, but also social and economic. These factors and their interactions need to be considered to understand urban ecosystems over long time frames and broad spatial scales," says Collins.

Scientists affiliated with the new urban LTER sites will work in several areas, including:

  • Examining human impacts on land use and land-cover change in urban systems, and relating these effects to the overall ecosystem;
  • Monitoring the effects of human-environmental interactions in urban systems, and developing appropriate tools (such as Geographical Information Systems, or GIS) for data collection and analysis of socioeconomic and ecosystem data;
  • Developing integrated approaches to linking human and natural systems in urban ecosystem environments;
  • Integrating research with local K-12 educational systems.

The new LTER sites will add two to the previous list of 18 such NSF sites in North America and Antarctica.

"The previous sites represent a broad array of ecosystems and research emphases," says Collins. "But none of the already existing sites explicitly focuses on human-dominated ecosystems."

The new NSF grants have been made to Arizona State University, for the "Central Arizona-Phoenix" urban LTER site, and to the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, for the "Metropolitan Baltimore" urban LTER site. Scientists at several other institutions also share in these awards.

"This is a quantum leap in studying the way the urban environment works," says ecologist Charles Redman, one of three Arizona State University directors of the Phoenix site. "In the past, people have been concerned with how cities operate, people have been concerned about the environment, people have been concerned about movement of goods, but there have been no projects to look at it all."

Adds biologist Nancy Grimm, also a Phoenix site director, "Among scientists, there's no question that humans are now a driving force in all ecosystems on earth. As a science, ecology has traditionally studied what is perceived as 'pristine' ecosystems. But there are few ecosystems left that are unaffected by humans. There's been a call for ecologists to begin studying ecosystems that are affected by humans."

Phoenix and Baltimore were chosen in part because, according to Collins, they represent two ends of the spectrum, in terms of their histories. "Phoenix is changing very quickly, with desert turning into farmland, industrial and residential sites almost weekly. In Phoenix, 'before' and 'after' experiments are possible. Baltimore, on the other hand, has a history that extends back to the 1700s. This long history will allow ecologists to look at human settlements as ecosystems, across three centuries. The results should give us a good idea of how humans and the lands they inhabit are interacting."

Steward Pickett, director of the Baltimore site and a scientist at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, says that "urban ecosystems are ecology's last frontier. The knowledge gained from working on that frontier will strengthen the field of ecology and enhance its value to people as metropolitan areas grow."


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