Friday, July 29, 2016

Urban Ecology at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America

The meeting takes place in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, from 7-12 August. The meeting theme is Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene. Certainly this theme is right in our urban niche!  Details of the meeting can be found at

The biggest gathering of professional ecologists each
ESA 2016 Annual Meeting logo
year is the Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America. This year, following the recent trends, there will be a lot of urban ecology -- symposium talks, contributed sessions, posters, and mixers.

Myla Aronson, Chair of the Urban Ecology Section, has compiled a list of urban activities, which is insert below.  We have added a couple symposium talks that were not tagged as urban in the ESA program.  This diversity of activities should tempt people to participate.  Hope to see you there!

Urban Sessions at Ecological Society of America, Annual Meeting 2016

Business meeting:
Tuesday, August 9, 2016, 12:00 PM-1:00 PM, 318, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

ESA Joint Section Mixer (Agroecology, Applied, Asian, Early Career, Education, Human, Inclusive, International, Justice, Long-term Studies, Rangeland, TEK, and Urban)
Tuesday, August 9, 2016: 6:30 PM-8:00 PM, Grand Floridian Blrm H, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

SYMP 15: Urban Ecology: A Socio-Ecological Insight from Tropical Regions and Latin America
Wednesday, August 10, 2016: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, Grand Floridian Blrm D, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

SYMP 19: Novel Ecosystems in Cities: Adaptation to Urban Conditions
Thursday, August 11, 2016: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, Grand Floridian Blrm B, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center 

Two urban talks in a "non-urban" symposium on Human Ecology, Human Economy: Towards Good Governance of the Anthropocene 

Tuesday 10:10 AM B. Larry Li, University of California Riverside
Building the three pillars in harmony: The case of urban development in China  
Tuesday 10:40 a.m. Steward T.A. Pickett, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; Geoffrey Buckley, Ohio University The legacy of past paradigms of governance and the challenge for the future

Organized Oral Sessions

OOS 29: Urban Woodlands: Remnants, Regeneration and Restoration
Thursday, August 11, 2016: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, Grand Floridian Blrm G, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

OOS 40: From Studying to Shaping: Reframing Urban Ecology into a Proactive Science Through Pedagogy, Practice and Research
Friday, August 12, 2016: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, Grand Floridian Blrm G, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

Contributed Oral Sessions

COS 12: Sustainability: Urban Systems
Monday, August 8, 2016: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, 222/223, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

COS 25: Urban Ecosystems I
Tuesday, August 9, 2016: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, 222/223, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

COS 37: Urban Ecosystems II
Tuesday, August 9, 2016: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, Floridian Blrm D, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

COS 49: Urban Ecosystems III
 Wednesday, August 10, 2016: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, Floridian Blrm D, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

Poster Sessions
PS 32: Urban Ecology
Thursday, August 11, 2016: 4:30 PM-6:30 PM, ESA Exhibit Hall, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

PS 57: Latebreaking: Urban Ecosystems
Friday, August 12, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM, ESA Exhibit Hall, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

WK 43: Practicing Ecology in Novel Ecosystems: Sharing Lessons Learned from Urban Field Work on Private Property
Thursday, August 11, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:15 PM, Grand Floridian Blrm A, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

Field Trips
FT 7: A Crosstown Walk on 7th Street: A Socioeconomic Gradient
Thursday, August 11, 2016: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, Shuttle Drop-off outside Lobby A area, Ft Lauderdale Convention Center

Friday, June 3, 2016

Community Awareness and Field Safety Training

Every year, about this time, the Baltimore Ecosystem Study hosts its Community Awareness and Field Safety training.  We expect that every new participant in BES, whether student or senior professor, participate in this event the first year they become part of the project.  Why do we ask this of the members of a scientific research and education project?


Christine Rega sampling soil carbon flux.
First, the safety part.  Every researcher has to be trained in safety.  Of course this satisfies formal regulations to train people in procedures to avoid accidents in the field or laboratory.  But more fundamentally, it is important for everybody to know what to do to avoid problems, and what to do if some problem occurs.  Chemical safety, what fire extinguisher to use for what type of fuel, how to deal with spills, and a long list of other important information needs to be in mind when one enters a scientific workplace.  And in the field, how to minimize the risks of exposure to lime disease ticks, or poison ivy, or how to avoid heat stroke, and another long list of issues to be aware of.  The rule not to be out in the field alone, whether it is a primeval forest, a stream sampling station, or a city neighborhood, is an important piece of advice for all researchers, for example.  BES has developed a good bit of wisdom about the cautions and responses to enhance safety in the field, focusing on the particular dimensions of an urban ecosystem. 

Community Awareness

Baltimore City neighborhoods
The other half of the event -- Community Awareness -- is equally important.  Furthermore, it is the aspect of working in an urban system that is likely not to be a part of traditional scientific training.  It is crucial for success of BES research and education because we are both figuratively and literally working in people's back yards, and on their streets, and in their school yards, parks, gardens, and farms.  Basically, we are working in their neighborhoods.  Taking this seriously is one reason that "engagement," rather than "outreach" is one of the missions of BES.  Community awareness promotes the respectful and productive engagement required to work effectively -- and safely -- in the extraordinarily diverse set of neighborhoods and sites that make up the Baltimore urban ecosystem.  For example, by some counts, Baltimore city alone has some 275 recognized neighborhoods.  Each has its own leaders, issues, layout, amenities, strengths, and vulnerabilities.  Each one has people who care deeply about it, and who keep an eye out for unusual activities or unknown persons.  BES researchers and educators -- as quests in all these places -- need to know when they are cross into a different neighborhood, who are the "gatekeepers" there, what their concerns and interests relevant to science are, and much more.  And there is advice from decades of experience -- take off your sunglasses, be pleasant, greet people respectfully, take time to let them know what you are doing.  Although these are "costs" of doing research in urban ecosystems, they are also rewarding because it can put science in a new light for new audiences.  And of course there is the simple pleasure of sharing with new people of many backgrounds.

Unexpected Benefits

The Community Awareness and Field Safety Training is important -- and required.  It is one practical introduction to the complexities of social-ecological research and engagement with residents and leaders at all levels that make the decisions that determine so much of what constitutes Baltimore's ecology.

Further Reading

For members of the BES community, the manual is online at  You'll need your BES password to get this.

The Community Awareness and Safety Training is organized on behalf of BES by the Parks & People Foundation, a key participating organization in the project.

Monday, April 11, 2016

BES Adopts a Co-Directorship Model

Preparing for transitions in leadership in Long-Term Ecological Research projects is a big job.  The Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) has been preparing for its leadership succession since 2013.  Emma agreed at that time to become the next director of BES -- assuming a successful renewal proposal review.  Her acceptance of that responsibility was announced at the project's external Mid-Term Review, conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2013.  She was officially named Director-Designate.  

Emma and Steward have worked closely together to ensure a smooth transition in leadership since that time.  Emma has taken an increasingly large role in the administration of BES, such as leading the Quarterly Project Meetings, representing BES on the Executive Committee of the Long-Term Ecological Research Network, and most recently taking charge of the renewal proposal process, working especially closely with Deputy Director Peter Groffman on budget planning.  She has also played a major role in the planning and writing of key synthetic papers that have helped BES evaluate and improve its foundation in basic ecological theory.

To acknowledge the shared leadership, Emma and Steward are now acting as Co-Directors of BES.  At the termination of the current funding cycle, Steward will vacate his Co-Directorship, although he plans to continue to work with and support BES.  At that time, Emma will become the sole project Director.  

We have been delighted to work together to overlap the old and the new directorial arrangements. We are especially grateful for the rigorous intellectual contributions and the supportive actions of the BES membership.  The lead researchers, project management committee, postdocs, graduate students, members from our non-governmental organizations, and partners in policy, management, and education in the various jurisdictions, have all played significant roles in this process.

Steward Pickett and Emma Rosi-Marshall

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Yes, But What Theory Are You Testing?

Urban ecology talks and papers often begin with statements like these:

  • More than half the world's human population now lives in cities.

  • Urban areas in the United States cover 3% of the country's area.

  • Cities are harbingers of global warming, and already represent the drier and warmer conditions many habitats will increasingly experience.

Like other scientific research areas of immense practical value, the justification for urban ecological studies often ends with that: It's important for solving problems!  It matters to people because that's where most of them live!  Those rationales are reasonable and true.

But they are not enough.  Urban ecological science, like any science must also have its theoretical foundation.  Every cutting edge science must do one of three things:

  • Discover new phenomena or a new way to relate phenomena in the material world.

  • Build a new theory, or expand and clarify an existing theory.

  • Test some existing or emerging theory.

Unless it does one or more of these things, science is a dry and uninteresting -- if sometimes practically important -- pursuit.  Turning the bright light of theory on urban ecological science reveals a discipline that too often gets by on importance rather than scientific significance.   

Undoubtedly, more data at a variety of scales are needed in urban ecology.  And better comparisons among urban areas across a variety of geographies, cultures, climates, and histories are needed.  Furthermore, better integration of biological, social, and physical data and approaches are needed.  And so too are better connections of the substance of the science with practical professions, each with its own theories and modes of application.  Data that answer questions posed by citizens, policy makers, decision leaders, and advocacy groups are in great demand as well.  This is appropriate.

But without strengthening our theory, the discipline will languish in a conceptual backwater, responding to headlines that identify the important but ad hoc needs and interests of other people. 

So I return to my opening question, directed at ecological scientists of cities-suburban-exurban systems: How are you advancing the theory of the discipline?  How do your observations and experiments improve our understanding of cities as scientific phenomena?  What theory are you helping to build?  How do your models advance the concepts, generalizations, or mechanisms that the theory requires?  How does your work test the larger theory, or test some specific models or hypotheses that the theory has suggested?  In other words, the question to consider here is not about the social importance of urban ecology, but about its contributions to the larger program of advancing scientific understanding.


Importance is a legitimate guide for science.  But societal importance can't be the only reason for doing science.  Advancing the integrity, soundness, and scope of the science itself are additional goals that every researcher needs to consider.   

I want to emphasize that I am not saying to abandon societally important urban research.  Far from it.  But I believe it is very healthy for the science, which is the larger structure that supports "important" research after all, itself is sometimes the focus for improvement.  Asking "What theory are you testing?" keeps that focus in mind.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Invisible in the City

Much that happens in cities -- urban areas more broadly -- is not obvious to the naked eye or to casual observation.  The invisible things in urban social-ecological systems represent four key dimensions: social processes and their legacies; the built and technological structures and infrastructures; ecological structures and processes; and influences and events that arrive from a distance.  These ordinarily invisible features of urban systems can become visible when something goes awry, or when some long-forgotten decision rears its head as a legacy shaping current conditions or options.  The invisible becomes visible when something "breaks" or is unexplainable based only on current or local conditions.


Social Invisibility

Social legacies take myriad forms.  This blog has presented several examples, from the clashing street grids in Baltimore arising from orientation to different shorelines around a complex harbor, to the mortgage redlining that mirrors the concentrated abandonment in city neighborhoods. 
The "break" of the clashing grids is revealed in several layers of attempts to knit the city's traffic flow more seamlessly.  The disjunction between the north-south grid of the Mount Vernon neighborhood and the north-west to southeast orientation of the Madison neighborhood reflect differences between the orthogonal north-south/east-west orientation of the monument-studded downtown grid, and the more organic flow following the old market road on the high ground of the divide between the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls watersheds, which trends northwestward.  
The 1890 map of Baltimore City, showing the multiple, incongruent street grids.

The break of redlining is actually part of a longer-term and persistent system of racial, ethnic, and class segregation that has characterized Baltimore since at least the demise of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws, customs, and conventions.  Given that the primary source of wealth of most Americans is investment in a house, the denial of mortgage security put the residents of neighborhoods judged by the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation to be less than mortgage worthy at a significant and lasting disadvantage in the accumulation of wealth.  Other local ripples of this situation extend to property tax revenue flow, educational resources, and through a complex cascade to access to such things as gainful employment in a post-industrial economy and grocers purveying fresh vegetables.
The 1930s redlining map of Baltimore city, with green, yellow, and red overlays indicating high, medium, and low mortgage desirability based on factors such as race, national origin, and housing stock.

Infrastructural Invisibility

Much built infrastructure is literally out of sight.  Fresh water and gas mains are buried beneath streets and sidewalks, as are sanitary sewers and storm drains.  The drainage infrastructure exemplifies the complexity of build infrastructure.  In row house neighborhoods in old Baltimore, the stormwater drainage system extends from roofs sloping from the street sides of houses toward the back yards, with downspouts draining into alley gutters, which conveyed water to storm drain catch basins in the streets.  So the infrastructure was not just the pipes, but also the roofs, downspouts, gutters, and then the buried drain pipes.  Many of the underground stormwater pipes were, in actuality, buried and piped streams.  The breakage of this stormwater system is seen in the collapse of roofs of long abandoned houses, and the puddling of rainwater in cellar holes and elsewhere where debris collects or obstructs the flow of rain water. 
Water main break at Gay and Lombard Streets.

Other forms of breakage are the common leaks that unintentionally connect the remaining surface streams, the sanitary sewers, and the storm drains.  The pressurized drinking water system also leaks, adding flow to streams and the two sewer systems, and in some cases adding an avoidable burden to sanitary treatment facilities.  


Invisible Ecology

Perhaps the least visible component of urban systems is the ecological structures and processes they contain.  Of course, the large green spaces in cities, suburbia, and exurbs are obvious.  Signature parks, golf courses, cemeteries, and the green campuses of private and public institutions are often recognized as ecosystems, a designation that clearly acknowledges their ecological content, and facilitates their inclusion in designs and plans.  However, such large and often socially valued properties are not the only venues for biophysical processes in urban systems.  Yards, volunteer vegetation along fencelines, slivers of lightly managed areas along rights-of-way also contribute to the ecological processes.  Hidden riparian strips behind shopping malls, or at the backs of factories, or transportation corridors can also be seen as ecosystems.  Clearly, there are many ecological processes that occur in these sites: nutrients are cycling, carbon is being processed, decomposition of organic matter is under way. 

However, these quintessential ecological processes are also occurring in urban soils, in surface streams, and in largely ignored wetlands.  Biodiversity -- native and introduced birds, medium sized mammals, and an impressive complement of microbes -- are active throughout the urban system.  Some of these help retain potentially polluting nutrient compounds, sequester some of the climate-changing carbon that economic processes release, help control disease agents, or simply give pleasure to urban residents.  Some of these organisms release contaminating byproducts, and others are themselves disease agents or vectors.  But together they constitute a web of interactions and influences that generate amenities and hazards in urban areas.  Harnessing the positive outputs of urban biota, conserving native biodiversity, and limiting the risks that some organisms pose, requires making them and their interactions visible features of the city.


Invisible from a Distance or from the Past

Not all things that influence the social-ecological structure and processes in a given urban area constantly reside or originate within it.  This is especially true of socially-generated influences, which arrive in the form of new migrants at airports, appear as redistribution of financial capital via investment, disinvestment, or personal remittance, or exist as cultural products such as fashion, movies, or music.  Political movements can be seeded from a distance, and opportunities for trade, migration, or commuting determine population densities, economic activities, or cultural vitality.  Social influences, either personified or electronically mediated, are extraordinarily mobile in the globalized, urban world.
A tornado over Baltimore in June 2013

Other, seemingly more concrete effects also arise from outside a given urban area.  Biophysical agents of disturbance, those events that can disrupt the physical structure of a city, often arrive from elsewhere.  Hurricanes, with strong winds, coastal flooding, or torrential inland rains are a familiar example.  So to are storm fronts that unleash snow, ice, or tornados.  Climate change, with the potentials for obvious change in average temperatures, seasonal distributions of heat, cold, wet, and dry, is a prime and increasingly widely appreciated action from outside.  Ironically, the high energy demands of urban systems contribute to these global changes, which come back to haunt, in some form or another, virtually every urban area on the planet.  Notably, many of the changes associated with climate change are already well developed in urban areas.  Heat islands, heat stress, drought, and extreme storm events are phenomena that urban policy makers, managers, and citizens are planning for and adapting to at present.


The Invisible as Personal

Given that humans seem to give greatest credence to events and things that they have themselves experienced, it may be that a great deal of what characterizes urban social-ecological-technical systems remains invisible.  The experience of individual persons, or even a nuclear family, is constrained.  Human memory is powerful and poignant, but it is temporally quite limited.
On the scale of a human life span, or the span of two or three generations' memory, many important ecological events can be missed.  Fires in uninhabited chaparral -- shrubland in the mediterranean climates of the American west -- may recur about once every 70 years on average.  A single generation, or even two, may not have seen a big chaparral fire.  Chaparral vegetation is made up of species that are adapted to reproduce after fire.  Indeed, without fire for long periods, other species can replace the chaparral dominants.  Add short human life spans to the fact that the majority of residents in American mediterranean climates are likely to be new arrivals who lack a personal access to multi-generational memory, and the possibility of chaparral fires to be invisible parts of suburbs and exurbs in California or Colorado is enhanced.  Many vegetation types are affected naturally by fire, such as many pine forests in the south and eastern U.S.  Others are affected by periodic catastrophic wind storms, albeit on a time interval of several centuries.  Extreme floods also periodically affect many riverine areas.  However, if people have never experienced such a flood, or if they are lulled into security by a floodwall built to contain the last most catastrophic flood plus a foot or two, the risk is essentially invisible.  In such situations, floods "to worry about" are virtually invisible.

This is a common phenomenon.  Reporting on urban disasters driven by otherwise invisible ecological events often includes this kind of sentiment: "I've lived here all my life, and I have never seen anything like this before."  The "this" can be a wind storm, blizzard, hurricane, huge tornado, or outbreak of some native insect.  Add to this list new invasive pest or disease organisms, intensifying storms due to climate change, shifting and deepening of drought prone pockets, and so on, and the list of the invisible in the city becomes longer still.

The invisible in the city points toward the need for humility -- individual memory often misses rare weather events, social legacies no longer much spoken about, or catastrophic infrastructure failures of the past.  Even family or communal memory seems fallible.  The invisible is a key part of cities and urban systems.  Urban social-ecological-technical research helps to lift the veil.  Maybe the old New Englander suggests how to operationalize humility in the face of the invisible: The question was asked, "Have you lived here all your life?" The droll reply was, "Not yet."  One hopes the answer suggests an openness to the invisible in that lived place.  Seeking the invisible in the city is one of urban ecology's primary tasks.