Friday, December 9, 2011

The Year of Adaptive Processes

The new theme for research in BES emphasizes adaptive processes as a key to understanding and working with urban sustainability.  Because of its importance, the intellectual theme for BES this year will be socio-ecological adaptive processes.

From Sanitary to Sustainable: The Guiding Idea
To review a bit, BES III takes the transformation from the sanitary to the sustainable city as a major ongoing environmental shift that has the potential to affect all aspects of the city-suburban-exurban system of Baltimore.  Sustainability is a socially agreed upon set of goals that accounts for environmental, social, and economic health of the total urban ecosystem.  It necessarily incorporates social values.  

The Science Supporting Sustainability
But what scientific information is needed to advance sustainability, and to evaluate the degree of success in achieving sustainability?  The concept of resilience, which is both a powerful metaphor of change and adjustment is the next link in the intellectual path to understanding and working with sustainability.  Resilience, as mentioned earlier in this Web Log ( is the ability of a system to experience internal and external shocks and still adjust and persist in a dynamic form.  Resilience can have socially desirable and socially undesirable outcomes, and that is judged against the three-pronged sustainability goals chosen.  The system of automobile based transport in metropolitan America is resilient, but in some ways, an environmentally unfortunate one.  Wetlands are a resilient aspect of coastal systems affected by hurricanes and storm surges.  Resilience per se is neither good nor bad.  Sustainability, when the goals are well chosen, may admittedly involve trade offs, but at least those trade offs must not neglect off hand such things as social equity and ecological function.

Making Resilience Work
Figure 1: The Adaptive Cycle
Resilience is on the one hand, a metaphorical conception, and on the other a very general theoretical framework cast in the form of the “adaptive cycle” (Figure 1).  How does such a general concept get translated into something that can be measured and tracked?  The answer is to use adaptive processes to fill in the details of how systems develop, how they react to stresses and disturbances, and how they periodically reorganize.

Resilience Depends on Adaptation
What are adaptive processes?  They are the structures, fluxes, and interactions that allow systems to adjust to sudden or gradual changes.  Social and biogeophysical features can contribute to the adaptive capacity of urban systems.  The literature suggests a number of general kinds of adaptive processes (Figure 2).  It is these features which BES needs to concentrate on in the coming year.  How do our ongoing, long-term measurements support the scheme of adaptive processes?  What kinds of trends can be determined and can they be interpreted in terms of the resilience cycle and socially described sustainability goals?  What new measurements or analyses might be required?  Are there clear parallels between various social and biophysical adaptive processes?

Figure 2. The determinants of adaptive capacity, shown as adaptive processes in social and biophysical realms.  Of course the processes in the two realms interact.

Toward Improved Understanding of Adaptive Processes
Over the coming year, discussion of adaptive processes should suffuse all our activities and research discussions.  Then, during our annual meeting in October, we may be in a better position to evaluate the state of adaptive processes, and to understand how they affect the transition from the sanitary to the sustainable city.  Addressing this issue will undoubtedly take a long time.  It’s a good time to start.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Invitation to a Book for BES Community Members

Urban Socio-Ecological Research:
Concepts, Contrasts, and Conclusions from the Baltimore Ecosystem Study

This document outlines ideas for a synthesis volume for the Baltimore Ecosystem Study Long-Term Ecological Research project.  It invites explicit proposals for chapters by members of the project and details what is required in those proposals.  The document lays out a general structure and philosophy of the volume.  Because such syntheses are crucially important contributions and products of LTER projects, the editors ask that members of BES study this document and respond with proposals that advance the strategy outlined here.  Mechanisms, deadlines, and planning opportunities are laid out below.

We have a distinctive story to tell
The Baltimore Ecosystem Study, Long-Term Ecological Research project is widely recognized as a paragon of modern urban socio-ecological science.  After nearly 15 years of research, education, and community engagement in a complex, spatially extensive city-suburban-exurban system (CSE), there are insights to share, generalizations to examine, and gaps to highlight.  Therefore, we wish to produce an edited volume to synthesize the findings, to link the perspectives of different research traditions, and to illustrate the benefits of interacting with diverse communities and institutions in improving the understanding of Baltimore’s ecology in the broadest sense.

Both paper and e-book formats will be published.
The story is distinctive for several reasons.  One is the excitement about theory.  Does the study of urban systems, including city, suburb, and exurb, require new or altered theory?  How has standard, disciplinary theory been revised and advanced by studying the built and inhabited environment?  Built environment as a concept encourages us to unpack the term “urban.”  Therefore, the synthesis is not to be a simple, empirical compilation.

Not only do we presume that ecological theory is necessary for understanding cities, but that the study CSE themselves is necessary for both improving theory and human wellbeing.  In the contemporary world of seven billion persons, more than half of whom live in urban systems, understanding cities as socio-ecological systems is a necessity.  Such studies contribute new methods as well as to theory and practical applications.  BES represents an urban research program that aims to meet all these needs.  BES is unique, adaptive, and has evolved.  We wish to present our recipe as both a model and a foil for others interested in urban socio-ecological research and application.

The book will be organized around an attitude that theoretical and methodological novelty are both important.  In addition, such novelty should make a difference in how people view and manage the city.  A seminal conceptual contribution of BES is the shift from urban ecology as studying ecology in the city, to studying ecology of the city.  But while we take this insight as an important inflection point in urban ecology, how the field might evolve in the future is also important.  What are the implications of the shift from ecology in to the ecology of urban systems?  We must answer this broader question by examining a trajectory of knowledge: “We thought this, we learned these new things, and this is where research and application need to go.”  

We wish to produce a book that people, especially aspiring urban socio-ecological researchers, educators, and practitioners will actually read and use.  We do not wish to produce a sterile reference volume crammed with endless lists of data.  Rather, we aim for a lively, provocative, risky volume that helps set the tone for the next generation of urban socio-ecological research.  Simply summarizing past contributions would count as failure.  The synthesis should point to and give context and meaning to the mass of rigorous and important data that BES has contributed.

A challenge to authors
A book allows more freedom for novel content.
The authors must commit to the agenda outlined above.  We intend this book to be a substantially novel contribution, not a rehashing of empirical papers that might appear in scholarly journals.  Specific new tasks will be accomplished by each chapter.  The editors provide a structure for each chapter to conform to, and questions each must answer.

First, the book will recognize that there are several levels of synthesis.  This will be laid out in the preface.  BES has contributed to synthesis 1) within disciplines, 2) across disciplines in social and biophysical sciences.  The book will further highlight synthesis 3) across chapters via shared questions, and 4) across the different scales or geographies various chapters examine.

Three goals of the volume
Each goal will be represented by a series of chapters.  1) The first goal is to present the development and justification of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study.  This section will contrast BES with earlier schools of urban ecology, explain the local and external roots of the project, and place the understanding to be summarized in the context of urban transformations now underway globally.  2) The second section of the volume will summarize the theories examined, the approaches employed, the knowledge generated, and the empirical gaps remaining in the Baltimore Ecosystem Study.  Each chapter must highlight both the theoretical and empirical contributions and needs within its topical scope.  Finally, the third section will summarize the major themes and needs that the research, education, and community engagement have identified.  These insights will be presented in the form of urban socio-ecological principles, and the remaining priority needs for urban socio-ecological science, education, and application.  

In Section II each chapter must address several questions (Table 1).

Table 1.  Questions to be Answered by Chapters in Section II of BES Synthesis Volume.
1.   What theory did you use?  To help with this task, a definition of theory is provided elsewhere in this document (Box 2).
2.   How was that theory changed by application in an urban system?  Urban is used here in the broadest sense, as a city-suburb-exurban complex, spatially extensive system (Box 1).
3.   Was that theory changed by interdisciplinary integration?  If so how?  In particular, integration across both social and natural science disciplines is of interest.
4.   What did you learn?  How does this compare with information from other or contrasting cities? 
5.   How was the knowledge applied to one or more of the following realms: education, public understanding, and policy? 
6.   What is needed next?  Such needs can address theory, methods, and translations, among others.

The book will conclude with chapters that synthesize 1) the principles of urban ecology that emerge or are addressed by BES research, 2) the similarities and differences between findings and expectations from Baltimore as compared to other urban areas, and 3) the pressing questions and issues for urban socio-ecological research.

Invitation to contribute a chapter
The editors will commission several chapters to set the context for BES and explain its historical development and research and engagement strategies.  

An LTER synthesis volume.
We also invite members of BES to present proposals for the chapters in Section II, via an e-mail to the BES Co-Principal Investigator listserve.  A PDF form will be delivered along with this document to solicit brief nominations for chapters.  If you don't get an invitation but want one, contact Project Facilitator, Holly Beyar at beyarh at caryinstitute dot org.

The form will provide space for a two or three sentences answering each question stated earlier (Table 1), plus some additional information about potential and committed coauthors.

Fill in the digital form and return it via e-mail to Holly Beyar at the address spelled out above by 9 January 2012.  This will give the editors chance to prepare for the January meeting described below.

Next steps
The proposals, the general structure of the book, and a schedule for completion of the writing, will be discussed at the Quarterly Research Meeting on January 18, 2012.

The agenda for the January 18 meeting will include:

·        Review of purpose and audience of the book project.
·        Meaning and scope of theory.
·        Scope of the introductory and context chapters (Section I) and the summarizing chapters (Section III).
·        Discussion of chapter proposals for Section II.
·        Breakout discussions to refine and consolidate chapters, if necessary
·        Schedule and milestones for project completion

If you have questions, please contact Steward Pickett, Morgan Grove, Elena Irwin, or Chris Swan, who will serve as editors of the book.

Here are some sources on the structure of theory in ecology, plus two references that examine the use of ecological theory in urban ecology.

Niemelä, J. 1999. Is there a need for a theory of urban ecology? Urban Ecosystems 3:57-65.

Pickett, S. T. A., J. Kolasa, and C. G. Jones. 2007. Ecological understanding: the nature of theory and the theory of nature, 2nd edition. Springer, New York.

Scheiner, S. M. and M. R. Willig, editors. 2011. The theory of ecology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Swan, C. M., S. T. A. Pickett, K. Szlavecz, P. Warren, and K. T. Willey. 2011. Biodiversity and community composition in urban ecosystems: coupled human, spatial, and metacommunity processes. Pages 179-186 in J. Niemelä, editor. Handbook of Urban Ecology. Oxford University Press, New York.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ecology and Policy

Many researchers and educators are concerned that the knowledge they generate can be used by society.  However, this takes active effort because policy makers and environmental managers are busy and don't have the time to ferret out arcane scientific results.  Fortunately, there are experts in our academic communities who understand how best to shape messages and to engage decision leaders, whether they be in communities, in agencies, or in congress.  A new book published by the Ecological Society of America is available to help with the task of connecting with policy makers.  Here's some further information garnered from their materials:

"ESA has published a new booklet, “An Ecologist's Guidebook to Policy Engagement." The guide provides advice and resources for engaging with decision makers at various levels of government. It also includes overviews of environmental laws, federal agencies, tips on effective communication, and information about policy awards and fellowships for young scientists. To order as an eBook or print copy, please go to ESA eStore."

Long time readers of this web log will remember a post summarizing the BES Communicating Science training held earlier this year.  That meeting summarized some insights for dealing with the policy world: Communicating Science

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

BES II Project Outcomes

What's This All About?
Second story bays, Charles Village neighborhood, Baltimore.  BES LTER Photo.
BES, as a Long-Term Ecological Research project, is funded in six year increments.  BES II actually lasted for seven years due to a change in the scheduling of the grant cycle by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  We are obliged to produce a formal report to NSF that summarizes what we have done and what its broader impacts are.  This report is technical, encyclopedic, and detailed, and we will make it available when it is finished.  However, NSF also requires us to prepare a "plain language" summary which is posted on the Research.Gov website.  For the interest of the BES community, I'm posting that "Project Outcomes" report here.

A Premier Urban Research and Education Platform

Over the last seven years, the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES), Long-Term Ecological Research project has consolidated as a comprehensive, multidisciplinary platform for urban socio-ecological research.  It has demonstrated that concepts fundamental to mainstream ecology, such as the ecosystem, the watershed, and the shifting patch mosaic, help to understand the linked, human-natural components of cities, suburbs, and exurbs.  The knowledge generated has helped educate citizens and students about nature and natural processes in cities.  BES results have helped managers and policy makers 1) to identify new opportunities for urban watershed management, 2) to enhance urban tree canopy and its benefits, and 3) to employ ecological processes and amenities in neighborhood revitalization.  An important product is a new classification of urban land covers that combines social, physical, and biological features.
Sarah Ann Street, west Baltimore.  BES LTER Photo.

Knowledge About Ecosystem Processes
BES has produced new knowledge about urban stream behavior, documenting their disconnection from floodplain and ground waters.  It has shown increasing salt pollution in streams the long-term, and shown the effectiveness of stormwater “best management practices” in old residential neighborhoods.  Findings of stream research focused watershed management beyond the near-stream zone, and subsequent research on urban tree canopy documented reduced exposure to UVB radiation and reduction of the urban heat island effect.  The urban heat island has been shown to be very patchy in its potential negative effects on people, and hotspots of urban heat are distributed inequitably throughout the metropolis.  Other pollutants beyond heat are also patchy, with nitrogen deposited from traffic exhaust being both higher in general magnitude than expected, and concentrated around travel corridors.  The capacity of the urban system to absorb carbon (C) dioxide has also been documented, and daily and weekly patterns confirm the relationship of C dynamics to the activity patterns work and travel.  The vegetation in Baltimore results in less release of C to the environment than would occur without trees and lawns.

Biodiversity and Spatial Dynamics

The biological organisms other than people also have important roles in the urban ecosystem.  The identity of some animals has been homogenized across different cities, as expected, but local specialization still exists.  Urban soils contain a rich community of native and introduced species that contribute to soil metabolism and to the absorption of carbon dioxide and nitrates, taking these polluting compounds out of circulation.  New communities of aquatic animals establish in the novel habitats of stormwater detention ponds, and provide nutrient cycling services and support foodchains.  Notable members of some aquatic habitats are the introduced mosquitoes that can transmit West Nile virus (WNV) from birds to people.  The composition of mosquito communities shifts from rural to urban waters and containers, increasing the risk of WNV in the city.  Birds have been shown in other cities to depend upon the wealth of neighborhoods, but in Baltimore bird diversity responds to the structure of the tree canopy in different neighborhoods. 

Socio-Ecological Processes
BES research has evaluated other important interactions between the social and the biological ecology of Baltimore.  BES social scientists have discovered how the distribution of environmental "goods," such as parks and street trees, has changed over time in Baltimore, and how access to these amenities has varied among different groups.  Results show that African Americans in Baltimore today enjoy a high degree of access to parks and playgrounds compared to African Americans in other U.S. cities.  Examination of the history of environmental zoning variances documented inequitable decision making in Baltimore's past.  However, our research also shows that Black Baltimoreans are the beneficiaries of an "inherited" landscape.  In fact, a long history of segregation, both formal and informal, limited African American access to parks and playgrounds until large numbers of white residents left the city in the 1950s and 1960s.  It was only then that the city's black population "spread out," gaining access to park facilities once considered off limits.  An unexpected legacy of segregation is the contemporary association of toxic release inventory sites with white, working class neighborhoods.  Although areas of greater tree cover have less crime, not all residents consider urban trees to be an amenity.  For decades, both black and white residents of East Baltimore have opposed municipal tree-planting efforts.  In contrast, neighborhood associations during the first half of the 20th century were adept at attracting amenities, such as new street trees, while keeping out unwanted land uses.  BES social scientists adopted the theory of market segmentation to document the role of lifestyle differentiation as a key to understanding the shift from an industrial to a knowledge and service based economy in Baltimore. 
Riparian sycamore along the Gwynns Falls.  Photo by Charlie Davis.

Broader Impacts
The findings of BES have contributed to education of underserved communities, ecological urban design and planning, and discovery and valuation of ecosystem processes within the urban matrix from city to exurb.  Most fundamentally, BES has documented the existence and mechanisms of ecosystem processes in complex urban environments.  The BES research platform is poised to help inform, evaluate, and educate about the sustainability initiatives now being implemented in the Baltimore metropolitan region.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What is a Metacity?

Metacity: Beyond Mere Size
Hong Kong. Copyright Brian McGrath.
The term “metacity” was introduced by the United Nations as a way to capture the increasing size of the largest urban aggregations on the planet.  Previously, the term “megacity” had been the largest category of city, referring to any urban area comprising more than 10 million people.  With a number of cities, such as Mexico City, Tokyo, Lagos, breaking the ceiling of 20 million inhabitants, UN Habitat chose to introduce a new term.  The sequence of city size classes now includes city at the lower end, grading through increasing sizes of metropolis, megacity or hypercity, with metacity representing the largest agglomeration.  

BES Co-PI Brian McGrath suggested that the emphasis on size of the city by this classification left much to be desired.  For example, the metacity category included such different cities as metropolitan New York and Lagos, Nigeria.  The first is a city with sanitary infrastructure, and long established control over the form and location of growth.  Lagos, on the other hand, like many huge cities in the Global south, is plagued by sprawling in-migration and lack of well developed sanitary infrastructure, among other constraints.  Lumping these cities together in terms of mere size fails to take account of the vast social and environmental differences that they exhibit.  

A Dynamic Concept for Urban Design
Shenzhen. Copyright Brian McGrath.
McGrath pointed out that a better use of the metacity concept was to highlight the dynamic and patchy changes that cities were experiencing.  If cities are considered to be complex spatial mosaics, reflecting spatially distinct changes in the buildings, infrastructure, human demography, and economic investment and activity, the idea of metacity could help focus on those things, not just mere size.  A dynamic, spatially patchy metacity could just as well be shrinking as a result of declining residential density or industrial activity, as it could be growing explosively in an unplanned manner.

Metacity as a Parallel between Ecology and Urban Design
HERCULES patch mosaic, Glyndon, Baltimore.
When McGrath introduced me to the metacity concept, and its dynamic refinements, I was immediately struck by the parallels with some “meta” terms in ecology.  Metapopulations and metacommunities are characterized not by size, but by being “systems of systems.”  A metapopulation is a collection of spatially discrete populations of a species that may periodically be linked by migration, exchange of genes, or sharing information.  Different populations in the collection can grow, shrink, or even go extinct relatively independently.  Similarly, a metacommunity is a collection of different species that is represented by spatially distinct patches.  Large, physically powerful disturbances are a cause of loss of different members of a collection of a particular kind of community.  Likewise, metacities can comprise patches that are changing as well as patches that are relatively stable.  The changing patches can be shifting in social or architectural composition, population density, access to transportation and other resources, and in many other ways.  Baltimore as a city-suburban-exurban system is surely a metacity, with growth, shrinkage, economic and demographic shifts occurring in different patches across the five county metropolitan area.  In other words, a metacity and various kinds of meta-ecology share important dynamic features.

So the metacity concept is an excellent way to link the concerns, theories, and activities of socio-ecological research with urban design and regional land use decisions.  This concept and its power as an integrative tool is explored in a new paper by McGrath and myself. If you want to have a look at the original publication, follow this link: