Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Did BES Do Last Year? The 2012 Annual Report

Who did this work?

The Baltimore Ecosystem Study, Long-Term Ecological Research Program is a large, complex, and active endeavor.  Its participants include 40 researchers, educators, and leaders in community engagement.  In addition, there are five Post-Doctoral Associates who participated in the project last year.  This community of senior professionals mentors and works with more than 100 graduate students at some 21 universities.  

What has this group been up to?

The detailed answer is provided in our 2012 Annual Report, a comprehensive document of 103 pages (  In it, readers will find overviews of the activities in research, education, and community engagement, as well as key findings of nearly thirty disciplinary and integrated social-ecological research projects.  The activities and findings are divided according to which of the BES III research topics each mainly addresses: Locational Choice of Households and Institutions; The Urban Stream Dis/Continuum; and Urban Metacommunity Theory.

Locational Choices:

·         The development of environmental inequities can be
traced through time, and are more than incidental spatial correlations (C.G. Boone, reporting).
·         Most tree regeneration in cities is volunteer rather than planted, but in Baltimore and 16 other cities, tree cover declined significantly in the recent past (C.J. Nowak, reporting).
·         Exurban land subdivision from 1995-2007 was extraordinarily scattered and low density, with the vast majority comprising only 2 or 3 lots.  Developers apparently favor small subdivision due to the shorter times taken to have them approved (E.G. Irwin, reporting).
·         A novel, agent based econometric model accounting for basic market conditions generates fundamentally different predictions than standard urban economic theory (E.G. Irwin, reporting).
·         A strong statistically negative relationship was found between tree canopy cover and crime in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.  The models accounted for a dozen socio-economic control variables (A.R. Troy, reporting).

Urban Stream Dis/Continuum:

·         How urbanization affects floodplain sedimentation and subsequent biotic controls on nutrient assimilation constitutes a crucial historical legacy (D.J. Bain, reporting).
·         The role of groundwater dynamics on urban stream flow and water quality, especially through the role of aging and over-connected water infrastructure systems, is emerging as a key process (K.T. Belt, S.S. Kaushal, and C. Welty, reporting).
·         Phosphorus, one of the important pollutants in Baltimore streams and the Chesapeake Bay, shows increased loading with impervious cover, and a shift to export during high-flow conditions.
·         Pharmaceuticals and personal care products, along with illicit drugs, are detectable in streams, and stream primary producers are sensitive to some of these contaminants (E.J. Rosi-Marshall, reporting).
·         Leaf litter input into the urban “headwaters” of gutters and storm drains constitutes a major source of carbon pollution downstream, and suggests new management needs (K.T. Belt, S.S. Kaushal, reporting).

Urban Metacommunity:

·         The tree composition of different land use types shows great turnover or beta-diversity across types, suggesting a predominant role of human choices concerning management (C.M. Swan, reporting).
·         Along a gradient of management, local diversity of low-intensity sites was higher than patches managed at medium-intensity.  However, there was lower species turnover among low-intensity management sites compared to medium intensity sites.  The role of high levels of dispersal among sites is suggested (C.M. Swan, reporting).
·         Mosquito traps in the most highly urbanized sites predominantly captured invasive species, while rural reference sites included both invasives and native, often non-human biting species (S.L. LaDeau, reporting).
·         The role of discarded materials that can support mosquito breeding and the role of garden and lawn watering are associated with contrasting socio-economic characteristics of neighborhoods, but they have temporally distinct effects (S.L. LaDeau, reporting).
·         A global survey of urban bird communities indicates that avian communities are unique across different urban regions, with only a few having cosmopolitan distributions (C.H. Nilon and P.S. Warren, reporting).

Actionable Science

We have been pleased that many of our results and projects, some conducted in collaboration with city, county, and state agencies, have played a role in environmental policy and management in our region.  For example, BES has contributed to:
·         Planning for increasing Baltimore City’s urban tree canopy, and providing information on the physical and social structures of different neighborhoods;
·         Laying the foundation for a Chesapeake Bay Landscape model that should aid efforts to reduce water pollution in the Bay,
·         Assessing the functional outcomes of stream restoration originally judged based on channel morphology,
·         A better understanding of the common and contrasting features of urban biodiversity across cities, which can help meet requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity;
·         An understanding of how urban design interacts with biodiversity and other functional aspects of city and suburban biogeochemistry.

This is just a brief scan of some of our work.  We invite you to peruse the annual report for more projects and greater detail.  A list of publications and web resources is also included in the report.

The Cover Art

Finally, it is with considerable pleasure that I note that the cover photograph on the report is one of the wonderful photographs taken by BES 2012 Artist-In-Residence, Lynn Cazabon.  See for more of her work.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Coupled? Hybrid? Or Just Systems?

Having recently returned from the first Congress of the Society of Urban Ecology, I can report that there was a lot of talk in the plenary sessions about the nature of cities-suburban-exurban areas as systems.  In particular, it was emphasized that they were “hybrid” systems, incorporating social and biophysical components and the interactions that involve both these kinds of features.  The attendees seemed to be rather excited by the terminology of hybridity.

One advantage of the idea of hybridity of urban areas is that it avoids the conceptual distinction of human or social on one hand, and natural or biophysical on the other.  The label of “coupled” human-natural systems, while attempting to point to connections, still maintains that there are these two kinds of systems that might be separated. 

The idea of hybridization may in fact be a better choice than system coupling for C-S-E areas.  A hybrid in the biological sense cannot be taken apart.  The genotype and the phenotype seamlessly combine the characteristics and features of the two parents.  There is no way, for example, to take the horse or the donkey out of the mule.

So cities may usefully be thought of as hybrids.  There is the intent and use for human wellbeing, delight, and productivity as one parent, and the sometimes subtle processes of nutrient transformation and retention, the biological activities in soils, substrates, streams, and pipes, and the behavior, distribution, and reproduction of feral and volunteer plants, animals, and microbes on the other.  While the engineering and architecture of urban systems seem to be traditionally designed and operated as though they were purely built systems, in fact, they embody both intended and unexpected biology.  The supposed purity of the built and the biological parents of our urban systems is a myth, and a reality that cannot be maintained.

An example of the hybridity of cities is found in the large, but nearly invisible transfers and cross-contamination between supposedly distinct components of the flux of water.  Biology and the natural world might reasonably be able to claim the streams that run through and adjacent to cities, while built infrastructure might claim the water supply pipes, storm drain systems, and sanitary sewers.  In reality, these seemingly different pathways of the flow of water are surprisingly interconnected.  Leaks from the pressurized water supply pipes end up in the surface streams, or in the loosely sealed ceramic tile pipes of sewers.  Similarly, the unsealed joints of ceramic tile pipes of many older sewers release fouled water, loading bacteria, nitrates, phosphates, and pharmaceuticals, among other contaminants, into streams and ground water.  Some of this contamination enters storm water pipes where it will not be treated.

Similarly, the entanglement of human decisions, people’s wellbeing, and the structure and workings of the environment, including biological and built components, is irrevocable.  Speaking in terms of hybridity is a more powerful metaphor for the kinds of successful models and understanding of urban systems than coupling distinctly human or natural models.  Urban areas – those spatially heterogeneous but highly interlinked mosaics of city, suburb, exurb, and rural – are “just” systems.  The integration required by the concept of system as an entity comprising interacting parts is already a good enough.  Still, the label of hybrid reminds us of something important about the urban realm.