What’s the point of urban ecology?

Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1Margaret

What’s the point of urban ecology? This is a question I get asked a lot. Many ecologists believe ‘real ecological research’ occurs outside of city boundaries, preferably the further the better from a city. While the focus of ecologists and conservationists is often on biodiversity outcomes within protected areas or in rural areas, the perceptions and values of city-dwellers disproportionately (in terms of numbers of votes!) influence decision-making around management of biodiversity outside cities. Therefore, the often limited experiences city-dwellers have with nature, such as seeing a tūi in their backyard, can greatly affect biodiversity outcomes. However, we also know that there is an increasing disconnect between people and nature as we become more urbanised. How many city-dwellers have visited a regional or national park in the last year? Reconnecting people with nature in the city not only benefits their mental and physical wellbeing, but can also have positive effects on how they value biodiversity and take action on conservation issues. The 2008 Erfurt Declaration also recognises the intrinsic value of urban ecosystems. Globally, urban areas can be hotspots for biodiversity – cities are often built in very fertile areas, and can be centres of evolution and adaptation.

Josie Galbraith’s project on the effects of backyard bird feeding on bird communities. Washing lines for hanging birds bags and deck furniture for banding and microchipping birds are a blessing for the urban researcher!

Josie Galbraith’s project on the effects of backyard bird feeding on bird communities. Washing lines for hanging birds bags and deck furniture for banding and microchipping birds are a blessing for the urban researcher!

There are a range of exciting and interesting research questions to be asked about biodiversity in cities. While some drivers of change are unique to cities, most are just modified versions of what’s happening outside cities (e.g. habitat loss) or are agents of change originating from cities (e.g. pollution, invasive species). My lab group are tackling questions, such as whether people feeding birds in their backyards can restructure urban bird communities, how light pollution might influence ecosystem function (eg. pollination) and how robust connectivity is for bird-dispersed plants within fragmented urban landscapes.

Two of the most frustrating things about urban ecology are: firstly, you can’t escape people (more social scientists please!); and secondly, there are no large, homogenous landscapes in which to put untold replicates. Experiments are critical for untangling drivers and interactions, but conducting experiments in urban landscapes can be very challenging: the high levels of variability over short distances, negotiating access to sites from many landowners/householders, and the high risk of vandalism to equipment. Even the main health and safety fieldwork issues are unusual: domestic dogs and dubious people, rather than getting lost in the bush or being injured far from a hospital. But if it all comes together, the results can be great. Watch this space within the next week or two for PhD student Josie Galbraith’s PNAS paper, where we report on our 18-month bird feeding experiment in suburban Auckland.

Road ecology research often requires the use of an orange flashing light on your car! Esther Dale (L) and Dr Cheryl Krull (R) during Cheryl’s postdoc research on rodent behaviour around roads.

Road ecology research often requires the use of an orange flashing light on your car! Esther Dale (L) and Dr Cheryl Krull (R) during Cheryl’s postdoc research on rodent behaviour around roads.

There’s also an unfortunate but realistic reason why urban ecology is attractive to ecologists. Science is getting more expensive, funding is declining, offshore islands and national parks are expensive to get students to. Urban ecology is a much better option in terms of science output/$ of funding. And then there’s the unexpected bonus of doing fieldwork in the city – the ability to order pizza for the cold, hungry field crew…

Pizza delivery to Josie Galbraith’s field sites

Pizza delivery to Josie Galbraith’s field sites

Dr Margaret Stanley is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is the programme director of the Masters in Biosecurity and Conservation. Her interests in terrestrial community ecology are diverse (particularly in terms of taxa), but can be grouped into three main research strands: urban ecology; invasion ecology; and plant-animal interactions. The most interesting and challenging projects are where these three strands overlap!

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6 thoughts on “What’s the point of urban ecology?

  1. Niki Harre here – Very interesting work. Not only are people important in promoting a general conservation agenda for the country (if people care then politicians care – then we can get policies that will help with this) but people are very eager to be involved in these projects. I think it would be fascinating to have some urban sites which were managed by community groups in liaison with scientists – an idea that has come up around the National Science Challenges.

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  2. Two comments: (1) Do you really mean URBAN ecology, or something more like urban and suburban/periurban ecology? By my understanding, the only truly urban area in Auckland is Auckland Central (=CBD), but I think you mean to be broader than that!

    (2) You say: >Urban ecology is a much better option in terms of science output/$ of funding<

    For a CRI (recouping overheads), I can see how this could be a disincentive! They would have to do more actual work for the same money! Is an academic institution like a university different in this respect, I don't really know? Spending public research funding on travel/accommodation is perhaps preferable to some researchers than doing science, which is one reason why I suspect that urban ecology doesn't get as much interest as subantarctic islands or other out of the way places.

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