Ecology In the City

The growth of modern urban ecology has been marked by a differentiation among ecology in the city to ecology of the city, to ecology for the city (Childers et al. 2015, Zhou et al. 2017).  This scheme is intended to suggest that urban ecological science can be pursued by focusing on ecosystems within cities and suburbs as though they were analogs of familiar ecosystems outside of cities.  Under this ecology in approach, ecologists looked for areas that were analogous to familiar ecological habitats outside of cities.  Forest stands in parklands, along streams, or in vacant lots are examples.  Additional examples are the often neglected wetlands, or meadow-like derelict lots.  Ecologists applying this approach were interested in how the urban environment — usually literally the surroundings — of such habitats were associated with their structure, function, or difference from the rural or wild analogs.  Awareness of the nature of the built environment, and of the human demography and social structures in the surroundings came, over time, to be better understood.  Yet, the emphasis was on the biological isolates within cities and suburbs.

Ecology Of the City

A contrasting view of ecology of the city was articulated to mark the establishment of the two urban Long-Term Ecological Research sites by the U.S. National Science Foundation in 1997.  Those projects sought not only to understand the biological isolates, be they whole ecosystems or biological populations in cities, but to conceive entire metropolitan areas as social-ecological systems (Grimm et al. 2000).  This conception has been an important integrative tool for urban ecological research and education.  It addresses cities, suburbs, and urbanized landscapes (Boone et al. 2014) as complex, adaptive systems that are hybrids of biophysical and social structures and processes (McPhearson et al. 2016). 

Notably, ecology in cities, and ecology of cities must often be pursued simultaneously in urban research.  One does not replace the other.  Rather, together they constitute important approaches in the toolkit of those interested in the structure, function, design, and management of urban systems, be they neighborhoods or entire urban regions.  The practical outcomes listed just above point to a third approach, identified as ecology for the city.  (By now it is hopefully clear that I am using the word “city” as shorthand for any and all parts of an urbanized region.)

Ecology For the City

This third approach of ecology for the city was articulated in 2015 by three ecologists (including Dan Childers, Mary Cadenasso, and myself), a social scientist (J. Morgan Grove), and two urban designers (Victoria Marshall and Brian McGrath).  This approach involves the co-production of social-ecological knowledge of a city based on dialog and cooperation among biophysical and social scientists, decision makers, and residents in an urban area.  These persons may be part of institutions such as government agencies, civic activist organizations, community groups, and not-for-profit organizations, among others.  The preposition for thus refers to the needs, values, perceptions, and goals of all participants.  The for does not imply a top down, paternalistic hand from outside the community or inclusive stakeholder group.  The ecology for the city implies, and is often stated to involve, a participatory civic process.

For = With

The bottom line is that for does not mean to, as in an application of social-ecological understanding via a top down, experts-know-best approach.  Ecology for the city, as the conduct of social-ecological research in and about the city, and use of the knowledge generated is done with based on respectful dialog among residents, researchers, organizations, and government agents.  So whenever you read “ecology for the city” you should also think ecology with the city.

Conceptual and practical differences among the in, of, and for the city approaches (Zhou et al. 2017)

Literature Cited

Boone, C. G., C. L. Redman, H. Blanco, D. Haase, J. Koch, S. Lwasa, H. Nagendra, S. Pauleit, S. T. A. Pickett, K. C. Seto, and M. Yokohari. 2014. Reconceptualizing land for sustainable urbanity. Pages 313–330 in K. C. Seto and A. Reenberg, editors. Rethinking urban land use in a global era. MIT Press, Cambridge.

Childers, D. L., M. L. Cadenasso, J. M. Grove, V. Marshall, B. McGrath, and S. T. A. Pickett. 2015. An Ecology for Cities: A Transformational Nexus of Design and Ecology to Advance Climate Change Resilience and Urban Sustainability. Sustainability 7:3774–3791.  
Grimm, N. B., J. M. Grove, S. T. A. Pickett, and C. L. Redman. 2000. Integrated approaches to long-term studies of urban ecological systems. BioScience 50:571–584. 
 McPhearson, T., S. T. A. Pickett, N. B. Grimm, J. Niemelä, M. Alberti, T. Elmqvist, C. Weber, D. Haase, J. Breuste, and S. Qureshi. 2016. Advancing Urban Ecology toward a Science of Cities. BioScience 66:198–212.
Zhou, W., S. T. A. Pickett, and M. L. Cadenasso. 2017. Shifting concepts of urban spatial heterogeneity and their implications for sustainability. Landscape Ecology 32:15–30.