According to a study published in Bioscience, a systems approach to urban development should be implemented. This requires a more incorporated assessment of social, ecological and technical dimensions of a city. To succeed with such a extensive approach, collaboration across skills and disciplines must be ramped up. Photo: C. Ström/Azote


urban ecology

Improving the science of cities

How urban ecology can go from being a plot-based research activity to a global cross-comparative research programme

Story highlights

  • Urban ecology is seen as a better way to bring research into various aspects of urban planning, architecture and design
  • Authors call for a systems approach to urban development where the social, ecological and technical dimensions of a city be examined together
  • For such interdisciplinarity and cross-sector collaboration to happen, the study of urban ecology must ”mature”

Just like the urban jungle is growing, so is the field that studies it. One example is urban ecology, an emerging, interdisciplinary field that aims to understand how humans and ecological processes can coexist in and around cities. The question is, how can urban ecology help our cities become more sustainable?

The answer, according to a study published in Bioscience is better interdisciplinary collaboration and a renewed focus on bringing research into various aspects of urban planning, architecture and design. Only then can the research provide insights that take into account the many complex interactions of a city.

Request publication

The study is the result of an international collaboration between several experts in the field, among them centre researcher Thomas Elmqvist and Timon McPhearson from The New School in New York. McPhearson is the lead author of the study and a close partner to the urban research conducted at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

”The amount of built infrastructure that will be deployed to develop urban areas is dizzying. Embodied within that infrastructure is a tremendous drain on natural resources. But it also represents an opportunity for using more ecologically based design, architecture and planning in urban development.”

Timon McPhearson, lead author

Time for a social-ecological-technical systems approach
McPhearson and his colleagues argue that urban decisionmakers – from mayors to neighbourhood activists and from investors to corporate leaders – need tools and financial resources to transform their cities into more sustainable ones.

According to the study, a systems approach to urban development requires that the social, ecological and technical dimensions of a city be examined together. To succeed with such a extensive approach, collaboration across skills and disciplines must be ramped up.

So how can urban ecology fit into this?

”If urban ecological research is to provide insight beyond knowledge on the ecology that exists in cities, it will need to increasingly collaborate with engineers, designers, architects, planners and others,” Elmqvist argues. Only then can the links between green and grey infrastructure become closer, he believes.

Five criteria to guide future research
For such interdisciplinarity and cross-sector collaboration to happen, the study of urban ecology must "mature". This means moving from looking at how ecological patterns and processes in cities work compared to similar patterns outside the city to look at how ecology is incorporated in and fundamental to the development of a city system.

To help with this, the authors have come up with five general criteria or ’normative statements’ for future research:

First, all research must be systems focused. This means it must consider the relationships and feedbacks among social, ecological and technical infrastructure components and subsystems of a specified urban system.

Second, it must be interdisciplinary and avoid being embedded in a single disciplinary perspective.

Third, it must be participatory, involving planners, managers, citizens and other stakeholders to ensure the relevance of research.

Fourth, it must consider a variety of social, ecological and technological interactions and dynamics that may happen at various times and in different contexts.

Finally, urban ecology must advance new methods, models, tools and data to deal with the increasing complexity of our cities.

Based on these five criteria, the authors hope urban ecology is better equipped to take into account the many social, ecological and technical contexts of a city.

Time to scale up the research
The authors conclude that urban ecology must not only mature in its perspectives it must also grow in its empirical knowledge. There is a lack of field data to address the urgent needs of city planners, policy makers and managers. This requires scaling up from plot-based urban research to a more holistic approach, the authors argue.

“This missing empirical ecological knowledge may be the most significant limitation to provide comparisons on both national and international level,” Timon McPhearson argues. The goal, he says, is to transform urban ecology as a research field into a robust and more holistic science of cities.

”For building a science and ecological theory of cities, it is vital to recognize that urban systems can be truly complex,” he concludes.

Request publication

An example of urban ecology in cities: New School research assistant Mu Hsiao Lan collecting vegetation and soil data in Marine Park, Brooklyn, as part of the Million Trees NYC Afforestation Study. Photo: T. McPhearson

Related info

McPhearson, T., Pickett, S.T.A, Grimm, N.B, et.al. 2016. Advancing urban ecology toward a science of cities. Bioscience, first published online February 24, 2016 doi:10.1093/biosci/biw002

Request publication

Thomas Elmqvist is a professor in Natural Resource Management at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. His research is focused on ecosystem services, land use change, urbanization, natural disturbances and components of resilience including the role of social institutions.