Urban Nature: What Kinds Of Plants And Wildlife Flourish In Cities?


Published:

High Line, New York City

© Jason Kuffer, Flickr CC

Biodiversity refers to the variety of all living things on Earth, but people often have very specific ideas of what it means. If you run an online search for images of biodiversity, you are likely to find lots of photos of tropical rainforests and coral reefs.

Those ecosystems are invaluable, but biodiversity also exists in many other places. More than half of the people on Earth live in cities, and that number is growing, so it is especially important to understand how biodiversity patterns occur in our man-made environments.

As an ecologist specializing in urban systems, I spend a lot of time investigating biodiversity in parks, residential areas and abandoned zones in and around the city of Baltimore. My main interests are seeing how urban dwellers invest in biodiversity, which species persist in cities and what kinds of biodiversity can thrive in green spaces.

In spite of the substantial environmental changes that humans have caused in cities, research shows that they still contain many forms of life. And we can develop and maintain habitat to support them.

Human impacts

 Razing a vacant row home in Baltimore, Maryland. This kind of activity creates habitat. © Christopher Swan. Human activities such as farming and building roads disturb the environment. This changes habitats, causes plants and animals to move and alters biodiversity patterns.

In cities many of these shifts are obvious. Cats and coyotes are now the top predators in many urban areas, perhaps replacing species that dominated before these areas were settled. Humans have introduced exotic species such as tree of heaven, and pests such as the emerald ash borer. And our living patterns have promoted eruptive growth of some species, such as white-tailed deer.

It is common to assume that few other species remain in disturbed urban environments. But in fact, there are many pockets of biodiversity in and around cities, such as frogs living in stormwater detention ponds and trees in restored streamside forests. Landscapes that people create in and around their homes support many ornamental herbaceous and woody plant species.

Our research group works to understand the relationship between people and urban biodiversity patterns. The most prominent feature of the urban environment is that it is fragmented into many small zones. Human activity creates more patches of smaller size and greater edge lengths between types of habitats than we would expect to see in undisturbed areas.

This benefits species that thrive at edges, like white-tailed deer and nuisance vines, but harms others that require larger interior habitats, such as certain birds. As human activities create a more fragmented environment, it becomes increasingly important to create linkages between natural areas, such as preserved forests, to maintain populations and their biodiversity.

Humans also modify dispersal patterns. We place preferred plants in our yards and gardens, transplant wild shrubs from forests to suburban yards and trap nuisance animals such as beavers and relocate them to forests.

Work from our research group has successfully related people’s management practices to understand how species are gained or lost from one location to the next. This concept, which we call “species turnover,” is a major way in which biodiversity increases in cities. Where people make many different types of choices, we have found that the trees people manage change a lot. This tells us that what one person sees as valuable differs from another’s, which increase biodiversity in these areas. In “ignored” or less managed areas, such as vacant land, we see a less diverse mix of species on average.

How past actions influence the present

Two vacant lots where row homes once stood in Baltimore, Maryland. Each plot was cleared and seeded with native species. Even after one year on these poor soils, native plants established. Ecologists can also understand biodiversity in cities by studying how humans have altered and then abandoned some areas, and how plants and animals have responded. Such human legacies are profound in old cities like Baltimore.

Our research group has studied these impacts on patches of land where buildings once stood. There are more than 14,000 vacant lots in Baltimore where houses have been razed, which adds up to a lot of habitat.

We have found that buildings’ footprints have very different soils from the areas around them that once were backyards. Footprint soils are compact and comprise mainly building rubble, while backyards have healthier soils. Although these habitats are close together, they support different plant communities. Plants growing on building footprints tend to be similar, while there is very high species turnover in former back yards.

Helping urban ecosystems thrive

Every species has traits, such as a plant’s nitrogen fixation rate and flower color. These characteristics support the services that the species can offer – for example, providing habitat for songbirds. As cities move toward more green practices, knowing about species’ traits can help planners choose which plants, animals, birds and insects to support.

In West Baltimore, my research group has cleared and seeded vacant lots with different mixes of native plants that reflect different traits to learn which species combinations can confer the most ecosystem services. In urban areas, valuable ecosystem services include supporting bees and other pollinators and improving soil quality.

 7x7 meter experimental plots where 15 abandoned row houses once stood. These plots are being seeded with different mixes of native plants. We have found that native plant species can become established and persist even on poor urban soils. Working with local high school students, we have carried out pollinator surveys over two years, which show that these plants support more abundant and more diverse communities of pollinators, including bumblebees and butterflies. Over the next five to 10 years, we plan to expand this work across 65 plots on vacant land so that we can understand the full range of ecosystem services that native plants provide.

Residents who live near our research plots are happy to see areas that were unmanaged and largely neglected turn green. Even small “pocket parks” can brighten communities.

We have many other questions about urban biodiversity. How do city dwellers living in cities think about biodiversity? What traits of different animals and plants do people find attractive, and do those traits provide desirable ecosystem services? By analyzing these issues, we can learn more about which animals and plants do the most to enhance city life and how we can help them thrive here.

Dr. Christopher Swan is a community ecologist with general interests in how and why species assemblages are maintained in space and time. His research and outreach program takes a broad approach to understanding how biodiversity is organized in both natural and urban ecosystems. This is accomplished through interdisciplinary collaborations with scientific and community partners, as well as informal education.

This article was republished from The Conversation.

See also:
Animals And Plants Evolve Faster In Cities — With Implications For Humans
It's Time To Get Rid Of Your Lawn!

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

October 20, 2019

The busy feel of the weekend is reflected in the skies overhead. The Cancer Moon passes by her North Node, the symbolic pathway into the future. Trust in your instincts and heartfelt passions. Time-honored values and loyalties persist! The Moon is also…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

October 2019

Come shine with us! Join us in harmony and in our goal to bring the light of Spiritualism forward to all those who are searching.

Where:
VFW Post 2597
775 Boston Rd, Rt 3A
Billerica, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiritualist Fellowship Church Of New England
Website »

More information

A beautiful collection of messages from Jeshua Ben Joseph (Jesus) that will transform your life, as it did his. Coming together to study these teachings, to ponder, to savor, to deepen our...

Cost: $25 per class

Where:
Heart and Soul Holistic Healing Center
130 Massapoag Avenue
Sharon, MA  02067
View map »


Sponsor: Heart and Soul Holistic
Telephone: 781-258-9942
Contact Name: Barbara Ann Strassman
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events

Free Evidence-Based Holistic Health Education Program at Wilbraham Senior Center The H.E.A.R.T. Program® (Health Empowerment and Real Transformation), created and instructed by Michelle...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wilbraham Senior Center
45 Post Office Park, #4502
Wilbraham, MA  01095
View map »


Sponsor: Harmony Way
Telephone: 413-636-2475
Contact Name: Michelle Caron
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

October 23 & 30, 2019, 7–9pm Instructor: Judith A. Swack, Ph.D. Register at http://www.newtoncommunityed.org Do you have a fear of flying, heights, public speaking or other...

Where:
Needham, MA


Sponsor: Healing from the Body Level Up
Telephone: (800) 310-6549 / (781) 444-6940
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

It's everyone's favorite night! Eat, drink, laugh, dance, connect and meet providers! Women's health seminars  Mini spa treatments  All-natural...

Cost: Free

Where:
Groton Wellness
493-495 Main Street
Groton, MA  01450
View map »


Sponsor: Groton Wellness
Telephone: 978-449-9919
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Attend a brand new class on awaking and accessing your authentic self! We are brought up in a world where it is difficult to know how to connect to, and express our whole and authentic selves....

Cost: $45

Where:
The Graduate Institute
171 Amity Rd
Bethany, CT  06524-3435
View map »


Sponsor: The Graduate Institute
Telephone: 203-874-4252
Contact Name: The Graduate Institute
Website »

More information

Prana Vidya is a powerful Yogic technique, based on scientific principles, that helps us connect to the most fundamental, throbbing energy of the cosmos. The system uses the concept of Chakras, to...

Cost: $40 before Oct 22 ($45 after)

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

We are proud to welcome Swami Maheshananada Saraswati, a world- renowned Yogi to Boston after 10 years.  Swami Mahesh is a wandering yogi from India. He has a degree in engineering and a...

Where:
SOHUM Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street
Suite 108B
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: SOHUM Yoga and Meditation Studio
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

“Consciousness does not just passively reflect the objective material world; it plays an active role in creating reality itself.” —Stanislav Grof MD, from The Holotropic Mind...

Cost: $150. $175 after October 19

Where:
Unity Somerville
6 William Street
Somerville, MA  02144
View map »


Sponsor: Allen Howell, M.Ed. LMHC
Website »

More information

October 26th and 27th Deepen your knowledge and practice of Reiki. Facilitated by Lou Orsan, Reiki Shihan (Master-Teacher) This two-day Level II Training enhances your...

Cost: $250

Where:
Northeast Reiki Center
61 Nicholas Road, Suite B2
Framingham, MA  01701
View map »


Sponsor: Northeast Reiki Center
Telephone: 508-808-5696
Contact Name: Lou Orsan
Website »

More information

Prana is the universal life force, the essence of all motion, and the basis of all manifestation in the Cosmos. It is the essence of life and existence itself. The yogis and the Seers have...

Cost: $45 before 10/22 ($50 after)

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

Yoga is a science of total health and harmony. The science of Yoga is dedicated to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing of mankind. A proper approach to yoga brings...

Cost: $40 before 10/22 ($45 after)

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

We are excited in the midst of our favorite holiday season! Join us for an evening workshop preparing your own take home potion and lotions. As we prepare for the close of the next harvest and...

Cost: $30 pre-reg. or $35 at the door

Where:
The Healing Power of Flowers — Heaven and Earth
68 Stile Rd.
Unit A
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey
Website »

More information

Mount Kailash, the Crown Chakra of the Earth, the abode of Lord Shiva and the Holiest pilgrimage for Hindus! Located at 18,000ft in High Himalayas, Mt Kailash is as real as it is mythical and...

Cost: pay-what-you-want ($20 recommended)

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

October 26–27 Weekend workshop with David Dalton, founder of Delta Gardens. Explore the art of vibrational flower and gem essence healing with a master crafter of essences. Email...

Cost: $360

Where:
Roots to Wings
Newbury, MA


Telephone: (603) 601-6929
Website »

More information

October 26–27 Saturday 9:30–10 am registration, 10 am–5 pm class Sunday 10 am–5 pm class This practitioner training takes place over 2 days and offers...

Cost: Course Fee: $450; Recalibration Appointment: $333

Where:
Spirit Dancer Books & Gifts
125 South Winooski Ave
Burlington, VT  05401
View map »


Telephone: 617-366-6042
Website »

More information

With Nicci Goot Build a foundation of essential virtues for developing altruism, compassion and loving kindness for living a life of harmony and joy. 4 session-program

Where:
State of Grace Yoga
104 E. Hartford Avenue, Unit A
Uxbridge, MA
View map »


Telephone: 508-278-2818
Website »

More information

We are proud to welcome Swami Maheshananada Saraswati, a world- renowned Yogi to Boston after 10 years.  Swami Mahesh is a wandering yogi from India. He has a degree in engineering and a...

Where:
SOHUM Yoga and Meditation Studio
30 Lyman Street
Suite 108B
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: SOHUM Yoga and Meditation Studio
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Website »

More information

Learn to overcome spinal tensions through therapeutic postures, designed to decompress your spine and relieve pain. Taught by a certified yoga therapist, classes bring you through poses...

Cost: 5/$50

Where:
Bliss Through Yoga
484 Bedford St
East Bridgewater, MA  02333
View map »


Telephone: 508-331-3564
Contact Name: Janice O'Brien
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags