Monday, November 6, 2017

Outcomes of an Urban Sustainability Research Network

From 2011 through 2017, the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported a collaborative research project on "Urban Sustainability: Research Coordination and Synthesis for a Transformative Future."  This project was jointly organized and directed by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER and the Central Arizona Phoenix LTER.  Prof. Daniel L. Childers and I were Co-Directors of the project. 

The text here is the "plain language" public outcomes report as submitted to the website.  We hope it gives you some sense of how BES and its partners are helping to promote the understanding and application of the popular and important idea of sustainability.  The report is divided into the two sections required by the National Science Foundation -- Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.

Intellectual Merit

The Urban Sustainability Research Coordination Network (RCN) was designed to improve the understanding of urban sustainability and to better position ecologists to interact with policy makers and managers concerned with sustainability in cities, suburbs, and urban regions.  It was important to focus on urban areas because sustainability research and practice had mainly focused on natural resources, rural systems, or conservation.  Because urban systems are becoming ever more important in the United States and around the world, improving the understanding of urban sustainability is a crucial need.  Intentionally limited to working with existing data, the Urban Sustainability RCN had four main objectives: 1) to improve the availability of knowledge about the sustainability of urban systems; 2) to generate conceptual frameworks that unify the crucial disciplines needed to understand and facilitate urban sustainability; 3) to identify research needs to enhance the future understanding and application of urban sustainability; and 4) to build a diverse network of sustainability researchers and practitioners. 

This RCN began with 37 participants from the United States and 4 other countries.  The Network grew to engage 80 researchers, educators, and practitioners from 50 cities in 20 countries.  This extensive network brought together a large amount of data, broad experience with cities of different sizes and types, and the insights of various cultural and professional backgrounds.  The large size of the Network helped to spread the insights of the intellectual integration very widely around the nation and globe.  The growth of the Network also reflected the widespread interest in the topic.

The RCN convened three meetings of the entire group over the course of the grant, plus smaller thematically oriented meetings.  The themes evolved during the project based on the "all hands" meetings, and the activities of the working groups.  Ultimately, the RCN addressed these themes: 1) conceptual models for urban sustainability; 2) the influence of different formal and informal governance structures on urban sustainability; 3) the role of interdisciplinary insights and contributions of the humanities to improved urban sustainability;  4) how ecologically informed urban design can improve sustainability through attention to adaptive resilience; 5) how urban metabolism, that is, the control of nutrient and energy flow, contributes to  sustainability; and 6) the use of scenario planning as a tool to improve sustainable urban futures.  

The RCN increased understanding of the social, economic, and environmental triggers that have led cities to crisis and transition, including discriminating the different scales on which the triggers act.  This information has been especially useful to reinforcing partnerships with urban sustainability officers.  The RCN also employed the idea that urban areas are complex systems, in which triggers affect the adaptive mechanisms that lead toward or away from sustainability.   Finally, the RCN employed the interactions between water resources and energy resources to understand important trade-offs that can affect the ability of cities to transition to sustainability.

Broader Impacts

Several specific outcomes illustrate the practical success of this RCN.  One is its serving as a seed bed for the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN).  This multi-institutional program of research and application, headquartered at Arizona State University, uses several of the conceptual advances generated by our RCN as the stimulus for new data collection.   A second major project that emerged from this RCN was funded by Future Earth to investigate sustainability from the perspective of urban phosphorus dynamics.  Phosphorus is a significant limiting nutrient in ecosystems and a can be a serious pollutant of surface waters.  A third outcome is cementing interactions with the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to help develop sustainability research in the context of the rapid urbanization now underway in China and elsewhere in developing countries.  Interchanges with Network members in South Africa and in Latin America ensure that the insights and needs of very different kinds of urban change have been accounted for in our concepts and in our communication with urban design, planning, and management practitioners.  An additional important outcome of the RCN was better linking engineering and urban design perspectives with the important biological basis of sustainability in urban systems. 

The RCN trained several students and early career scientists.  A total of 20 post-doctoral associates participated as full members of the RCN.  The RCN employed Post-doctoral associate Meredith Garten for 2.5 years. She is now a faculty member at Ohio University.  Chris Sanchez, Laboratory Manager for PI Childers, assisted with logistics for the RCN after Dr. Gartin’s departure; he is now a doctoral student at Arizona State University.  Nicholas Weller, also a doctoral student with Childers, won an NSF EASPI grant to assist with field work on the urban sustainability pilot project funded by the CAS in Beijing in Summer 2016.  The interactions with many sustainability practitioners are ongoing.  So the network established by this RCN project, continues to advance the conceptual understanding and pathways for application of sustainability.


Some of the key or recent publications produced by the members and working groups of the RCN are these:


Grove, M., M.L. Cadenasso, S.T.A. Pickett, G. Machlis, and W.R. Burch, Jr (2015). The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology: Space, Scale, and Time for the Study of Cities  Yale University Press.  New Haven.  ISBN: 978-0-300-10113-3

Steiner, F. R., G. F. Thompson, and A. Carbonell, editors. (2016). Nature and cities: the ecological imperative in urban design and planning  The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.  Cambridge, MA. 

Book Chapters

Cadenasso, M.L. and S.T.A. Pickett (2018). Situating sustainability from an ecological science perspective: Ecosystem services, resilience, and environmental justice. Situating Sustainability: Sciences/Humanities/Societies, Scales and Social Justice.  Sze, Julie, Editor.  New York University Press.  New York.  ISBN: 9781479870349, in press.

McPhearson, T. and K. Wijsman (2017). Transitioning complex urban systems: The importance of urban ecology for sustainability in New York City. P 65, in Urban Sustainability Transitions  Frantzeskaki, N, V. Castan Broto, L Coenen, and D. Loorbach.  Springer.  New York.  ISBN: 978-1-315-22838-9.

Steiner, F.R. (2016). Preface/Vorwort. Energy x Change: München und Austin: regionale Zentren nachhaltiger Entwicklung/Munich and Austin regional centers of sustainable innovation  Petra Liedl.  Beuth Verlag GmbH.  Berlin.  pg 8.

Steiner, FR, and D Pieranunzi (2016). Sites v2. Ecological Urbanism Revised ed. Mohsen Mostafari and Gareth Doherty.  Lars Müller Publishers.  Zürich.  pg. 514.

Papers in Journals

Bois, P, D.L. Childers, T. Corlouer, J. Laurent, A. Massicot, C. Sanchez, and A. Wanko. (2017). Confirming a plant-mediated "biological tide" in an aridland constructed treatment wetland.  Ecosphere. 8 (3),  e01756. 

Bunn, D., B. Büscher, M.L. Cadenasso, D.L. Childers, M. McHale, S.T.A. Pickett, L. Rivers, L. Swemmer. Golden Wildebeest Days: South Africa’s Wild Life Economy from Apartheid to Neolibralism.  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, submitted.   

Childers, Daniel, M.L. Cadenasso, J.Morgan Grove, Victoria Marshall, Brian McGrath, 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. DOI: 10.3390/su7043774

Grimm, N.B., S.T.A. Pickett, R.L. Hale, and M.L. Cadenasso (2016). Does the Ecological Concept of Disturbance Have Utility in Urban Social-Ecological-Technological Systems?.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability. 3 (1),  e01255. DOI: 10.1002/ehs2.1255

Groffman, P.M., M.L. Cadenasso, J. Cavender-Bares, D.L. Childers, N.B. Grimm, J.M. Grove, S.E. Hobbie, L.R. Hutyra, G.D. Jenerette, T. McPhearson, D.E. Pataki, S.T.A. Pickett, R.V. Pouyat, E. Rosi-Marshall, and B.L. Ruddell (2017). Moving toward a new urban system science.  Ecosystems. 20. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-016-0053-4

Hersperger, A.M., C Ioja, F. Steiner, and C.A. Tudor. (2015). Comprehensive consideration of conflicts in the land-use planning process: a conceptual contribution.  Carpathian Journal of Earth and Environmental Sciences. 10 (4). 

McHale, Melissa R., Scott M. Beck, Steward T.A. Pickett, Daniel L. Childers, Mary L. Cadenasso, Louie Rivers III, Louise Swemmer, Liesel Ebersohn, Wayne Twine, David Bunn (). Democratization of ecosystem services – A radically revised framework for assessing nature’s benefits.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, under revision.

McHale, Melissa R., Steward TA Pickett, Olga Barbosa, David N Bunn, Mary L Cadenasso, Dan L Childers, Meredith Gartin, George Hess, David M Iwaniec, Timon McPhearson, M Nils Peterson, Alexandria K Poole, Louie Rivers III, Shade T Shutters, and Weiqi Zhou (2015). A New Global Urban Realm: Complex, Connected, Diffuse, and Diverse Socio-Ecological Systems.  Sustainability. 7  5211. DOI: 10.3390/su70566

McPhearson, Timon, S.T.A. Pickett, N. Grimm, J. Niemelä, M. Alberti, T. Elmqvist, C. Weber, J. Breuste, D. Haase, and S. Qureshi (2016). Advancing Urban Ecology Towards a Science of Cities.  BioScience.   DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw002

Metson, G.S., S.M. Powers, R. Hale, J. Sayles, G. Oberg, G.K, MacDonald, Y. Yuwayyama, N. Springer, A. Weatherley, K. Hondula, K. Jones, R.B. Chowdhury, A.H.W. Beusen, A.F. Bouwman. Socio-environmental assessment of phosphorus flows in the urban sanitation shain of diverse cities.  Regional Environmental Change, under review

Muñoz-Erickson, T.A., C. Miller, and T. Miller. (2017). How cities think: knowledge co-production for urban sustainability and resilience.  Forests. 8 (6) DOI: 10.3390/f8060203

Muñoz-Erickson, T.A., Lindsay K. Campbell, Daniel L. Childers, J. Morgan Grove, David M. Iwaniec, Steward T. A. Pickett, Michele Romolini, Erika S. Svendsen. (2016). Demystifying governance and its role in transitions in urban social-ecological systems.  Ecosphere. 7 (11),  e01564. DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.1564

Pickett, S.T.A. and Weiqi Zhou (2015). Global Urbanization as a Shifting Context for Applying Ecological Science toward the Sustainable City.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability. 1  art5. DOI: 10.1890/EHS14-0014.1

Pickett, S.T.A., M.L. Cadenasso, Emma J. Rosi-Marshall, Kenneth T. Belt, Peter M. Groffman, J. Morgan Grove, Elena G. Irwin, Sujay S. Kaushal, Shannon L. LaDeau, Charles H. Nilon, Christopher M. Swan, Paige S. Warren. (2017). Dynamic Heterogeneity: A Framework to Promote Integration and Hypothesis Generation in Urban Systems..  Urban Ecosystems. 20 (1), DOI: 10.1007/s11252-016-0574-9

Pickett, S.T.A., M.L. Cadenasso (2017). How many principles of urban ecology are there?  Landscape Ecology.   DOI: 10.1007/s10980-017-0492-0

Pickett, S.T.A., M.L. Cadenasso, Daniel Childers, Mark McDonnell, Weiqi Zhou (2016). Evolution and future of urban ecological science: Ecology in, of, and for the city.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability.  DOI: 10.1002/ehs2.1229

Pieranunzi, D., F.R. Steiner, and S. Rieff (2017). Advancing green infrastructure and ecosystem services through SITES.  Landscape Architecture Frontiers. 5 (1), 22. DOI: 10.15302/J-LAF-20170103

Romolini, M., R.P. Bixler, and J.M. Grove. (2016). A social-ecological framework for urban strewarship network research to promote sustainable and resilient cities.  Sustainability. 8:956. DOI: 10.3390/su8090956

Sanchez, CA; Childers, DL; Turnbull, L; Upham, RF; Weller, N (2016). Aridland constructed treatment wetlands II: Plant mediation of surface hydrology enhances nitrogen removal.  Ecological Engineering. 97  658. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoleng.2016.01.002

Shutters, S.T. (2016). Interdependent Preferences and Prospects for Global Sustainability.  International Journal of Sustainability Policy and Practice. 12 (3),  DOI: 10.18848/2325-1166/CGP

Steiner, F.R. (2016). Opportunities for Urban Ecology in Community and Regional Planning.  Journal of Urban Ecology. 2 (1), DOI: 10.1093/jue/juv004

Steiner, F.R. (2016). The application of ecological knowledge requires a pursuit of wisdom.  Landscape and Urban Planning. 155:108.

Steiner, FR, AW Shearer (2016). Geodesign-Changing the World, Changing Design.  Landscape and Urban Planning. 156:1.
Zhou, Weiqi, S.T.A. Pickett, and M.L. Cadenasso (2017). Shifting concepts of urban spatial heterogeneity and their implications for sustainability.  Landscape Ecology. 32 (1),  DOI: 10.1007/s10980-016-0432-4

Steward T.A. Pickett, Director Emeritus

Thursday, October 19, 2017

What Is a[n Urban] Watershed?

Watershed are urban features

Watersheds in Baltimore
Watersheds are important parts of both wild and civilized places.  In both city and countryside, watersheds express the flow of water, with its power to connect places, its ability to accumulate and move chemicals and materials, its capacity to support rich biological activity, and its power to nourish human life.  Watersheds are a fundamental part of all ecosystems and habitats.

What do watersheds do?

Watersheds are areas that collect water by surface flow and in streams, and accumulate it to the lowest spot within their boundaries.  In moist climates, that spot will be a lake, wetland, or outlet to a larger stream.  Urbanization alters the structure of watersheds in cities and suburbs, speeding up the rate of water flow and often depressing the biological, physical, and chemical quality of water.  Because those functions of watersheds are important for the natural world, for the benefits that people draw from nature, and for people's health, safety, and quality of life, watersheds in cities are an important, but often ignored or invisible feature of our constructed habitat. 

Urban watersheds are mostly invisible now

Because streams have often been buried in pipes, encased in hard channels by steep stone or concrete walls, or hidden under streets and buildings, streams may be virtually invisible in cities and suburbs.  Small streams may have been buried or rerouted due to reshaping slopes, constructing buildings, or laying out roads.  Even some larger streams may have become "lost," obscured behind factories or on the neglected fringes of parking lots, or hidden in tunnels and culverts.  Without the everyday evidence of streams, city dwellers and suburbanites may be unaware of the watersheds where they live, work, and play.  This means that they also do not know about the benefits and risks associated with the flows of water in their cities and suburbs.
Baltimore City streams in 1943 (left) and 1999 (right)

Urban watersheds are constantly modified

Even though most people may not know about their urban watersheds, the ongoing construction and reshaping of cities and suburban areas modifies urban watersheds.  It is important to be aware of how urban watersheds have been modified over time by urban growth and change.  Historical maps, photographs, and drawings expose the invisible watersheds of our urban areas.

Many of the alterations to urban watersheds have disconnected the natural flows of water, or have impaired the biological cleaning functions of streams and their floodplains.  The hard walls of stone or concrete-lined channels disconnect the streamside soil from the moisture required to reduce pollution.  The large flows of stormwater from paved surfaces and roofs erodes urban streams deep into their floodplains, stranding the floodplains high above the watertable and dries them out.  These changes compromise the ability of watersheds to support plants and animals, reduce their ability to store organic matter in the soil, and impair the ability to reduce excessive levels of some urban stream pollutants.  The awareness that urban and suburban watersheds experience disconnections between upstream and downstream areas, and disconnections between the streams and their banks, is key to improving the health of those watersheds and restoring the benefits they can provide to people.

Regaining awareness of urban watersheds

Urban residents and those who design and manage cities and suburbs can benefit from increased awareness of watersheds in urban areas.  Awareness of urban watersheds can come from personal experience, maps of streams and the pipe networks that deliver fresh water and remove storm and waste water, depictions of the different aspects of watershed structure, and visualizations of the beneficial and hazardous flows in watersheds.  It takes effort to overcome the invisibility of urban watersheds.

Once people become aware of watersheds as a part of their local sense of place, or through the need to manage and improve watershed and stream function, knowledge becomes a crucial tool.  Knowledge requires data.  Careful observations along a whole stream length, well documented notes of stream and watershed status, repeated photographs at set locations, and scientific measurements are all examples of knowledge following from awareness.  In particular, measures of the amount of water flowing in a watershed, its biological and chemical quality, and the health of organisms that inhabit or use the streams are important contributions to knowledge about watersheds.  

What does knowledge contribute to urban watersheds?

Nitrate pollution over time in Gwynns Falls, Baltimore
The knowledge about streams must extend through time because of ever changing conditions.  It is necessary to repeat the measures so that the impact of things like drought versus wet periods, or changes in land use in the watershed, or changes in water management, can be documented.  Of course, this kind of knowledge, when made available and understandable to residents and managers, becomes a stimulus for wider and deeper awareness: How is my watershed doing?  Is it changing?  How does it compare with other watersheds in other cities, or outside of town?  Sharing knowledge in understandable terms is crucial to achieving awareness and supporting community action.  Knowledge helps people to "see" urban watersheds again, appreciate the connections within them, and helps understand how they change.  Knowledge promotes new levels of awareness.

How can urban watersheds be reconnected?

With the combination of awareness and knowledge, people can appreciate the potential for improving the connections in urban watersheds, and the ability of those streams and watersheds to do free, useful work for managing urban water and its benefits to environment and people.  Awareness can be a tool for improving sense of place, not only along streams but also throughout entire watersheds.

What can cities, organizations, and communities do?

Connecting neighborhoods with the Gwynns Falls.
Biologically and socially significant actions may include the establishment of new flows to compensate for some of the disconnections city and suburban watersheds have suffered.  Such reconnection can be achieved by softening the stream margins in cities and suburbs, by reconnecting communities with their watersheds and streams, and by making social flows -- benefits, use, and enjoyment of urban streams and streamside habitats -- more obvious and available to neighborhoods that may not now have access or social investment in their watershed.

In addition to re-connection in urban watersheds, it is important to slow the normal flow of water throughout urban  areas.  Increasing infiltration of water, constructing structures upstream that absorb and retain water, and reducing the amount of water used in wasteful irrigation practices are examples of slowing water flow through urban watersheds.  Attention to roofs, house gutters, rain barrels, rain gardens, green roofs and other upstream interventions can contribute to slowing the flows in urban watersheds. 

Recognizing that our cities and suburbs still contain watersheds and that these watersheds present many benefits and opportunities for connectivity and controlling water flow, is an important tool for design, planning, management, and social revitalization.

Box 1: Some Practical Actions for Learning About Urban Watersheds

  • Map streams, pipes, and boundaries of urban watersheds.
  • Map loss of original streams.
  • Conduct tours along watershed length.
  • Collect data on water flow and quality.
  • Interpret and share watershed data with residents and decision makers.
  • Focus on new designs and retrofits that slow the flow of water in urban watersheds.
  • Engage residents in re-envisioning their watersheds.
  • Assemble "then and now" photos and drawings of watersheds and streams.
  • Promote science and art interactions focused on watersheds.
  • Install are in the watersheds and along streams.
  • Produce informational markers about urban watersheds.
  • Involve residents in observations of streams and watersheds over seasons and years.