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The Status of the Research and Future Directions in Urban Ecology and Sustainability

by | Feb 16, 2023 | Environment, Sustainable Development

What is Urban Ecology?

Urban ecology is the study of ecosystems revolving around humans living in cities and urban landscapes. Urban ecology aims to understand how humans and ecological processes coexist in human-dominated systems. It refers to studying how humans interact with each other and their surroundings in an urban environment. The urban environment here refers to a high density of commercial and residential buildings, roads, pavements, and other features. The goal of studying urban ecology is to try to achieve a balance between human culture and the natural environment and the Status of the Research and Future Directions in Urban Ecology and Sustainability.

Many workers in the field sometimes use the terms urban ecology and human ecology interchangeably. This is because urban ecology developed at a time when scholars from ecological and sociological fields influenced each other. In the early stages of the development of urban ecology, scientists applied the environmental concepts of invasion, dominance, and succession while studying social and geospatial organizations in cities.

Today, social scientists have characterized concepts and perspectives in urban ecology into two categories:

1. Ecology in cities: focuses on non-human organisms in an urban environment

2. Ecology of cities: considers the whole city an ecosystem

In this article, we will learn why sustainability is an essential aspect of urban ecology. If our cities grow the way they have since the industrial revolution, there is little doubt that human civilization will collapse. To achieve a sustainable urban future, we must understand how past urban systems work and how current urban systems ought to work. Urban ecology is crucial in understanding this. We will also learn about the future directions in urban ecology and sustainability.

Major Advances in Urban Ecology

In the past decade, several researchers have attempted to assess the recent developments in urban ecology from various angles. In this article, we will discuss three of the primary current research fronts: the temporal and spatial patterns of urbanization, the impact of urbanization on biodiversity and ecosystems, and the effects of urbanization on human well-being.

1. Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Urbanization

The study of spatial patterns in urban landscapes includes aspects ranging from transportation networks, waterways, and green space distribution to urban landscape patterns. Urban landscape patterns include the composition and spatial arrangement of various land use and land cover patches. It represents the structure of an urban ecological system.

Concerning urban morphology and urban growth, economists have developed two theories. The concentric zone model says that an isolated city would assume a form characterized by concentric economic rings. The rings could be residential, industrial, business, agricultural, etc. The multiple nuclei theory says that urban forms can appear patchy and asymmetric due to transportation networks and interspersed centers of land use functions. However, economists treat these theories as neutral models since we cannot apply them to actual cities.

During the past few decades, researchers have also attempted to characterize urban growth patterns in two primary ways. First, there have been continuous improvements in remote sensing data, GIS techniques, and spatial analysis methods. These have led researchers to better characterize urbanization at various scales, from cities to the globe. Second, our understanding of urban ecology has grown with the development of theoretical knowledge and case studies. Contemporary urbanization is much different than historical patterns. Modern urbanization is bigger in city size, faster in growth rate, and more irregular in form.

2. Urban Biodiversity and its Effect on Ecosystems

Ecological and environmental studies of the past several decades have focused on assessing how urbanization affects biodiversity and ecosystems.

Urban development decreases the natural spaces available for native species. Several studies have shown that the abundance of soil fungi and microbes tends to decrease with increasing urbanization. Urbanization reduces habitat heterogeneity for biological species. Therefore, different urban areas around the world tend to have the same set of species.

Human activities in urban areas have resulted in a host of environmental problems. Cities are significant producers of greenhouse gases. Air pollution causes health problems for humans and the environment. Land cover patterns influence local and regional climate through surface radiation.

Urbanization also influences the natural hydrological cycle. It alters stream flow through increased water use, water contamination, the presence of impervious surfaces, altered water runoff patterns, and modified evapotranspiration rates. Even the vegetation cover of urban landscapes changes due to altered biophysical conditions resulting from urbanization.

3. Urban Ecosystems and Human Well-being

Many view cities as severely damaged ecosystems. But, urban landscapes provide a number of vital ecosystem functions for urban populations. Most studies on urban ecosystems focus on green spaces and water bodies. When appropriately designed and managed, urban green areas can purify air and water, sequester carbon dioxide, modify the local climate, reduce soil erosion, alleviate noise pollution, provide habitats for plants and animals, and enhance human psychological well-being.

Many recent studies have documented that urban green and blue spaces provide various economic, ecological, environmental, and socio-economic benefits. When isolated from nature, humans suffer psychologically, leading to a decline in well-being. A study found that patients viewing trees from their windows every day had happier moods and faster recovery rates than patients whose windows faced a brown brick wall. Urban residents living in greener surroundings had lower levels of fear and less violent and aggressive behavior.

Towards Urban Sustainability

The Status of the Research and Future Directions in Urban Ecology and Sustainability


Urban ecology studies have shown that urban centers are increasingly moving towards sustainability. This new shift in perspective identifies sustainability as the ultimate goal of studying cities. The field of urban ecology has become interdisciplinary in terms of goals (sustainability-oriented) and participants (decision-makers, scientists, various stakeholders, etc.) This is a consequence of urban ecology moving towards urban sustainability as its ultimate goal. Ecosystems and their relationship to human well-being have become a major focus of current urban ecological studies. Ecosystems and their relationship with society are vital components of sustainability. Without the relevance of ecosystems to human well-being, ecosystems in cities would never receive as much attention as they do today.

Urban sustainability is a fairly new concept. It would be formidable to approach it without a framework to follow. City planners have started integrating adaptive planning and design in their approach to urban sustainability. This is a promising direction. It is impossible to achieve urban sustainability without socially, environmentally, and economically sound design and planning. So far, urbanization has been a massively unplanned experiment in landscape change. From all the planning experiments gone wrong, we must learn how to build sustainable cities.




  • Sigma Earth

    The author has done a master's in Environmental science and is currently working as chief Environmental Advisor with New Delhi State Government.


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