Is an urban existence good for wildlife? What is "natural?" Do cities have complex ecological relationships like those found in undisturbed wilderness areas? These are just a few of the questions that scientists hope two ambitious new research projects will answer. In late 1997, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it would give two research teams several million dollars to study the ecology of two urban areas: Pheonix, AZ and Baltimore, MD. The two cities will soon become the most thoroughly and scientifically studied urban environments in the world, according to NSF's Scott Collins, director of long-term ecological research programs.
"This is a quantum leap in studying the way the urban environment works," says ecologist Charles Redman of Arizona State University in Tuscon, one of three directors of the Phoenix study. Adds biologist Nancy Grimm, another director, "Among scientists, there's no question that humans are now a driving force in all ecosystems on earth. As a science, ecology has traditionally studied what is perceived as 'pristine' ecosystems. But there are few ecosystems left that are unaffected by humans. There's been a call for ecologists to begin studying ecosystems that are affected by humans."
Each study will look at both the ecology and sociology of urban environments, involving an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, sociologists, geographers, and economists. "Traditionally, social scientists would go to the built part [of a city] and ask what the people were doing and the ecologists would go over to the green spots and count the bugs," Steward Pickett, director of the Baltimore study, told the magazine SCIENCE NEWS. "Now, we have to ask how people's decisions influence the green spots, and how the green spots influence people's decisions." Both studies will also have a large educational component. In Baltimore, for instance, kids will be recruited to identify, measure, and map city trees. The projects will also feature training programs "to help ordinary citizens map and monitor what's going on where their children play or in the air they breathe," says William Burch, a Yale University ecologist involved in the Baltimore study.
Pickett, a scientist at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, believes the two studies are important because "urban ecosystems are ecology's last frontier. The knowledge gained from working on that frontier will strengthen the field of ecology and enhance its value to people as metropolitan areas grow."