The distinguishing features of the study of the ecology of urban landscapes

The urban transformation of the planet has spurred interest across a wide variety of disciplines in the fundamental changes to human society and the environment that result from urbanization. Landscape ecology is no exception. Since the late 1980s, the number of papers devoted to the study of the ecology of urban landscapes has risen dramatically. This trend prompted the question:

 

What are the distinguishing features of the study of the ecology of urban landscapes?

 

To answer this question, we reviewed 894 papers published between 1987 and 2011 describing the ecology of urban terrestrial landscapes.

 

Our review indicated that landscape ecologists who study urban landscapes use the gradient paradigm and the urban ecosystem framework to shape their research questions (see the table below for a summary of the topics addressed in the papers reviewed). They study subjects such as land use/land cover change, the ecological effects of land use type and pattern, and human-made habitats that receive less attention from landscape ecologists studying non-urban areas. They also study a very wide variety of disturbances that occur in urban landscapes. And, increasingly, they are making use of citizen generated data to answer their questions. Knowledge of the ecology of urban landscapes is largely based on comparisons of land use types, investigations along the urban gradient, and research centered on remnant habitat fragments in an urban matrix.

 

Future directions for the study of the ecology of urban landscapes include: testing whether understanding derived in less modified landscapes can be applied to intensively modified urban landscapes, investigating the interactions between agents of global change, such as climate change, and urbanization, investigating the effects of matrix quality on the biodiversity of habitat fragments, expanding our understanding of the ecological effects of land use pattern, and assessing the trade-offs between human needs and the needs of other species by means of transdisciplinary collaborations.

 

Topics addressed in the 894 papers describing the study of the ecology of urban terrestrial landscapes. A single paper may have addressed several topics. Topics are split into those that distinguish the study of the ecology of urban landscapes from the study of the ecology of non-urban landscapes and other topics that are equally likely to be addressed in urban as in non-urban landscapes.

Topic Number of papers Percent of papers
Topics that distinguish the study of the ecology of urban landscapes from the study of the ecology of non-urban landscapes
Land use/land cover change over time 240 26.8
Urban gradient 199 22.3
Ecological effects of land use type 69 7.7
Disturbance 63 7.0
Human-made habitats 25 2.8
Urban ecosystem 14 1.6
Citizen science 5 0.6
Ecological effects of land use pattern 4 0.4
Other topics
Quantification of landscape structure 94 10.5
Habitat fragmentation 66 7.4
Non-native species 49 5.5
Species demography 35 3.9
Habitat selection 30 3.4
Species interactions 28 3.1
Species movement 26 2.9
Ecosystem functioning 24 2.7
Edge effects 20 2.2
Urban forest 18 2.0
Community homogenization 17 1.9
Island biogeography 14 1.6
Landscape genetics 14 1.6
Connectivity 12 1.3
Ecosystem services 10 1.1
Land use legacies 10 1.1
Metapopulation biology 9 1.0
Conservation corridors 8 0.9
Conservation biology 7 0.8
Species traits 5 0.6
Landscape epidemiology 4 0.4
Relative importance of landscape and local factors 4 0.4
Species distribution modeling 3 0.3
Biodiversity congruence 2 0.2
Climate change 2 0.2
Landscape modeling 2 0.2
Spatial scale 2 0.2
Species behavior 1 0.1
Body size 1 0.1
Sustainable development 1 0.1