Understanding Urban Ecosystems: A New Frontier for Science and Education. Alan R. Berkowitz, Charles H. Nilon, and Karen S. Hollweg, eds. Springer-Verlag, New York, 2002. 523 pp., illus. $49.95 (ISBN 0387952373 paper).
Biologists have tended to ignore cities, for reasons that are probably obvious. On a personal level, most naturalists would rather be as far away from concrete as they can. On a professional level, urban ecosystems are a complicated mosaic of natural and artificial systems that produce a blend of dynamics that is much more difficult to describe than an undisturbed natural ecosystem. Consider, for example, the dynamics of a distant mountain plant community in comparison with the complex dynamics of plants found in a typical urban park. In the latter, large subsidies of nutrients and toxic pollutants, immigration of nonnative species, and many other anthropogenic disturbances are blended with natural processes such as ecological succession to determine the park's plant and animal community composition.
The rapid and seemingly inexorable spread of cities across the globe is forcing at least some biologists to realize that urban ecosystems deserve more study (e.g., Pickett et al. 2001). As cities increasingly expand across huge areas of the landscape, residential and commercial development of the land has become the dominant cause of species endangerment in many areas. Where conservationists were once pitted against farmers in the struggle to preserve habitat, they are now more often allies trying to preserve land from urban development.
The goal of Understanding Urban Ecosystems, therefore, is admirable. Understanding urban ecosystems is crucial to species conservation in at least two ways (McKinney 2002). First, urban planning and growth can incorporate ecological principles to produce development that is much less harmful to natural ecosystems and communities of native species. There is an enormous untapped potential for such things as the design of roads that are less harmful to animal migration, of buildings that kill fewer birds, and of landscaping that promotes native species conservation. Second, and perhaps more important in the long term, the highly urbanized general public can become more educated about the natural world in their immediate environment. How can suburbanites be concerned about abstract conservation motives when most cannot even identify the majority of species in their own backyards?
This book is largely focused on the second of these goals. It contains 30 articles that mainly address educational, economic, psychological, and other social aspects of educating people about urban ecosystems. These articles were contributed by attendees of the 8th Cary Conference, held at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in 1999. The attendees come from a wide diversity of backgrounds, so that, even more than most edited volumes, this book speaks with many voices.
The articles are organized into four sections. Section 1 stresses the importance of understanding urban ecosystems. Many readers of BioScience already appreciate this importance, but they may not be familiar with the role of community development and environmental justice in urban systems, which the authors discuss in this section. Section 2 contains nine articles describing how urban ecosystems work from the perspective of both natural and social scientists. William Rees, for example, discusses ecological economics in relation to the well-known ecological footprint concept. Anne Spirn provides an informative overview showing how urban ecology can make significant contributions to urban planning. The ten articles in section 3 address educational aspects of urban ecosystems, especially ways to improve teaching people about urban ecology. Bruce Grant's article on campus ecology is useful to those involved in educating college students and administrators about implementing ecologically sustainable ways of life on campuses. Louise Chawla and Ilaria Salvadori discuss ways to promote learning about urban ecosystems in childhood education. On a broader level, articles by Kathleen Hogan and Kathleen Weathers and by Gary Smith discuss the development of systems thinking in curricula. Section 4 contains visionary articles about ways to implement urban ecosystems education in the coming decades. As noted by Rodger Bybee, this will include significant educational reform. William Burch and Jacqueline Carrera outline ways that urban recreational and work environments can be enhanced to improve the mental and physical health of urbanites as well as their understanding of natural systems.
In my opinion, educators with nonbiology backgrounds will gain a lot more from reading Understanding Urban Ecosystems than will biologists. Few biologists need to be convinced that urban ecosystems are important. The ecological principles in the book are either very basic, and therefore well known to anyone with a biology background, or very abstract, with limited conservation applications. Like the ecosystem paradigm itself, many of the ideas relating to urban ecosystems are very interesting but are often difficult to directly apply to real-world situations.