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1 November 2010 Ecology of Cities and Towns: A Comparative Approach
Marc L. Imhoff
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Somewhere around 3500 BP, humans began to build structures we now commonly refer to as cities and towns. Since then, human settlements have evolved into ever larger and more complex entities eclipsing simple architecture and emerging as quasibiological entities, complete with their own growth patterns and metabolic processes. As cities have grown to dominate the global landscape and our knowledge of ecology has evolved, both the impact of these structures on the original ecological functioning of the land surface and the internal functioning of the cities themselves as specialized ecosystems have become subjects of interest. These two perspectives unfortunately drive two very different approaches to the study of urban ecology and carry with them the disparate objectives and methodologies required for a full-blown identity crisis. Issues of scale and the interconnectivity of processes loom dauntingly on the research horizon even after one has selected a theme, which could include anything from biogeochemical cycles to economics, culture, and politics.

This is the interdisciplinary science world into which Ecology of Cities and Towns: A Comparative Approach arrives. The book begins with a synopsis of the many issues addressed and the approaches taken by previous researchers, attempting to order them in a framework that makes sense in the light of modern ecological theory. Paramount is the development of a definition for urban ecology that establishes principles adequate for comparing results of previous approaches as well as providing guidelines for future studies. This is a tall order. And although the editors wisely do not attempt to have the final word, the first chapters of the book do a useful job of contextualizing urban ecology in the concepts of island biogeography and the functioning of urban systems in a world of dynamic disequilibrium. The tone of the book, then, is set by outlining two approaches to the study of urban ecology—in cities and of cities. The in-city approach takes the classic road of comparing differences in the physical environment, soils, fauna, and flora inside and outside urban areas, generally employing a gradient from urban core to nonurban zones. The of-cities approach builds on the in-city methods but looks at the urban system as a separately identifiable ecosystem.

Divided into four parts, the book takes the reader on a tour of the widely varied studies of urban ecology. Part I, “Opportunities and Challenges of Conducting Comparative Studies,” is the best-organized section, featuring approaches for making comparative studies. Examples include the establishment of frameworks for gradient and patch dynamics studies of the New York metropolitan area and other large cities, urban impacts on marine habi- tats, comparative ecology of historical urban development, and ecological research in rapidly urbanizing developing countries. Most compelling in this first set of chapters is the discussion around the fundamental question confronting all of ecology—whether humans should be placed inside or outside the ecological framework. This issue, also central to the in-cities versus of-cities argument, is discussed in terms of established ecological theory. A case is made for the human ecology model using a set of intensive studies of New York and Baltimore.

Part II, “Ecological Studies of Cities and Towns,” is somewhat scattershot but not at all unrepresentative of the diverse nature of urban ecological studies. Need-driven objectives range from assessing impacts of urban development on the composition and structure of forests to biodiversity in the near-shore marine environment. The first chapters feature examples of classic ecological studies describing urban development patterns and their effect on various biological communities. Later chapters feature work addressing issues such as the impact of urban lighting on insect populations, urban influences on vegetation cover in Shanghai and Beijing, and the effect of development on carbon and nitrogen cycling in large urban areas. Because the chapters are separate contributions from various experts in the field, the writing style varies considerably and many references are repeated. While some chapters can be a bit tedious in their description of results, there are some gems: Chapter 15 describes the “vacuum cleaner effect” of street lighting. If unwisely positioned, street lighting can draw insects away from their habitats over surprisingly large distances, with dire consequences for local populations of some species.


Part III, “Integrating Science with Management and Planning,” enters the sphere of urban structural analysis. Although some of the questions addressed in part II are repeated here, this section draws on the considerable experience of European and New Zealand investigators, providing an interesting view of the cultural perspectives important in defining applied goals in urban ecological studies.

Part IV, “Comments and Synthesis,” completes the book, summarizing and knitting together the primary themes and addressing questions such as, “What is the main object of urban ecology?” It also identifies the opportunities and limitations presented by the previous chapters.

It is inevitable that any book covering such a broad subject will have shortcomings. Readers seeking a better understanding of how remote sensing is enabling urban ecology studies, for example, will be disappointed. Although several chapters use some form of remotely sensed data in their results, the treatment of the subject is weak and there are too few references provided for even a cursory understanding of this rapidly emerging tool. Interested readers would be better served looking at Urban Remote Sensing by Qihao Weng and Dale Quattrochi or Applied Remote Sensing for Urban Planning Governance and Sustainability, edited by Maik Netzband, William L. Stefanov, and Charles Redman. The text is quite long (700-plus pages), rendering the work somewhat ponderous, and some chapters don't seem to fit the theme as well as others. The book also weakens a bit in the final synthesis.

However, these shortcomings are minor. With more than 100 pages of references and 73 contributors, Ecology of Cities and Towns is a useful compendium of carefully selected studies carried out by very experienced scientists dedicated to advancing urban ecological studies in a rigorous manner. The book accurately reflects the multiple personalities inherent in an extraordinarily multidisciplined field of study that is experiencing a rapid upsurge in public interest. At the same time it offers perspectives for implementing frameworks that would enable a comparative approach for tying together the range of work considered.

Ecology of Cities and Towns cogently defines many of the philosophical issues confronting scientists in structuring urban ecology studies and breaks the inertia created by entrenched perspectives, making it an excellent addition to any library. The work presented will surely influence future directions in the field.

Marc L. Imhoff "Ecology of Cities and Towns: A Comparative Approach," BioScience 60(10), 852-854, (1 November 2010).
Published: 1 November 2010
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