Better living through urban ecology

August 27, 2004

Plants influence the quality of urban air. Birds are more diverse in affluent areas. When forest cover declines, E. coli levels rise in suburban streams. These are just a sampling of the findings revealed over the past 7 years by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES), an interdisciplinary collaboration of over 30 researchers, educators and policy makers working to understand how urban ecosystems function. The significance of BES contributions was recently recognized through a $4,900,000 grant renewal from the National Science Foundation, which will fund the study for another 6 years.

BES Director Dr. Steward T. A. Pickett, of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, comments, "By linking studies of human populations and social institutions with traditional ecological studies, BES research has revealed unexpected patterns and processes in the Baltimore ecosystem. Renewed funding will allow us to investigate the ecological and social feedbacks underlying urban ecology discoveries," One of the project's goals is to include this growing and often misunderstood ecosystem type in the public dialogue about the metropolitan environment.

Working with partners, including the Parks & People Foundation, the USDA Forest Service and Yale University's Urban Resources Initiative, BES has built an unprecedented platform for integrated ecological, physical and social research in a metropolitan area. Research, from atmospheric science and hydrology to urban design and economics, aims to understand Baltimore as an ecological system. Findings are shared with educators and decision makers. To date, BES research has resulted in 94 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, 8 books, 44 book chapters and 6 dissertations and theses.

"The first phase of BES taught us how to work with disciplines that ecology has rarely engaged effectively. The results gained through these unique collaborations will help meet the challenge of understanding cities, suburbs and the surrounding open lands as an integrated ecosystem," Dr. Pickett comments. Future management-relevant projects include investigating how urban trees influence air quality, how improving Baltimore's sewer system affects ecological processes, and documenting the ecological effects of restoring urban watersheds.

The City of Baltimore will be investing 1 billion dollars in the sewer infrastructure project; nearly 1 million dollars of US Forest Service funds will support the restoration of the urban watershed. Both projects will yield results useful to managers and decision makers, as well as educators and community groups in the affected water- and sewer-sheds. Michael T. Rains, Director of the USDA Forest Service's Northeastern Research Station, comments, "As we look ahead to concerns about protecting natural resource sustainability, the critical role of BES research cannot be overstated."

People are a major component of urban ecology and BES works to forge strong bonds with Baltimore residents, leaders and governmental agencies. Renewed funding will aid outreach and enrich education programs geared at increasing ecological literacy and recruiting future scientists from under-represented groups. Research findings will continue to be shared with the public and government agencies through the BES website, http://www.beslter.org.
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Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

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