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  • Writer's pictureD. Pataki

Urban greening highlights from the Ecological Society of America

Many new advances in greening science made their debut at the 2020 ESA annual meeting. I've been trying to watch the many urban ecological presentations - read on for a few highlights!

There was no way to watch all the relevant presentations in one week - there were an impressive number of talks, posters, and sessions about urban ecosystems at this year's meeting. The urban ecology section of ESA compiled a list of relevant sessions here. In this post I'll just touch on a few highlights, especially those from early career researchers.

The "SETS" framework

Timon McPhearson of the New School and David Iwaniec of the University of Georgia organized a session on Socio-Ecological-Technological-System (SETS) frameworks for studying cities. This approach is an expansion of the CNH-type frameworks I discussed in this post, with an added dimension of analyzing green infrastructure from an engineering perspective - a critical addition to socio-ecological studies in the engineered urban environment.

I don't use this conceptual framework often these days myself, but it can be useful. Elizabeth Cook from Barnard College (my alma mater!) reported on an interesting study of urban climate resilience plans from a SETS perspective. She's finding that most cities frame climate resilience in social dimensions, but ecological and technological aspects of resilience will also be critically important in planning the future of cities.

Nature-based solutions to climate change

Many of the researchers in this group are also part of the new NATURA project, led by Nancy Grimm at Arizona State University. NATURA is a network of networks, aimed at bringing together projects and studies of nature-based solutions to climate change and extreme events.

Equity and justice in the distribution of nature-based urban infrastructure is one compelling theme of NATURA, addressed by Zbigniew Grabowski of the Cary Institute and David Maddox of The Nature of Cities. Zbigniew's presentation called for democratizing and decolonizing green infrastructure, and David's presentation called for justice in efforts to green cities.

I managed to catch up with David during the meeting and learned that a global virtual conference on justice and the nature of cities might be in the works for early 2021, as a followup to the Paris summit. Stay tuned for more about that in the near future!

Ecology and design

Urban green infrastructure was the theme of many other talks and sessions. Katie Coyne is a lansdcape architect at Asakura Robinson who's been organizing interesting sessions at the interface between ecology and urban design in the last few years. She brought together several designers and researchers to present on evidence-based urban greening - my favorite topic! Her presentation was packed with interesting points, e.g. "ecological is never socially neutral - and vice versa". I agree!

Other presenters included Olyssa Starry from Portland State studying therapeutic hospital green roofs. Her presentation reminded me of the therapeutic hospital gardens I saw in Australia, but with a more expansive approach surveying U.S. hospitals nationwide. Also in this session, Parul Pillei from the Harris County Public Health Department presented on extreme heat interventions in Houston. There were many urban heat mitigation talks this year, but this project is striking for its use of citizen science to map heat with sensors in private cars that drive transects around the city. The data will be incorporated into planning safe routes to schools and parks.

Urban plants in a changing climate

Nature based solutions and green infrastructure can affect the climate, but the reverse is also true. The plants we select for cities have to be able to withstand increasing heat, drought, and flooding. Allyson Salisbury from The Morton Arboretum and Alessandro Ossola now at UC Davis organized a session on "Leveraging Plant Ecophysiology to Grow Resilient Urban Landscapes." It included a number of talks applying an understanding of plant physiology and ecology to choosing urban plants for the future climate.

Renee Marchin at Western Sydney University spoke about Australia's Which Plant Where project, which screens hundreds of plants for climate suitability. Claire Farrell at the University of Melbourne described an ecophysiological approach for designing woody urban meadows with shrub species suitable for urban settings. Just before the COVID lockdown I had the opportunity to see some of these projects on the ground, and they show the huge potential of bringing cutting edge ecophysiological methods and theory into urban landscape design.

And last but not least...

My lab group and collaborators presented a variety of new work on urban heat, water, and biodiversity. Noortje Grijseels showed our latest results from the American Residential Macrosystem project, measuring and modeling evapotranspiration (ET) of lawns all over the U.S. (we need to get Noortje her own website!). I think I'm going to dedicate an upcoming post to lawn ET because it's so darn interesting...

Elizaveta Litvak reported progress in her effort to produce a general model of transpiration for most urban trees, regardless of species and location. This will allow much more accurate estimates of tree water needs for irrigation management.

My Australian host Steve Livesley of the University of Melbourne summarized our collaboration with Edoardo Daly of Monash University to ponder the pros and cons of increasing urban irrigation to cope with rising temperatures and climate change.

Allison Blanchette from Meghan Avolio's lab at Johns Hopkins reported the preferences of homeowners in Salt Lake City for visual variety to explain why some parts of front and backyard elements have more plant diversity than others.

And I presented a poster about integrating cultivated plants into ecology that you can read about here and here.

Once upon a time, I was going to host this meeting right here in Salt Lake City. We had to go virtual at the last minute - so thanks very much to everyone who presented anyway, despite the difficult circumstances. Urban greening science is alive and well at ESA, so maybe I'll see you there next year.


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