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Urban Ecosystems

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When people think of ecology, they usually imagine studies out in the country. The next thing they think of is studies involving the relationship of plants and animals to one another. They also imagine studies that show how organisms relate to the physical environment -- air, water, and soil. People and cities usually don't come to mind when ecology is mentioned.


    Urban Ecology is an integrated scientific study of complex, spatially extensive urbanized systems. The subject includes central and edge of cities, suburbs of various ages and densities, and the exurban settlements in which urban lifestyles and economic commitments are dominant compared to those of rural or natural resource management.  Urban Ecology emphasizes linkages with social and economic sciences, geography and physical sciences as well as the more traditional biological sciences.  In practice, urban ecology acknowledges the needs for sustainability and for social equity in the distribution of environmental vulnerabilities and amenities.  .  

    Urban Ecology has a rich foundation.  Wildlife ecologists early on established a productive and ongoing tradition of understanding the plants and animals in urban green spaces, yards, and gardens.  Such studies include genetics and adaptation of urban populations, and their relationships with social and behavioral controls imposed by people.  The energy and material flows in cities were another of the roots of modern urban ecology.  The understanding of the inputs to and outputs from cities are important for improving management and reducing environmental costs of city living, both for residents and for environments downstream and downwind.

    Involving students in explorations about their school and neighborhood communities is an excellent way to engage them in learning about the natural and human-modified world.  Until recently, mainstream ecological science was focused on pristine or wild lands.  Teaching ecology in the context of urban ecosystems provides a local, authentic learning experience for students who may never have first-hand experiences with pristine wilderness and is an obvious launching board for understanding how humans have shaped natural systems and the consequences thereof.  The lessons provided here engage students in exploring the complexities of urban ecosystems and highlight the importance of understanding human-nature interactions.

    In our work with K-12 students and teachers, we have addressed questions across a range of scales, including:

    1) How do students learn about their city as an ecosystem as a component of their environmental science literacy?

    2) How do students apply their environmental science literacy as citizens in a local-to-global context?

    3) What knowledge, skills and dispositions do teachers need in order to foster environmental learning and citizenship among their students?

    4) What professional development programs and resources support teachers in effective environmental science teaching?

    5)  How does the broader knowledge and information network in Baltimore function to support dissemination and application of ecosystem knowledge to policy and decision making?

    Common to all of these studies is a belief in the vital role played by a dynamic interplay between knowledge and action. Student thinking is coalesced as they seek to apply ecological knowledge to real environmental problems in their neighborhoods and they then learn more from the results of their actions.

    Teacher-Scientist-Educator teams have developed a variety of education resources available for educators working with K-12 students, both in school settings or in after school, community or summer programs.  These materials were developed to fill surprising gaps in knowledge about ecology teaching and learning, and about the complex roles that the formal K-12 and non-formal environmental education systems play in fostering broad understanding of cities and their ecosystems.