Urban areas are growing worldwide, and have great potential to be a haven for biodiversity and provide ecosystem services for people who live in cities. Since urban ecology is a relatively new field, surprisingly little is known about how urban development affects ecosystems, what are the best ways to protect biodiversity in cities, and how to design and manage urban green spaces like parts to have both environmental and social benefits. Using my background in ecology, methods pulled from geography, and collaborations with social scientists, I am working to address these knowledge gaps, focusing on three major research areas:
Perceptions of urban biodiversity and green spaces
I am interested in identifying ways to manage urban green spaces, places like parks and community gardens, in ways that benefit people as well as the rest of the ecosystem. Urban green spaces can have many potential benefits, ranging from acting as habitat for migrating birds, to providing places where citizens experience nature, to mitigating temperature and flooding. There may be tradeoffs between these different goals of urban green spaces, but more and more conservation organizations and city governments are trying to find ways to maximize benefits by identifying ways to achieve multiple goals.
As a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC, I am addressing this topic by exploring people’s perceptions of and attitudes towards urban green spaces using social media data. Using sites like iNaturalist, Flickr, and Twitter, I am investigating where people make observations of urban nature and how people’s comments on urban green spaces relate to the ecological attributes of those green spaces (i.e. their size, vegetation structure, and biodiversity). I am excited by the potential for social media and other user-generated data to provide ecological insights, especially those that can help inform sustainable urban design. I am working with Dr. Emily Minor (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Dr. Andrew Crooks (George Mason University) on this research.
Effects of urbanization on forests
In my dissertation research at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I worked with Dr. Peter S. White and the Plant Ecology Lab, I investigated the effects of urban development and associated changes to environmental conditions and habitat connectivity influence which plant species are found in urban forest patches.
I found that warmer temperatures associated with urbanization appear to influence which plant species are found in urban forest patches, and may favor ornamental evergreen shrubs that have colonized urban forests. In addition, the patterns of species composition that I documented suggest that urban development impedes the movement of seeds between forest patches, particularly for species whose seeds are not carried by wind, water, or animals and are already most likely to be have limited ability to disperse across the landscape. These findings have direct implications for land management and land use planning in the study landscape, and point to the importance of individual landowner decision-making for ecological patterns and processes at broader scales.
Using diversity measures to infer community assembly processes
As a graduate student, I participated in a distributed graduate seminar focused on Dimensions of Biodiversity. In this, I worked with other graduate students on projects related to functional and phylogenetic diversity, measures that describe the distributions of functional traits (ecologically important characteristics of species) and phylogenetic relationships of species living in the same local community. We were interested in using these measures to understand the dominant processes that had determined which species were present in the communities.
In one project, I worked with graduate students at UNC to examine changes in functional and phylogenetic diversity of Eastern North American trees along environmental gradients, using two existing datasets describing tree communities: the Carolina Vegetation Survey and Forest Inventory and Analysis projects. This research was published in Ecography.
I also worked with graduate students from universities in the U.S., Chile, and Brazil to develop a conceptual framework for using functional and phylogenetic diversity and data on community composition sampled along environmental gradients to infer the processes structuring communities. This work was published in One Ecosystem.