Urban areas are growing worldwide, and have 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 to provide both environmental and social benefits. Using my background in field ecology, advanced statistical and spatial analyses, and collaborations with social scientists, I am working to address these knowledge gaps, focusing on the following research areas:
Responses of plant communities to urban development
Urban areas have many features that can influence plants, including smaller and less connected patches of remnant habitat, altered environmental conditions such as warmer temperatures, and introduced ornamental species. Understanding how these factors influence the abundance and diversity of plant species (and which factors have the biggest influence) can help to inform conservation and restoration in and around cities.
As a member of the Plant Ecology Lab at UNC Chapel Hill, I developed a field study to investigate the effects of urban development and associated changes to environmental conditions and habitat connectivity on plant species found in remnant forest patches. I found that habitat loss, urban environments, and introduced species influence the functional and phylogenetic diversity of forest plant communities (in some surprising ways), and that urban land appears to impede the movement of seeds between forest patches, except for species whose seeds are dispersed by birds. This work highlights the importance of both landscape-scale conservation network design and homeowner decisions about what species to plant for maintaining urban populations of native plant species.
Connections between people and nature in cities
Most people live in cities worldwide, and are increasingly disconnected from natural areas and biodiversity. However, urban green spaces such as parks and gardens offer opportunities for people to connect with nature and ultimately encourage pro-environmental behaviors. I am interested in studying the places and ways that people connect with nature in cities, and how connections to nature and an understanding of environmental problems can lead to behavioral change.
As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), I explored the potential for social media and citizen science data to provide insights into people’s interactions with and perceptions of urban biodiversity. I worked with Emily Minor (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Andrew Crooks (George Mason University) to examine the contributions of different land uses and neighborhoods in Chicago for providing opportunities for people to observe birds. 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.
Patterns of plant diversity in residential areas
I am currently working with the Minor Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago to consider the role of people’s decisions on urban plant diversity, by examining the spatial patterns of biodiversity and vegetation structure in residential yards in Chicago. We have found evidence of yard mimicry, with people living near one another having more similar yard vegetation than those who live far apart, and are exploring how these patterns scale up to influence citywide plant diversity.
Using plant traits to examine species’ responses to environmental change
Plant functional traits, characteristics that relate to species’ growth strategies, ability to move across the landscape, and environmental tolerances, are useful for understanding species’ responses to environmental change, allowing for prediction of the effects of future global change on plant communities and comparison across study systems with different species pools. I have used information on species’ functional traits and phylogenetic relationships to examine plant community responses to urbanization in North Carolina and water and nutrient availability gradients across the Eastern U.S. (using data from the Forest Inventory Analysis and Carolina Vegetation Survey datasets). I also co-developed a conceptual framework for measures of functional and phylogenetic diversity to identify important community assembly processes. I am now using a trait-based approach to predict which plant species are found in urban forest patches, as well as quantify differences in the species found at urban forest sites from those that characterize reference (i.e. high quality) forested sites used to define target species lists for forest restoration projects. This method allows me to recommend modifications to urban restoration targets to improve the likelihood of successful revegetation and bring focus to potentially vulnerable species.