The Changing Nature of Cities: Ecological and Social Dynamics in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Urban Ecosystem

Principal Investigator(s):

Sarah Hobbie, Professor, Ecology, Evolution & Behavior


Project summary:

While cities often conjure images of buildings, parking lots, and streets, they are also home to diverse kinds of nature in parks, yards, gardens, lakes, streams, and the like. This diverse urban nature is important habitat for many types of plants and wildlife, and is affected by a variety of stressors, ranging from toxic pollutants to pests, habitat fragmentation, and climate change. Urban nature in all its diversity is also critically important to urban residents, providing numerous potential benefits, ranging from aesthetic and health-related, to climate control and recreational opportunities. However, these benefits are not equally accessible to everyone. This project will explore how urban residents and urban nature interact with one another and respond to ongoing rapid environmental and social change. The ultimate goal is to figure out ways that environmental outcomes can be improved for all people living in the city. Researchers will work with education specialists from the Bell Museum to help middle school students and teachers learn and teach about science, using their own schoolyards as natural classrooms. Researchers will also nurture new university-community partnerships to better understand the factors contributing to social disparities in human relationships with urban nature and to learn about approaches to address those disparities.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) Urban Long-Term Ecological Research Program (LTER) aims to determine the long-term coupled dynamics of urban nature and the urban social system in the face of rapid environmental and social change. The project examines this coupling across organizational scales of urban nature from diverse organisms in habitat patches, to stream and stormwater drainage networks, to landscapes with abundant surface water. The project likewise examines human-nature coupling at multiple scales in the urban social system, from diverse individuals acting in groups in numerous municipalities to complex governance systems and institutions in the metropolitan region. Specifically, the research addresses how biodiversity at the organism to habitat patch scales, and habitat fragmentation and connectivity mediate long-term responses of ecological structure and function to urban stressors such as toxins, pests, pathogens, and climate change. The research further explores how configuration and connectivity of urban nature habitat patches and impervious cover at the drainage network and landscape scales influence long-term hydrology, urban climate, and water quality. Researchers will determine how ecological, hydrological, and climate processes of urban nature create benefits and burdens for diverse human communities over time, and in turn how governance, policy, and practice can change to improve equity of urban nature decisions. Finally, the project will explore how the long-term process of growing inclusive relationships, especially with communities of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, for knowledge creation and practice, change scientific and community outcomes in the urban ecosystem. By advancing understanding of how pollutants, biodiversity, land cover, habitat fragmentation, and drainage network properties affect urban nature processes in the face of environmental and social change, researchers will test whether ecological theories developed in non-urban ecosystems can predict patterns and processes in highly modified and managed urban systems. The project will shed light on patterns of social disparities in human relationships with urban nature and how such disparities can be addressed through institutional and policy change and greater inclusivity in long-term research.

Project details:

  • Project number: 2021056
  • Start date: 03/2021
  • Project status: Active
  • Research area: Environment and Energy