A Short Introduction to Urban Ecology

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

According to McDonnell (2011), the discipline of ecology came into the picture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and was defined as the scientific study of the abundance and distribution of organisms, and the interaction between each other and also the environment. In this newly developing field of ecology, human beings were treated as external subjects in most ecological investigations. However, as urbanization began to occur at an alarming rate in the late 1950s and early 1960s, scientists soon realized that human beings are a potent force capable of modifying ecosystems (McDonnell, 2011). As a matter of fact, what sets urban ecosystems apart from all other ecosystems on earth is the presence of human beings (Alberti et al., 2003), and cities represent the most domesticated landscapes on earth (Kareiva et al., 2007). It was in the early 1970s that a sub-discipline of ecology called urban ecology was for the first time formally introduced in academic circles. It would be worthwhile to note here that the discipline of urban ecology was evolving on two fronts – one, understanding of the ecological or biophysical aspects of cities, and two, understanding of human-environment interactions or human ecology.

Talking of the evolution of urban ecology as an ecological discipline, Shochat et al. (2006) show how urban ecology has progressed from being merely descriptive to more mechanistic in nature. While early ecological investigations in the urban were mostly concerned with the abundance and distribution of species, and ecosystem services (McDonnell, 2011), it has begun to foray into studies on animal behaviour, species interactions, genetics and evolution (Shochat et al., 2006). Likewise, in their paper on the ecology of suburban wildlife, DeStefano & DeGraaf (2003) investigate the growing interest in urban and suburban wildlife through time. While the late 1960s and ’70s saw a growing interest in urban and suburban fauna through numerous symposiums being conducted, the following decade was a call to shift attention to non-urban landscapes and endangered species. However, there was a resurgence in interest in urban and suburban wildlife in the 1990s with new vigour and urgency, as studies began to be published in highly rated academic journals. This newfound interest in urban landscapes can be attributed to the growing realization that urban landscapes are valuable for several species (Červinka et al., 2014; Ditchkoff et al., 2006; Kinzig et al., 2005).

While on the one hand ecologists were developing their understanding of ecological patterns, processes and interactions in the urban landscape, on the other hand, social scientists, planners and architects, along with experts from other fields were involved in the study of human settlements in the urban (McDonnell, 2011). Scientists began to realize the importance of integrating the social and ecological aspects of urban ecology as they felt that, in an increasingly human-dominated globe, exclusion of humans from any form of ecological enquiry would lead to inadequate explanations (Alberti et al., 2003). Pickett et al. (2008) also talked about the integration of two perspectives – ecological perspective and urban planning perspective – that were derived from urban ecology. Within the ecological perspective is the differentiation between ‘ecology in cities’ and ‘ecology of cities’ which is crucial to the understanding of the history of urban ecology, and which is important for the integration of the ecological and social sciences.

While ‘ecology in cities’ is based on a small scale phenomena derived from a single discipline, ‘ecology of cities’ is often large scale, muti-disciplinary investigations that take into account the human as well as ecological dimensions affecting ecosystem processes (McDonnell, 2011). The urban planning perspective, on the other hand, focuses on the interaction between the natural and built environment and its influences on the economy, health and human community. Thus, it can be said that urban ecology is multi-disciplinary in nature, encompassing a broad range of subjects from several other disciplines while being fundamentally an applied science (Alberti et al., 2003; Niemelä, 1999).

Having looked at the evolution of the discipline of urban ecology through an ecological and social perspective, let us now turn our attention to the evolution of political ecology in the urban. Urban political ecology has its roots in research carried out in the rural context of the global south in the 1980s (Lawhon et al., 2014), with its foundations built on power relations in human-nature interactions (Robbins, 2012). In his review of power, knowledge and political ecology in the third world, Bryant (1998) talks about the three phases of the evolution of Political Ecology in the third world. While the first phase was influenced by neo-Marxist writers who focused attention on class struggle and the capitalist mode of surplus extraction in Third World environmental conflicts, in the second phase, writers focused on how power relations influenced human-environmental interactions. In the third phase, political ecology experts studied how knowledge and power interact to influence political-ecological outcomes.

Interestingly, while political ecology has its roots in the third world or the global south, it has been informed by concepts that have been developed in the global north. The evolution of urban ecology, as many experts in the field would admit, has largely been influenced by trends observed and research carried out in Western Europe and Northern America (Roy, 2009; Kowarik, 2011; McDonnell, 2011). According to Ananya Roy (2009), while concepts in urban theory have long been based on ‘first world’ experiences, there is a need to develop theories that are more context-specific. Cities of the global south such as Shanghai, Cairo, Mumbai, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Dakar, and Johannesburg are fast gaining prominence as important nodes of urbanization, and the author asks if it is perhaps time for urban theory to draw from experiences of the global south. A similar call for the contextualization of urban theory is echoed by Lawhon et al. (2014) who feel that, although much of the theory in urban political ecology has been informed by concepts in the global north, there is a need to broaden our understanding of the discipline by making it more context-specific – something that they refer to as ‘situated urban political ecology’. Consequently, there is a growing body of literature on southern urban theory that is being added to our traditional understanding of Euro-American urban theory.


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