The Urbane Ecologist

The origins of urban ecology


It’s odd to start a blog and I can’t help feeling that the first post has to be a titan of an introduction. But a fitting, not-too-overwhelming place to start is a quick history.

I had not heard about this field until recently but, as the saying goes, what I don’t know can fill a book. This field has several origins that are now converging to produce the relatively unknown field of urban ecology which is, most generally, one of two things. There is urban ecology which is a form of urban planning with a little biology thrown in, and there is the form that examines ecological relationships within cities (e.g. abundances of organisms). As conservation becomes more of a concern to average folk and involves people beyond some ecology students, hippies, and the nature-loving type who is at once idealistic, vegan, and maniacal about yoga, I’m sure that this field will become more crucial to the way we understand our relationship to nature and how we use our urban spaces to embrace and enhance nature rather than destroy it.

The natural history tradition gave rise to the first identifiable form of urban ecology. It came from 16th century recognition by botanists that species growing on ruins and buildings (such as stone walls and castles) were the first “habitats” in urban spaces (Sukopp, 1994, 2002; Weiland and Richter, 2009). The combination of an increase in urbanites and the knowledge of herbs for medicinal purposes led to an interest in applying knowledge of nature to cities (Weiland and Richter, 2012).

The socioecological tradition of urban ecology came during industrialization, in large part due to the Chicago School (Weiland and Richter, 2012). Chicago was the typical industrial city in the 1920s–its problems included overcrowding, pollution, and problems with the water supply–and thus became home to this new tradition (Weiland and Richter, 2012). Robert E. Park and the Chicago School examined the relationships between cities and their societies and focused on the living conditions of industrial workers (Weiland and Richter, 2012). They applied ecological theories such as succession, symbiosis, competition, and adaptation to explain migration, segregation, and minorities (Weiland and Richter, 2012).

Central Park, NY – A common example of an ecosystem fragment within a larger urban environment. Image from Wikipedia User Keithkesslerexp. Clicking on the picture will take you to its source and will provide a link to his/her profile.

After the Second World War and the consequent realization that nature’s resources are finite, urban ecology was revived in the form of the complex bioecological tradition by Herbert Sukopp and his colleagues  at the Berlin School of Urban Ecology in the 1970s (Weiland and Richter, 2012). They carried out a lot of studies on wasteland and their approach was based on the idea that the study urban flora and fauna are more versatile than studies of natural history (Weiland and Richter, 2012). A major pitfall in this approach was the perceived role of humans: as a user of urban nature above all for recreational purposes (Weiland and Richter, 2012). Although uses of nature are certainly recreational, a much larger function of nature is the services it provides humans.

At approximately the same time period the Berlin School was in its heydey, the ecosystem-related tradition arose (Weiland and Richter, 2012). Although it was influenced primarily by American and German landscape studies, it had an international impact and major research programs were initiated as a consequence (e.g. UNESCO’s Man and the Bisophere Program) (Spooner, 1986; Weiland and Richter, 2012). This tradition gave rise to two “directions”: the ecological analyses of urban landscapes, and the analyses of urban material and energy glows (Weiland and Richter, 2012). In the first direction, landscape studies identified ecological patterns and processes, in addition to carrying out metapopulation studies (Weiland and Richter, 2012). In the studies of urban material and energy flows, the focus was physical and chemical processes that affect organisms rather than on organisms themselves (Weiland and Richter, 2012).

So there we have a mini-history of urban ecology. You can think of it as a history–where one tradition led to the succession of the other–but I prefer to think of it in terms of previous traditions pooling to inform the next. Urban ecology is still too new to assign it definitive eras that exists comfortably and firmly in the past.

Today, urban ecologists study environments in several standard ways, and they face various challenges. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to examine how urban ecologists do their work and what problems their field faces. Ultimately, my goal is finding out how I can get personally involved in this field and encouraging you to join me!


Spooner, B. MAB Urban and Human Ecology Digest. 1986, UNESCO, Paris.

Sukopp, H.  Stadtforschung und Stadtokologie in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. Geobotanische Kolloquien. 1994,11, 3 – 16.

Sukopp, H.  On the early history of urban ecology in Europe. Preslia. 2002, 74, 373 – 393.

Weiland, U., Richter, M. Lines of tradition and recent approaches to urban ecology, focussing on Germany and the USA. GAIA. 2009, 1, 49-57.

Weiland, U.; Richter, M. Applied Urban Ecology: A Global Framework, First Edition; Blackwell Publishing Ltd: (Unknown Location of Publication) 2012.


4 thoughts on “The origins of urban ecology

  1. Great start. Wishing the blog and the blogger success. And keep it urbane!

  2. It’s very difficult to spot the links against the ecologically-correct green background.

  3. Great blog topic! Looking forward to following your site and learning more about urban ecology.

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