City environments are characterised by dense networks of interacting social, ecological, climatic and physical factors. Urban ecosystems are therefore highly complex, and understanding their potential for fragility or resilience in the face of human and wildlife migration, climate change, and socioeconomic development requires research that transcends disciplinary boundaries and fuses methodologies.
The team of Guest Editors for our Urban Ecosystems Call for Papers are actively considering submissions for inclusion in our upcoming interdisciplinary Collection. Here, one member of the team, Mariana Mayer-Pinto, shares her experiences of working in urban marine habitats and her thoughts on the opportunities and challenges in urban research.
What excites you most about working in urban environments?
Urban environments tend to be very unappreciated by the general public (and even scientists!). This is particularly true in marine systems. Usually, the first image that comes to people’s minds when thinking of marine environments is of an amazing, pristine coral reef, with clear water and lots of colourful fish! However, the truth is that the urban environment is what most people experience throughout their lives and they are extremely important, providing several services to humans. And they can be extremely beautiful and diverse! Look at Sydney Harbour, for example… Sydney Harbour is not only beautiful, but it is also a global hot spot of biodiversity, with more fish species than the entire UK coast! So, for me, studying the ecology of these – often undervalued – environments is not only fun, but a great way to educate people and raise awareness on the importance of nature, even in highly modified places such as cities and harbours.
Are there any special challenges associated with carrying out research in and around cities?
I think the most challenging thing of doing research in and around cities is the competition for space. Harbours, in particular, are associated with many activities and uses (e.g. commercial and recreational fishing, residential use, transportation, etc.), which can, many times, generate conflict. So, a recurrent challenge is to find suitable places in which to do experiments that will be able to address the hypotheses being tested, without interfering with the other activities constantly happening in and around cities (in my case, harbours) and without letting other activities (and people) interfere with your experiments!
To what extent is each urban setting unique? Can we look for general patterns across cities?
Many people argue that although urban ecosystems do have some unique properties, they do not have a unique ecology, i.e. the ecological processes driving diversity and distribution of organisms in more natural environments (e.g. wetlands and kelp forests) are the same in urban systems. So, yes, I would definitely say that we should look for general patterns across cities and this is true for terrestrial, freshwater and marine urban environments.
The aim of this Call for Papers is to bring together interdisciplinary perspectives on patterns and functions in urban ecosystems. What do you see as the importance of interdisciplinarity in understanding urban environments?
The concept of liveable and climate-resilient cities is widely accepted as fundamental to the future well-being of societies, therefore we need to have a thorough understanding not only on the ecology of these urban systems, but also on the relevant socio-economic drivers. One of my areas of research is ecological engineering, or eco-engineering, which can be defined as the attempt to combine engineering principles with ecological processes to reduce environmental impacts from, and maximise potential benefits of, built infrastructure. Therefore, in order to implement eco-engineering interventions on existing marine infrastructure, such as seawalls, breakwaters and pilings – so their ecological value is enhanced – we need to understand not only how ecological processes on these artificial habitats differ from natural habitats, e.g. rocky shores, but also, how these interventions (e.g. retrofitting seawalls) will affect the structural integrity of structures (which needs an engineering perspective). Further, an understanding of the best type of materials to be used when constructing in the sea (if inevitable), including their life cycle and how they affect the recruitment and colonisation of marine organisms is also extremely important to make decisions and devise management strategies that would be effective in the long-term and at large-scales.
Finally, how the general public perceives these interventions is an extremely important part of the research, since human communities are extremely linked to urban systems and have the potential to critically influence these systems. Therefore, conservation (including restoration and rehabilitation) programs that solely focus on improving the diversity and functioning of these urban habitats and disregard the needs of relevant stakeholders – who are often the most direct recipients of the ecosystem services provided by these systems – will rarely succeed.
How is research in urban ecosystems translated to real-world impact? Has this been an important part of your own work?
I think this has been the most important part of my work! Because urban ecosystems are what most people experience in their everyday lives, and because human communities are intrinsically linked to urban systems, any intervention/change made, have massive social-economic implications that need to be taken in consideration.
How do you foresee scientific evidence influencing the evolution of future cities? What aspects of urban environments do you think will be hot topics in the coming years?
I am an optimist, so I really think that future cities, above and below the water mark, will be greatly influenced by science. Scientific evidence has the capacity to inform how things should be built, where they should be built, and most importantly, where they should not be built. By developing policies and management strategies that are strongly based in scientific evidence, we can not only minimise the impacts of urban developments on ecosystems, but also maximise their benefits for human societies now and into the future. A topic that is already being increasingly considered, in particular in marine urban systems, is how to simultaneously address the issues related to increasing human development in coastlines across the globe and climate change, which includes predicted sea-level rise.
Mariana Mayer-Pinto is a Scientia Fellow in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She obtained her PhD in Marine Sciences from the University of Sydney, 2009 and holds a MSc in Zoology from Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Prior to the commencement of her academic career in UNSW in 2013, she worked as a private consultant, leading the data analyses of one of the biggest environmental projects in Australia (Gorgon Project, Chevron). Her research integrates theoretical and applied ecology to gain mechanistic understanding of the effects of multiple stressors (e.g. urbanisation, contamination) on the structure and functioning of marine communities, and to provide practical solutions to environmental problems (e.g. via ecological engineering). She has worked in tropical and temperate systems and her work is mostly experimental. Her research has generated new insight critical to inform the successful conservation and management of coastal systems.
The submission deadline for the Urban Ecosystems Call for Papers is 12th July 2019. For full details of the scope and the editorial team, see https://collections.plos.org/s/urban-ecosystems