Ecology in Australian cities: past, present and future

Caragh Threlfall & Amy Hahs, ESA Urban Ecology Research Chapter Convenors

Cities are places for people. Their entire purpose is to house humans. But we build cities in nice places, that historically provided conditions needed for human survival like flat arable land with access to water. It is no co-incidence that these places have high biodiversity value too, which means that cities can be as biologically diverse as they are socially, demographically and economically.

Urban biodiversity is fascinating. There are those species that are ‘hanging on’, and those that are ‘living it up’ (and of course those in between these extremes). Many ecologists start their journey into urban ecology being extremely concerned for the hangers on, but more and more of our research is now focused on those living it up as they employ such interesting strategies to survive city life. The fundamental and applied ecological questions that can be explored in cities are endless, as are the opportunities to work across many disciplines and alongside the practitioners who can apply the knowledge gained. Once you are drawn in, it’s very hard to imagine studying any other system.

The study of urban ecology is growing rapidly in Australia. There were echoes of interest in urban ecology within the ESA in the 1970’s, with the Proceedings of the 1972 ESA conference published by the Society on the topic of ‘The City as life system?’ edited by Henry Nix and published by the Ecological Society of Australia. However, much of the recent growth has paralleled the global explosion of the field. In Australia, the early commitment to urban ecology research was exemplified by the establishment of the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology (ARCUE) at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne in 1998. While ARCUE closed in late 2016, its legacy lives on with many of the most prominent urban ecologists in Australia having had some form of engagement with that centre in a “6 degrees of separation” kind of way.

Today, there are lab groups studying the species and ecosystems in cities and towns in most of Australia’s states and territories. For example, the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, funded under the National Environmental Science Program, is undertaking research to support high environmental quality in our urban areas. As Australia rapidly urbanises, the study of urban ecology and the translation of that science to practice will only become more important. The majority of Australia’s population currently reside in cities. High quality urban design that includes considerations for environmentally friendly.approaches is crucial to the Australian Government’s plan for smart cities. Providing information on the ecology of species and ecosystems and working alongside engineers, planners, architects and health professionals is critical to the success of this vision.

To this end, the Urban Ecology Research Chapter was formed at the 2012 ESA Meeting in Melbourne, to help bring together researchers and practitioners with an interest in understanding, managing and conserving biodiversity in urban landscapes. A symposium entitled ‘A bright future for urban ecology research in Australia’ was held during the 2012 meeting, along with a Town Hall event on ‘Biodiversity and the City’ co-hosted by The City of Melbourne. This symposium title has proven to be quite apt, as the Urban Ecology Research Chapter has organised symposia and some form of social event at each of the subsequent ESA meetings. We now have 78 members on our mailing list, and their disciplines and affiliations reflect the broad cross-section of people who are actively engaged in understanding and supporting biodiversity and ecology in urban landscapes.

The Urban Ecology Research Chapter was formed at the 2012 ESA Meeting in Melbourne, to help bring together researchers and practitioners with an interest in understanding, managing and conserving biodiversity in urban landscapes. Credit: Amy Hahs

While the discipline grew rapidly, 10 years ago there were still only a handful of talks on urban ecology in the open session of ESA (like our PhD talks!), while we now we have entire days of 3-4 sessions of urban talks at the ESA annual conference. At this year’s ESA meeting we will hear about exciting urban ecosystem research from across the country, and have the opportunity to hear from practitioners in local government and private practice who are actively managing urban habitats. The aim of this year’s symposium “New Methods and Applications in Urban Ecology” is to highlight the various methods researchers are using to study urban systems across disciplines including microbiology, pathology, animal behaviour, GIS and remote sensing, and the social sciences, and the novel outcomes of these studies. We are hosting a discussion session as part of the symposium to provide a platform for researchers from disparate disciplines to exchange ideas and hear about novel techniques being applied to the study of urban ecosystems. There is also a field trip on offer, “Urban Green Zones – Using science to inform management in urban reserves”, where participants will have the opportunity to hear how science is being applied to the management of threatened species and ecological communities in metropolitan Launceston.

As you can see from this issue of the ESA Bulletin, urban ecology is an exciting and diverse discipline that has strong links across research and practice. If you’d like to find out more about it, or connect with the Urban Ecology Research Chapter, please feel free to send us an email or chat with us at the conference. We’d love to hear from you!

For more information contact the ESA Urban Ecology Research Chapter Convenors, Caragh Threlfall and Amy Hahs ¤

Read the rest of the September 2019 ESA Bulletin