Research in the Urban Systems Lab is fundamentally interdisciplinary with an explicit understanding of cities as complex social-ecological-technical systems. Our work includes empirical and theoretical research in, of, for and with cities.
Current and Future Green Roofs in NYC
Green roofs are quickly becoming a source of nature-based solutions in cities around the world to address urban heat, stormwater, need for recreational space, urban agriculture, building energy use reduction, and more. The USL has an expanding research project to examine the state of current green roofs in New York City, the future potential, and social equity analysis to examine who benefits from green roofs in the city. The Lab is also collaborating with The Nature Conservancy and Columbia University to produce the most comprehensive assessment of green roofs to date in NYC.
The future potential of green roofs in the city is another aspect that we are exploring through analysis and data visualization. See this link to explore the Envisioning a New Urban Jungle project lead by Aucher Serr in the Lab.
On June 7th, 2018 the USL hosted and co-sponsored with NYC Audubon the first The State of Green Roofs in NYC conference ever as an event of the Green Roof Researchers Alliance which the USL has been part of from its inception. The Green Roof Ecology undergraduate design and ecology coures is another outgrowth of this research in collaboration with local partners at Brooklyn Grange. See more about the Green Roof Ecology course at our Twitter and Instagram pages.
Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events
Climate change is widely considered to be one of the greatest challenges to global sustainability, with extreme events being the most immediate way that people experience this phenomenon. Urban areas are particularly vulnerable to these events given their location, high concentration of people, and increasingly complex and interdependent infrastructure. Our lab is examining urban vulnerability and risk reduction to climate driven extreme events including heat, flooding, and storms in New York City in collaboration with the NYC Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resilience and the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay.
Additionally, we are co-leading the Urban Resilience to Extreme (UREx) Weather-related events, a five-year, $12 Million, National Science Foundation Sustainability Research Network (SRN) project. The highly interdisciplinary and geographically dispersed UREx SRN team is developing a diverse suite of new methods and tools to assess how infrastructure can be more resilient, provide ecosystem services, improve social well being, and exploit new technologies in ways that benefit all segments of urban populations. The UREx team will link SRN scientists, students, local practitioners, planners, industry, NGO’s, and other stakeholders across >25 institutions and >60 collaborators to co-produce data, models, images, stories, and on-the-ground projects that show how a new resilient infrastructure can be developed.
Enabling Blue-Green Infrastructure
USL Director Timon McPhearson is Co-Primary Investigator of the ENABLE Project, and co-leads research activities ecological traits, urban resilience, and the role of green and blue infrastructure for climate change adaptation.
The ENABLE project brings together a diverse, multi-disciplinary group of partners from North, South, West and Central Europe and North America to investigate how to unlock the full potential of GBI. It will test possible GBI solutions to urban challenges in the metropolitan regions of Halle (Germany), Barcelona, Łódź (Poland), Stockholm and Oslo, and New York City as a US comparison.
Most cities around the world are interlaced with green and blue infrastructure (GBI) and benefit from the wide range of ecosystem services it provides. In an increasingly urbanized world, GBI has the potential to tackle multiple environmental and social challenges, such as human wellbeing, social inequality, biodiversity loss and climate change impacts such as flooding. However, the successful design and implementation of GBI requires careful consideration of a number of key aspects, including people’s perceptions of the benefits of GBI, barriers to the equitable distribution of benefits and strategies for making the flow of benefits resilient.
Resilience to Climate Change in Cities
The USL is a member of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN), and we have multiple overlapping projects engaging with the UCCRN through Cities IPCC and the Future Earth Urban Knowledge Action Network with research focused on nature-based solutions for increasing climate resilience and adaptation strategies in cities and urban areas. Timon McPhearson is the coordinating lead author for an international team of experts for Chapter 8, Urban Ecosystems and Biodiversity, in the “Second Assessment Report on Climate Change in Cities”, (ARC3-2) a project of the UCCRN, published in Cambridge University Press in 2018.
Seeds of a 'Good' Anthropocene
The project "Seeds of a Good Anthropocene" is a collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre and multiple other organizations in the "Bright Spots - Seeds of a Good Anthropocene," project funded initially by FutureEarth. The objective of this project consists of counterbalancing current dystopic visions of the future that may be inhibiting our ability to move towards a positive future for the Earth and humanity. This will be done by soliciting, exploring, and developing a suite of alternative, plausible “Good Anthropocenes” – positive visions of futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just, and sustainable. See related papers to this project in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability on our Publications page.
MillionTreesNYC Afforestation Study
The study is a multi-year ecological experiment in 10 different parks across NYC with 38 permanent afforestation plots where we have been collecting field data on soils, plants, and microbes as a long-term study of succession, soil-plant interactions, and native/invasive species dynamics over time. . The MTNYC Afforestation Study is led by the Urban Systems Lab and co-led by colleagues at Columbia University who teamed up in 2008 with NYC Parks and Recreation to study the short and long-term impacts of the MTNYC tree planting strategy on forest ecosystem structure and functioning. Additional partners include the U.S. Forest Service, Brooklyn College, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Rutgers University, Pace University, and Hofstra University, and the New York Restoration Project. The study will also examines the dynamics of newly planted urban forests in order to evaluate best management strategies for meeting long-term goals of of the MTNYC project and urban park management more generally.
Networked Urban Ecology
Urban areas are highly heterogenous and habitat for non-human species are notoriously patchy, disconnected, and fragmented. This project focuses on how to increase connectivity of patchy, fragmented urban green space. Connect-the-Dots is one on of our networked urban ecology projects that merges urban ecology with design in partnership to innovate connections between fragmented, disconnected urban green spaces (dots). Ecological spaces in New York City, like most cities, struggle because of lack of corridors and connections between parks and smaller green spaces that can allow species and genetic material to move. Improving the mobility of urban species and building a networked ecological infrastructure will have benefits far beyond individual species, serving as a source for innovating ways to increase the quality and quantity of green space for the health and wellbeing of New Yorkers, especially in underserved areas of the city. Green spaces are fundamental to livability, equity, resilience and sustainability and corridors and green space connectivity is essential to a healthy urban ecology. Connect-the-Dots will develop ecologically based designed solutions for linking parks, street trees, green streets, green roofs and walls, and micro-urban spaces together in an ecological network to improve the lives of plant and animal species and the many benefits they provide for the city.
Future Earth Urban KAN
Future Earth is an international research platform intended to provide the knowledge and support to accelerate transformations to a sustainable world. It serves as the most important international scientific body (and largest) to coordinate new, interdisciplinary approaches to research service as a platform for international engagement to ensure that knowledge is generated in partnership with society and users of science. The USL and Timon McPhearson has provided leadership including as a member of the Core Development Team helping to launch the Urban Knowledge Action Network (UKAN) as well as the Livable Urban Futures project, and as editors and authors of the book, Urban Planet (Cambridge University Press, 2018), all projects within Future Earth.
Urban Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (URBES) Project
The URBES Project, based on case studies of five European cities plus New York, is designed to address significant scientific knowledge gaps on the role of urban biodiversity and ecosystem services for human well-being to help build cities’ capacity to adapt to climate change. Funded by BiodivERsA through DIVERSITAS with €1 Million for three years, URBES consists of eleven top research institutes in Europe and New York. The project ran from 2012 – 2014, but also resulted in ongoing collaborations especially with colleagues at Stockholm Resilience Center in Stockholm, Dutch Research Institute for Transitions in Rotterdam, and Humboldt University in Berlin.
Valuing Urban Natural Capital
Urban biodiversity and ecosystems are critical natural capital impacting human health and wellbeing. One project the Urban Systems Lab has been working on steadily with colleagues at the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University and University of Minnesota, Stockholm Resilience Center, and the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economic, part of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, is the development of Urban InVEST, an initiative to design and develop an urban natural capital valuation model.