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Title: Ecology of Cities and Towns: A Comparative Approach
Author(s): Mark J McDonnell, Amy K Hahs and Jürgen H Breuste
Date of Publication: 2009 Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Pages:xxi + 712 ISBN: 978 0 521 67833 9
Price: Format:Paperback
Target Readership Senior Secondary







Content: 1 – Introduction; Part 1 - Opportunities and challenges of conducting comparative studies; Part 2 - Ecological studies of towns and cities; Part 3 - Integrating science with management and planning; Part 4 - Comments and synthesis.

Review: Although it has been accepted for years in educational circles that local ecology is a good starting point for study it is only recently (with a few lone exceptions) that the more academic ecology has caught up. Given that we are now a mainly urban species it seems appropriate that we study our own backyard (literally!). Like most new ideas, this is easier to think than to do! The aim is to create a new field of study not just to randomly gather data in the hope that we get some useful information. In short, the topic needs systematising. The aim of this collection of 35 contributions (started at conferences in 2003) is to provide such a focus.

We start with an introduction which very briefly outlines the genesis of the book and its basic organisation. From this point, the book is divided into four parts each one looking at a key element of urban ecology. The first part focusses on evaluating the merit of conducting urban ecology work. This is a fascinating way to start. Basically, the contributors are arguing for the right for their topic to exist as a discrete entity. There appear to be two strands here. The majority of chapters argue that a comparative approach is necessary. There are real differences between cities in the same country as well as between more and less developed nations. There's even the case put for examining more closely the linkages between urban-terrestrial and urban-marine systems. The other strand is for a more theoretical approach - the need for a carefully constructed model against which to test results rather than just gathering data and hoping it fits in somewhere. Part two assumes that the theoretical debate is over. What are we actually finding in urban areas? The thirteen chapters here cover a wide range of specific studies but again, there tends to be two foci. The first looks at the individual species or group to see how it is responding to urban areas. Studies include work on vertebrates, arthropods and vegetation. The second looks at the impact of urban structures on the distribution and abundance of organisms. In this area, studies on general urban structures, roads, street lighting and nutrient cycling demonstrate the range of interests. Part three takes studies such as these and shows how they can be integrated into wider ideas of planning and urban management. One of the best examples here looks at German cities. As the chapter unfolds it becomes clear that the city is treated like any other ecosystem. Soil compaction and quality are replaced by potential water infiltration through hard surfaces and patch dynamics through land use surveys (different ages and uses of building have different ecological characteristics). From this lead chapter, the remainder of the chapters cover the same diverse range of ideas and topics that characterise the book. There's some fascinating work on the value of preserving natural vegetation (as well as one on wetlands) and several on the tools, techniques and methods that can be used. The overall theme is one of integration and the fact that ecology can play a vital role in the development of cities and other urban areas. Part four brings together some of the themes developed elsewhere. We start with a consideration of the role or urban ecology, harking back to part one's concern with developing a rigorous study. Three chapters examine the role of comparative studies, albeit form different perspectives. Another discusses how the research should be set up.

Overall, this is a very interesting text. It's not so much what is said (although much of that is excellent) it's the way it focusses the reader to look systematically at the research (and ecological) potential of urban areas. Cities will not disappear but at least they can be used to maximise interaction with wild species. This is no brief look at the subject by gathering random papers. There's a real edge to the work - a realisation that we need to get the research agenda right before we gather data. I'm not sure this is always realised. Recent conversations about urban ecological work revealed a lack of understanding by landscape managers and administrators about the uses to which good ecological work could be put. There's a definite interest but this needs to be translated into hard data. Then it should be possible to plan more effectively. In addition, the book has a great range of case studies which could very easily be adapted to school study. This is one of those texts that is aimed at one segment of the market but would actually be of great value elsewhere. Urban managers, planners and ecologists need to read this book but educators (especially in urban field centres) will find much of help. Field studies can be better focussed and the results actually tie in with real problems. If we can harness just a portion of the ideas in this book then we can make a real difference both ecologically and educationally to our urban places.





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