Urban Environmental Trade-offs

It is important to be aware of the highly interactive factors in urban ecosystems. Urban biota depend on the quality of the atmosphere, the water, and the land, and human influences that affect any one of these affects the other and the health of the biota as well, often in unexpected ways that have more to do with social than strictly “environmental” factors. For example, increasing off-street parking may seem a relatively benign way to reduce the number of cars cruising for parking spaces. However, the effect may in fact be to increase the number of cars entering the city and, hence, the atmospheric contamination caused by their emissions. The replacement of a factory by a park may improve recreational opportunities for a neighborhood’s children, but may also force the area’s working parents to travel to more distant jobs, increasing their ecological footprint. Such second-order consequences emphasize the complexity of urban ecosystems and the need for continued research into both science and social science processes affecting them.

Understanding the interactions affecting urban environments is vital to protecting and nurturing them, and requires collaborations among researchers in the natural sciences and the social sciences. Such collaborative work can identify and quantify factors that contribute to an urban ecological footprint, and hence suggest ways to reduce it. Conversely, the results of urban environmental studies can have global significance, given the increasingly rapid urbanization taking place throughout the world, especially in major emerging economies such as China and India. Understanding how to mitigate the ecological impact of massive urbanization can guide urban planning for sustainable development in the 21st century.

Forward-looking Strategy
Maintaining and improving environmental resources in a metropolitan area contribute greatly to the habitability of cities. In a great city like New York, ecosystems in and around the city are subject to many forms of ecological stress. These stresses arise from many sources, for example, direct destruction due to land-use change, over use for fishing and recreation, urban and highway runoff, and contaminant deposition from the atmosphere. In addition, anticipated changes in the global climate system include increasing temperature, changes in precipitation and greater flooding due to increasingly frequent storms. Studies of New York’s ecosystems aimed at preserving, extending and improving them must consider these stresses. Projects undertaken by the Institute should be forward-looking, seeking to provide data, tools and capabilities to protect, enhance and preserve New York’s nature.


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Thomas Strekas, Acting Director,
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