Ecology of the Irrelevant

By Lauren Umek

I have dedicated my young life to the irrelevant. This is a fact that has recently become clear and embarrassing for me. As a 2ndyear PhD student, I scour literature, prepare a research proposal and “pitch” my research to anyone who will hear me. I’m not alone. All of us so called “urban” ecologists are fooling ourselves into thinking that the ecological interactions we observe, quantify and publish are relevant to anyone other than ourselves.

Ecology of my work life: a photo of a native prairie remnant in the western suburbs of Chicago, showing dozens of native prairie plants (and presumably hosting thousands of other organisms).

Ecologists, by definition study the biotic and abiotic interactions of natural areas. In the Chicagoland area, these are typically lands owned by local forest preserves. While this focus is appropriate given the history of our discipline, it is perhaps a bit outdated in our urban and urbanizing era. It has increasingly obvious to me that very little attention, ecologically, is paid to the “nature” that most metropolitan inhabitants (myself included) interact with on a very regular basis. The more urbanized versions of nature are where people more frequently touch, smell, enjoy, fear or interact with plants and animals. This form of nature includes yards, parkways, planted streetside boxes, medians, parks and the lakefront. Ecologically, we know little about these pockets of nature in and of themselves or how these unique ecological assemblages contribute to regional and global ecological services (I avoid the term “novel ecosystems” here, for fear us using a controversial buzz word, but it could apply). Yet clearly, these pockets, strips and boxes of everyday nature provide some service that is valuable to society aesthetically and potentially economically.

As an ecologist, I’ve always wondered about the ecological processes that occur around me daily, but never had the opportunity to explore them. My research is relegated to the suburban forest preserves, places I [and my peers, I suspect] would otherwise visit on occasion, if at all. At first, I was very embarrassed to admit that I would not likely visit the traditional interpretation of the “outdoors” if I wasn’t paid to do so, but I’m now embarrassed that we do not study the outdoors that most people experience regularly. However, I’ve recently overcome this embarrassment and embraced the realization that as city dwellers, we still interact with nature on a regular basis.  However, this nature is not readily defined, acknowledged or explored intellectually by ecologists. The attractive organisms of these urban ecosystems rarely fit any definition of native, or “natural” but are still photosynthesizing, sequestering carbon, absorbing rainfall, providing food and habitat for birds and mammals, moving pollen, distributing seeds and providing “ecosystem services”. I suspect that the study of these non-traditional, urban patches would reveal the wealth of biodiversity, ecological interactions and ecosystem services and how these spaces influence the social and economic aspects of the city.

Ecology of my daily life: a photo taken through my screen door of a squirrel napping in my flower box on my 3rd floor condo deck, facing the alley, power lines and mulberry tree while my cat anxiously watches from inside. The only native species in this photo is the gray squirrel.

Despite its recent emergence, the discipline of urban ecology nudges us to the city’s periphery, where high rises and 6 flats give way to strip malls and single family homes. These surburban areas are where our urban “nature”, the county forest preserves resides. When I reflect upon my daily life outside of my profession, I often wonder how often I would even visit these places I spend my career studying them.  My daily interactions with nature include my 3rd floor deck, small urban garden, the parkway trees and gardens between my house and my L stop, the plantings along the CTA ramp, concrete boxes with seasonal annuals, the quad on campus and the green roof where I usually eat lunch or take a mini break from my computer. These landscapes are well manicured and include a variety of non-native, and possibly a few native species. But does this make them any less ecologically significant?  I enjoy the shade, the colors, the smells and the critters scurrying around them as I go about my daily life as a city dweller.

This rant on the ecology of the irrelevant also stems, in part, from my wish to not be a car owner. I own a Prius. I love my car,but also hate it. Aside from the cost and maintenance of this fancy box of technology, I’m embarrassed by my need for a 4 wheeled vehicle in a city with bike lanes, a decent public transportation system and a neighborhood where almost anything I could possibly want is within 1 mile or can be delivered within an hour or a few days. Why do I have a car? So that I can work in the forest preserves. Professionally, it is required that I abandon the nature that I know and love, and learn about this “other” perhaps more traditional form of nature. If it weren’t my job, would I even go to these forest preserves? When I want to go for a walk and experience nature, I head about 2.5 miles east to the lake, or to the river park system about a 10 minute walk away from my house, or I explore my neighborhood.  I can only hope, as we, as both citizens and ecologists increase our awareness of the nature and ecology of daily interactions between humans and the rest of nature that, we will begin to explore this ecology of the relevant.

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7 Comments

Filed under Urban Ecology

7 responses to “Ecology of the Irrelevant

  1. Good post, in the venerable tradition of a rant! Ecology, like all sciences one supposes, is driven by curiosity, and if highly urbanized environments are your bag then there are clearly some interesting questions to explore….it’s not quite as unplucked a field as it was though. Ecology of course also contributes to applied questions and if applied conservation concerns in the Chicago seem relevant then one must buckle up and head off the forest preserves.

  2. Nice post Lauren! I think there is still a stigma in Ecology that Urban Ecology is somehow not a dignified science. I distinctly remember a conversation I had several years back with a very well-respected Ecologist who actually said that Urban Ecology is NOT Ecology!! Hopefully that paradigm has shifted (or is shifting).

  3. Perhaps it’s not irrelevant, only unappreciated. What you study may save us all some day.

  4. Lauren

    Farrah, that is a great reminder of how the urban world is often looked at by more traditional ecologists. I recall a conversation with a government official discussing conservation, and he mentioned that there was no point in conserving anything in NE Illinois since there’s no nature there anyway. This old school approach to how we study nature risks putting us in a rut and communicates to the general public that they are APART FROM nature rather than A PART OF nature.

  5. William R. Jordan III

    Lauren—Yes, great piece! I recall some years ago, a young woman showed up at the UW-Madison, in part, I think because she had been reading “Restoration & Management Notes”. From that she had gotten the notion that the UW was friendly to urban ecology, the study of humans in nature, etc. That interested her because she had been working at a nature preserve of some kind out East, where a lot of people operated radio-controlled model airplanes. That people-and-technology-in-nature (machine in the garden?) thing intrigued her, and she wanted to follow up on it. But when she got to Madison and signed up for the program in restoration in the Landscape Architecture, she was disappointed. In fact, she told me that someone in the department actually told her that “ecologists don’t study people,” or something to that effect. Just prairie grasses, I guess, even when they are planted by, er, people. The young woman wound up leaving after one semester. And that wasn’t so long ago, though as Liam points out, a lot has happened since. (“You’ve come a long way, baby!”)
    Bill Jordan III

  6. Christine Skolnik

    How legitimate are issues of scale and continuity here? In my MA we looked a little at patch dynamics and heterozygosity (something like that : ) Though even if there are argument for focusing on bigger patches, I appreciate that the urban landscape is a pretty big patch of patches, and that “patches” may be constructed in various ways.

  7. Pingback: Eccology of the irrelvant-Julia Pelaez | City Blog

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