Fragments, functions and flows - the scaling of biodiversity and ecosystem services in urban ecosystems

Lead Research Organisation: British Trust for Ornithology
Department Name: British Trust for Ornithology (Norfolk)


Urban areas cover just 2.8% of the Earth's land area, but over 50% of the human population lives in them, and these proportions are growing rapidly. Such heavy concentration of people has a wide variety of important consequences. Those for their relations with the environment have attracted much recent attention from the media, pressure groups, policy makers, researchers, and local and national government. Of particular concern have been how improvements can most effectively be made to the environmental conditions experienced in urban areas, to the levels of interaction between urban dwellers and the natural environment, and to the contribution of urban areas to the broader scale provision of ecosystem services. This raises the key issue of the form of relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem services in urban areas, how the structure of urban areas (the spatial structure of the different kinds and extents of impermeable and permeable surfaces; urban form) influences these relationships, and thus how the existing structure can best be managed and how future structure can be planned to best effect.

Although understanding of the levels and distributions both of biodiversity and of ecosystem services in urban areas has improved dramatically in recent years the relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem services have been extremely poorly studied in urban areas (and are largely absent from major collations of empirical studies). Indeed, these environments pose significant and unusual challenges:

- the urban landscape is highly fragmented, with large portions sealed by buildings and paving;
- greenspaces are embedded in a complex mosaic of buildings and roads that imposes major constraints and directionality on the flows of biodiversity and ecosystem service delivery across the urban landscape;
- the intensity of human management of these environments can give rise to spatial patterns and scales of flows of energy, materials and biodiversity on which ecosystem services depend that would not naturally occur; and,
- the very aggregations of people that give rise to urban areas typically necessitate less conventional approaches to conducting ecological research therein, involving greater engagement with the general public, and less dependence on the use of large pieces of equipment, which is "out of bounds" to the general population.

In order to determine these biodiversity-ecosystem service relationships, develop deeper understanding and to test this understanding our overall approach to this project involves five main steps. We shall:

- characterise the spatial ecological structure of urban areas;
- determine biodiversity-ecosystem service relationships and the influence of connectivity on them;
- determine the flows of biodiversity, and service delivery in selected cases;
- experimentally perturb those flows to determine the impact on ecosystem service delivery; and
- integrate these findings in the form of spatially explicit models which will form the basis of an "ecosystem service" layer for GIS models.

This will enable us to deepen understanding, and to provide illustrations for stakeholders (such as planners, local people and NGOs) as to how "scenarios" of different development proposals might be tested, to provide support for decisions based on sound science and stakeholder engagement.

Planned Impact

Academic Impact
The data, techniques and results from this project will be of value to academic researchers in areas such as urban ecology, ecosystem services, human-nature interactions, and remote sensing. In addition, they will provide valuable insights into solving the challenges of bringing together different approaches to the assessment of ecosystem services, and will develop new approaches and techniques in this difficult interdisciplinary area of science. The study will generate valuable research experience in the management and use of hyperspectral imaging and full waveform LiDAR data, network modelling of urban systems, automated collection of bird movement data, and large scale deployment of ecosystem service assays across a range of services. These benefits will accrue to the research community through the publication of academic papers detailing the work, and also through the training and experience of the post-doctoral researchers employed on the project. This latter benefit will be particularly strong as a result of the management of the researchers as an integrated team, using the same field sites, with interacting and overlapping responsibilities for different project elements. Each researcher will both develop a range of skills and experience in their own area, but also benefit from the exchange of skills and experience resulting from working collaboratively with others with different skill sets on the same system. Generic skills such as team working, interaction with partners and the public, and communication of results to non-specialist audiences are also important elements of experience that the researchers will acquire.

Economic and Societal Impact
The insights from this project are directly aimed at providing the underpinning knowledge for making policy and management decisions that enhance quality of life, health and well-being in urban areas. The results will contribute directly to evidence-based policy making, for example addressing questions about the ecosystem service consequences of changes in urban density and form - a key current debate at local, national, and international levels. The project will address issues of both spatial structure, and management of urban greenspace. Results from the latter in particular will be of benefit for the many organizations and individuals involved in such management (including, of course, key project partners, as well as garden owners, local authorities and nature conservation groups), providing evidence both about the biodiversity and ecosystem service value of different greenspace types, and also about the consequences of different management regimes for these relationships. Our experimental manipulations - grassland maintenance, bird feeding, and urban meadow planting - have been chosen closely to match the types of management questions that are currently of interest to those managing urban land, or biodiversity within it, ensuring the relevance of the results to actual practice.

By taking into account multiple ecosystem services in our assessment of the role of greenspaces, and the effects of management, the results will allow a more holistic appraisal of the roles of different sorts of urban greenspace, and the relationship of those to biodiversity, than is usually the case. This will provide a more complete assessment of the contribution of urban greenspace to the environmental sustainability of urban systems. The outcomes of the project, in addition to providing evidence to underpin policy will, equally importantly, provide the data and understanding from which tools for spatial planning and management of urban greenspace can be developed.


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Description Paper submission has been delayed but the key results have been finalized.

Other research under this grant has confirmed that there are human health benefits from exposure to nature. We have investigated what ecological factors drive the potential benefits that birds, a key component of nature for human interactions, deliver. The "detection deficit" is a novel concept describing the gap between the birds that are present in an (urban) area and what is actually perceived by people. We quantified this using bird surveys at times of day that maximize detection and that match when people are more active. We also developed a second novel bird survey approach, recording how, and how easily, birds are detected as people might move around an urban environment, allowing separation of the perceivable biodiversity given different levels of active attention. The results of the study showed that detection deficits are significant for most species, but that louder, brighter, more "outgoing" species are not more detectable than others. However, songbirds and birds in gardens and built-up areas are less detectable. In terms of the quality of encounters with birds, most birds present in the urban environment are encountered close to the observer and most can be seen, rather than just being detectable to those who recognize songs or calls. However, few are seen on the ground or around eye-level, where a passive observer would perceive their presence, songbirds are very rarely heard singing (so a key aesthetic service is missing) and encounter quality is lower in more built-up areas. The results suggest that there are possible roles in increasing the benefits of biodiversity for people in urban areas from (i) education to increase the awareness of the biodiversity that it present and (ii) habitat management to enhance encounter rates and quality, as well as to support local wildlife populations or to enhance habitat quality, which would be the standard form of conservation action.

Additional data analyses are still in progress and further findings will be available in due course. We are actively seeking further funding to support these analyses.

This work is informing a new research stream that is currently in development. considering how modelled predictions of biodiversity can be incorporated into the urban planning and landscape design process.
Exploitation Route Contributing to the planning of urban developments to maximize biodiversity value; informing conservation organizations about differences between what biodiversity is valued and experienced by people in urban areas versus what is actually there and what might be of conservation interest.
Sectors Education,Environment

Description We have participated in stakeholder meetings communicating what we are doing, and I have given three conference talks. The results of our (BTO) work have been incorporated into project-wide engagement work both within the local communities in the study areas (led by our collaborators at Cranfield) and nationally, in the sphere of human mental health (via the work published by our collaborators at Exeter). We have yet to publish the results of the work that we led on in the peer-reviewed literature, after which point we would expect further impacts, but an article was published in the BTO's semi-popular membership magazine (BTO News) in Summer 2018 and a further short summary appeared in the BTO's Annual Review in 2015.
Description BES-BESS conference talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A presentation, entitled "Birds and cultural services: evidence from BESS for effects and enhancements", integrating the results from the four NERC BESS projects that were relevant to birds and cultural ecosystem services, and communicating the shared messages to the wider ecological and policy-making communities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description British Ecological Society conference 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Talk given to conference audience on the results from the F3UES/Urban BESS project, entitled "Does experience reflect presence? Potential cultural service provision by urban birds".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Talk on research results to BOU Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I presented a talk on "Does experience reflect presence? Potential cultural service provision by urban birds" at the British Ornithologists' Union annula conference in Leicester, UK, as part of a conference focused on urban birds.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016