Urban Ecosystems

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 593-616

First online:

Field and remotely sensed measures of soil and vegetation carbon and nitrogen across an urbanization gradient in the Boston metropolitan area

  • Preeti RaoAffiliated withDepartment of Earth & Environment, Boston University
  • , Lucy R. HutyraAffiliated withDepartment of Earth & Environment, Boston University Email author 
  • , Steve M. RacitiAffiliated withDepartment of Earth & Environment, Boston University
  • , Adrien C. FinziAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Boston University

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Understanding the impact of urbanization on terrestrial biogeochemistry is critical for addressing society’s grand challenge of global environmental change. We used field observations and remotely sensed data to quantify the effects of urbanization on vegetation and soils across a 100-km urbanization gradient extending from Boston to Harvard Forest and Worcester, MA. At the field-plot scale, the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) was positively correlated with aboveground biomass (AGB) and foliar nitrogen (N) content and negatively correlated with impervious surface fraction. Unlike previous studies, we found no significant relationship between NDVI or impervious surface area (ISA) fraction and foliar N concentration. Patterns in foliar N appeared to be driven more strongly by changes in species composition rather than phenotypic plasticity across the urbanization gradient. For forest and non-residential development, soil nitrogen content increased with urban intensity. In contrast, residential land had consistently high soil N content across the gradient of urbanization. When field observations were scaled-up to the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), we found that soil and vegetation N content were negatively correlated with ISA fraction, an indicator of urban intensity. Our results demonstrated the importance of accounting for the influence of impervious surfaces when scaling field data across urban ecosystems. The combination of field data with remote sensing holds promise for disentangling the complex interactions that drive biogeochemical cycling in urbanizing landscapes. Empirical data that accurately characterize variations in urban biogeochemistry are critical to gain a mechanistic understanding of urban ecosystem function and to guide policy makers and planners in developing ecologically sensitive development strategies.


Urbanization Gradient Vegetation Soil Nitrogen Carbon Remote sensing NDVI