, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp 5-24

Urban ecology as an interdisciplinary field: differences in the use of “urban” between the social and natural sciences

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Abstract

“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”

—attributed to Voltaire, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Fourth edition (B. Stevenson, ed.), p. 428, Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, NY, 1944

Though there is a growing appreciation of the importance of research on urban ecosystems, the question of what constitutes an urban ecosystem remains. Although a human-dominated ecosystem is sometimes considered to be an accurate description of an urban ecosystem, describing an ecosystem as human-dominated does not adequately take into account the history of development, sphere of influence, and potential impacts required in order to understand the true nature of an urban ecosystem. While recognizing that no single definition of “urban” is possible or even necessary, we explore the importance of attaching an interdisciplinary, quantitative, and considered description of an urban ecosystem such that projects and findings are easier to compare, repeat, and build upon. Natural science research about urban ecosystems, particularly in the field of ecology, often includes only a tacit assumption about what urban means. Following the lead of a more developed social science literature on urban issues, we make suggestions towards a consistent, quantitative description of urban that would take into account the dynamic and heterogeneous physical and social characteristics of an urban ecosystem. We provide case studies that illustrate how social and natural scientists might collaborate in research where a more clearly understood definition of “urban” would be desirable.