, Volume 121, Issue 1, pp 1–21 | Cite as

Tracking evolution of urban biogeochemical cycles: past, present, and future

  • Sujay S. Kaushal
  • William H. McDowell
  • Wilfred M. Wollheim


This overview and synthesis paper focuses on the evolution of urban biogeochemical cycles across time. We synthesize empirical data and review existing literature, including papers in this special issue, and we propose the concept of “urban evolution.” The built environment often changes quickly in response to human activities, thus contributing to an urban evolution that affects structure, function, and ecosystem services of human settlements over time. Depending upon management, these changes can result in rapid losses of ecosystem functions/services or progress towards restoration. We explore urban evolution through empirical examples such as: (1) land development and nitrogen inputs within a metropolitan region over half a century; (2) watershed drainage by different forms of stormwater management over decades; (3) human-accelerated weathering in urbanized watersheds over decades; and (4) global salinization of freshwater across urbanizing landscapes over a century. We also synthesize concepts relevant to studying urban evolution of infrastructure and ecosystems including: (1) urban watersheds have challenged our whole notion of the “watershed approach” due to complex hydrologic boundaries and flow paths over time; (2) the urban hydrologic cycle evolves due to changing infrastructure and human water use over time; (3) the importance of extending research beyond individual sites using an urban watershed approach over space and time; (4) salinization as a universal tracer of watershed urbanization over time; (5) human-accelerated weathering of concrete and construction materials contributing to an “urban karst” over time; (6) human alteration of the carbon cycle in urban watersheds over time; and (7) detecting distinct biogeochemical signatures across cities globally over time. Our synthesis and this special issue suggest that urban biogeochemical cycles have exerted a major influence on the elemental composition of the Earth’s surface from local to global scales. A new global research agenda is needed to track the evolution of urban biogeochemical cycles as land development proceeds and infrastructure/management changes so we can better evaluate potential losses in ecosystem services, set realistic watershed and river restoration goals, and formulate effective environmental policy for Earth’s growing urban population.


Urban evolution Urban succession Urban karst Urban watershed continuum 



Support was provided by the NSF-Baltimore LTER (NSF DEB-0423476 and DEB-1027188), NSF-Luquillo LTER (DEB-0963447), NSF Luquillo CZO (EAR-1331841), NSF-PIE LTER (OCE-1238212), NSF-EPSCoR (EPS-1101245), New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station, NSF DBI 0640300, NSF CBET 1058502, NASA NNX11AM28G, Maryland Sea Grant Award SA7528085-U, Maryland Sea Grant Award NA05OAR4171042, Keck Foundation NAKFI program in ecosystem services, and Maryland Sea Grant Award R/WS-2. Data were also obtained from the EcoTrends Project ( funded by the National Science Foundation and USDA Agricultural Research Service. Historical population data are from [Christopher Boone, Ted Gragson, Michael R. Haines, Nichole Rosamilia/Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER site]; [ecotrends.634.1 and ecotrends.590.1]. Julia Gorman assisted with data analyses and illustration of figures and provided helpful suggestions. Steve Stewart and Michael Pennino provided historical data on stormwater management. Ian Leinwand provided historical land use information. Bill Stack provided data on drinking water. Paul Mayer provided photos of urban stream restoration and helpful review of the manuscript. Tamara Newcomer Johnson provided data in Fig. 3 and helpful review of the manuscript. Shuiwang Duan and Rose Smith provided helpful discussion regarding carbon. Bill Dennison provided discussion for the conceptual model in Fig. 7. Ken Belt provided helpful discussions regarding the urban watershed continuum. We kindly thank all of the authors and reviewers that contributed to the special issue on Urban Biogeochemical Cycles.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sujay S. Kaushal
    • 1
  • William H. McDowell
    • 2
  • Wilfred M. Wollheim
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Geology, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary CenterUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resources and the EnvironmentUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA

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