Urban Ecosystems

, Volume 20, Issue 6, pp 1319–1330 | Cite as

Nitrogen retention and loss in unfertilized lawns across a light gradient

  • Dustin L. HerrmannEmail author
  • Mary L. Cadenasso


A desirable function for terrestrial urban ecosystems is the mitigation of nitrogen (N) pollution associated with cities and suburbs. To assist in maximizing this function, identifying locations of sources and sinks of N in the urban environment is crucial to inform management strategies. Lawns are an extensive land cover in urbanized landscapes, and in general, they have demonstrated the capacity to function as a sink for N inputs. How N is cycled by lawns, however, is likely not uniform across the physical heterogeneity or management activities that exist in lawns. We investigated the influence of heterogeneity in light availability on N cycling in lawns that were irrigated but not fertilized. Light availability is affected by tree canopy and built structures and is, therefore, heterogeneous both within individual lawns and among lawns. Light is expected to control N retention and loss through effects on primary productivity. We experimentally examined N regulation over one calendar year by measuring net primary production (NPP), N retention using an isotopic tracer, and N leaching in existing unfertilized lawns under heterogeneous light conditions. We used a budgetary approach to estimate gaseous N loss which we assume is primarily via denitrification. Light functioned as a limiting resource for primary productivity. From low to high light conditions, annual NPP increased 177 to 430 g C∙m−2∙y−1 and retention of N isotope tracer increased from 50 to 65% as a result of increased retention in plants. Nitrate leaching losses were low overall and were not affected by light levels. Light availability regulated the fate of N inputs and unfertilized lawns may function as substantial sinks for reactive N through storage in the terrestrial system and N loss by denitrification. However, whether or not denitrification is generally an N sink will depend on the ratio of non-reactive (i.e., N2) to reactive (i.e., N2O, NO) denitrification products. Overall, we find that effective strategies for managing N sources and sinks in cities will likely need to consider light availability, particularly in systems receiving water subsidies via irrigation.


Turf Denitrification Urban grassland Nitrate leaching Solar radiation 



Thanks to M. Lucas and the UC Davis Grounds Division for access to and sharing of the lawns in this study. Field and lab assistance was kindly provided by K. Liang, S. Claudio, and E. Soon. Previous versions of this manuscript were greatly improved by comments from P.M. Groffman and L.R. Oki. The research was supported by funding from the Graduate Group in Ecology, the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, and a National Science Foundation CAREER grant to M.L.C. (DEB-0844778).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11252_2017_684_MOESM1_ESM.docx (13 kb)
Supplementary Table 1 (DOCX 13 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate Group in EcologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  2. 2.Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Research ProgramOak RidgeUSA
  3. 3.Department of Plant SciencesUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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