Urban Ecosystems

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 77–90 | Cite as

Social-ecological research in urban natural areas: an emergent process for integration

  • Michelle L. JohnsonEmail author
  • D. S. Novem Auyeung
  • Nancy F. Sonti
  • Clara C. Pregitzer
  • Heather L. McMillen
  • Richard Hallett
  • Lindsay K. Campbell
  • Helen M. Forgione
  • Mina Kim
  • Sarah Charlop-Powers
  • Erika S. Svendsen


Understanding the structure and function of urban landscapes requires integrating social and ecological research. Here, we integrate parallel social and ecological assessments of natural areas within New York City. We examined social data (from a rapid assessment of park use and meaning, collected at a park zone level) alongside ecological data (from a plot-based assessment of forest structure and diversity). In-depth interviews with researchers and managers (n = 11) involved with the social and ecological assessments revealed commonly-held values considered critical for integration, including clear communication, openness, trust, and shared goals and also identified barriers to the integration process, including the scales at which each dataset was collected. We applied an informed, shared problem framing to investigate the relationships between visitor use and ecological condition in urban natural areas. We began with fuzzy cognitive modeling, where researchers developed models of defining a “healthy urban forest.” We then developed two social-ecological typologies to examine the integrated dataset in relation to how visitors may affect or perceive ecological health and threat. Typologies identify NYC natural areas where social indicators (number of visitors, diversity of park use motivations) are either high or low and ecological condition is either high or low. Examination of these typologies led to exploring correlations between social and ecological variables, to team discussions, and to developing new research questions. We conclude this paper with a discussion of tradeoffs of this type of emergent, integrative approach to social-ecological synthesis research.


Social-ecological Urban forest Typology Integration Synthesis 



The authors graciously thank all the NYC Urban Field Station, Natural Areas Conservancy, and NYC Parks Natural Resources Group staff that have assisted in the social and ecological assessments. We also thank Natural Areas Conservancy staff for the use of their photos of ecological assessment plots.

Supplementary material

11252_2018_763_MOESM1_ESM.docx (27 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 27 kb)


  1. Abrams J, Kelly E, Shindler B, Wilton J (2005) Value orientation and forest management: the forest health debate. Environ Manag 36:495–505CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alberti M (2010) Maintaining ecological integrity and sustaining ecosystem function in urban areas. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 2(3):178–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andersson E, Tengö M, McPhearson T, Kremer P (2015) Cultural ecosystem services as a gateway for improving urban sustainability. Ecosystem Services 12:165–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arnott JC, Osenga EC, Cundiff JL, Katzenberger JW (2015) Engaging stakeholders on forest health: a model for integrating climatic, ecological, and societal indicators at the watershed scale. J For 113(5):447–453Google Scholar
  5. Auyeung DN, Campbell LK, Johnson M, Sonti NF, Svendsen E. (2016) Reading the landscape: citywide social assessment of New York City parks and natural areas in 2013–2014Google Scholar
  6. van Berkel DB, Verburg PH (2014) Spatial quantification and valuation of cultural ecosystem services in an agricultural landscape. Ecol Indic 37:163–174CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bertram C, Rehdanz K (2015) Preferences for cultural urban ecosystem services: comparing attitudes, perception, and use. Ecosystem Services 12:187–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ballantyne M, Pickering CM (2015) Differences in the impacts of formal and informal recreational trails on urban forest loss and tree structure. J Environ Manag 159:94–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bolund P, Hunhammar S (1999) Ecosystem services in urban areas. Ecol Econ 29(2):293–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Botzat A, Fischer LK, Kowarik I (2016) Unexploited opportunities in understanding liveable and biodiverse cities. A review on urban biodiversity perception and valuation. Glob Environ Chang 39:220–233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Brown G (2008) A theory of urban park geography. J Leis Res 40(4):589–607CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Buhyoff GJ, Leuschner WA, Wellman JD (1979) Aesthetic impacts of southern pine beetle damage. J Environ Management 8:261–267Google Scholar
  13. Buhyoff GJ, Wellman JD, Daniel TC (1982) Predicting scenic quality for mountain pine beetle and western spruce budworm damaged forest vistas. For Sci 28:827–838Google Scholar
  14. Campbell LK, Svendsen ES, Sonti NF, Johnson ML (2016) A social assessment of urban parkland: analyzing park use and meaning to inform management and resilience planning. Environ Sci Pol 62:34–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Chiesura A (2004) The role of urban parks for the sustainable city. Landsc Urban Plan 68(1):129–138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. City of New York (2011) Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report nycgov/html/ops/downloads/pdf/mmr/0211_mmrpdf, accessed (0904.13)
  17. Elmendorf WF, Willits FK, Sasidharan V (2005) Urban park and forest participation and landscape preference: a review of the relevant literature. J Arboric 31(6):311Google Scholar
  18. Forgione HM, Pregitzer CC, Charlop-Powers S, Gunther B (2016) Advancing urban ecosystem governance in new York City: shifting towards a unified perspective for conservation management. Environ Sci Pol 62:127–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fry G, Tveit MS, Ode Å, Velarde MD (2009) The ecology of visual landscapes: exploring the conceptual common ground of visual and ecological landscape indicators. Ecol Indic 9(5):933–947CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gee K, Burkhard B (2010) Cultural ecosystem services in the context of offshore wind farming: a case study from the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein. Ecol Complex 7(3):349–358CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gobster PH, Nassauer JI, Daniel TC, Fry G (2007) The shared landscape: what does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landsc Ecol 22(7):959–972CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gómez-Baggethun E, Gren Å, Barton DN, Langemeyer J, McPhearson T, O’Farrell P, Andersson E, Hamstead Z, Kremer P (2013) Urban ecosystem services. In: Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: challenges and opportunities. Springer, Netherlands, pp 175–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gray, S (2015) Mental Modeler [software]. Accessed at
  24. Gray SA, Gray S, Cox LJ, Henly-Shepard S (2013) Mental modeler: a fuzzy-logic cognitive mapping modeling tool for adaptive environmental management. InSystem Sciences (HICSS), 2013 46th Hawaii International Conference:965–973Google Scholar
  25. Gray, S, Gray S, Zanre, E (2014) fuzzy cognitive maps as representations of mental models and group beliefs: theoretical and technical issues. In fuzzy cognitive maps for applied sciences and engineering–from fundamentals to extensions and learning algorithms Ed: Elpiniki I. Papageorgiou. Pp 29-48. Springer NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  26. de Groot RS, Ramakrishnan PS (2005) Cultural and amenity services. Ecosystems and human well-being. Volume 1: Current state and trends. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Series. Island Press, Washington, DC, pp. 455–476Google Scholar
  27. Grove JM, Troy AR, O’Neil-Dunne JP, Burch WR, Cadenasso ML, Pickett ST (2006) Characterization of households and its implications for the vegetation of urban ecosystems. Ecosystems 9(4):578–597CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gunnarsson B, Knez I, Hedblom M, Sang AO (2017) Effects of biodiversity and environment-related attitude on perception of urban green space. Urban Ecosystems 20:37–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Heckmann KE, Manley PN, Schlesinger MD (2008) Ecological integrity of remnant montane forests along an urban gradient in the sierra Nevada. For Ecol Manag 255(7):2453–2466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hobbs ER (1988) Species richness of urban forest patches and implications for urban landscape diversity. Landsc Ecol 1(3):141–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hunter AJ, Luck GW (2015) Defining and measuring the social-ecological quality of urban greenspace: a semi-systematic review. Urban Ecosystems 18(4):1139–1163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Irvine KN, Warber SL, Devine-Wright P, Gaston KJ (2013) Understanding urban green space as a health resource: a qualitative comparison of visit motivation and derived effects among park users in Sheffield, UK. Int J Environ Res Public Health 10(1):417–442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Iso-Ahola SE (1982) Toward a social psychological theory of tourism motivation: a rejoinder. Ann Tour Res 9(2):256–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jones RE, Connors ES, Mossey ME, Hyatt JR, Hansen NJ, Endsley MR (2011) Using fuzzy cognitive mapping techniques to model situation awareness for army infantry platoon leaders. Computational & Mathematical Organization Theory 17(3):272–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Karr JR (1996) Ecological integrity and ecological health are not the same. Engineering within ecological constraints 97:109Google Scholar
  36. Karr JR, Dudley DR (1981) Ecological perspective on water quality goals. Environ Manag 5(1):55–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lackey RT (2001) Values, policy and ecosystem health. Bioscience 51(6):437–443CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lofland J, Snow D, Anderson L, Lofland L. (2005) Analyzing social settings: a guide to qualitative observation and analysis, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: WadsworthGoogle Scholar
  39. Loukaitou-Sideris A (1995) Urban form and social context: cultural differentiation in the uses of urban parks. J Plan Educ Res 14(2):89–102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McDonnell MJ, Pickett ST (1990) Ecosystem structure and function along urban-rural gradients: an unexploited opportunity for ecology. Ecology 71(4):1232–1237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Nassauer JI (1995) Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landsc J 14(2):161–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Neuman WL (2003) Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative practices. Rural Sociologist 3:83–91Google Scholar
  43. Ordóñez C, Duinker PN (2012) Ecological integrity in urban forests. Urban Ecosystems 15(4):863–877CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Patel A, Rapport DJ, Vanderlinden L, Eyles J (1999) Forests and societal values: comparing scientific and public perception of forest health. Environmentalist 19:239–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Pett TJ, Shwartz A, Irvine KN, Dallimer M, Davies ZG (2017) Unpacking the people–biodiversity paradox: a conceptual framework. Bioscience 20:37–49Google Scholar
  46. Pickett ST, Cadenasso ML, Grove JM, Nilon CH, Pouyat RV, Zipperer WC, Costanza R (2001) Urban ecological systems: linking terrestrial ecological, physical, and socioeconomic components of metropolitan areas 1. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 32(1):127–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Plieninger T, Dijks S, Oteros-Rozas E, Bieling C (2013) Assessing, mapping, and quantifying cultural ecosystem services at community level. Land Use Policy 33:118–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Palmer MA, Kramer JG, Boyd J, Hawthorne D (2016) Practices for facilitating interdisciplinary synthetic research: the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). Curr Opin Environ Sustain 19:111–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Ross N, Eyles J, Cole D, Innatuono A (1997) The ecosystem health metaphor in science and policy. Can Geogr 41(2):114–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ryan GW, Bernard HR (2003) Techniques to identify themes. Field Methods 15(1):85–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sang ÅO, Knez I, Gunnarsson B, Hedblom M (2016) The effects of naturalness, gender, and age on how urban green space is perceived and used. Urban For Urban Green 18:268–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Shanahan DF, Lin BB, Gaston KJ, Bush R, Fuller RA (2015) What is the role of trees and remnant vegetation in attracting people to urban parks? Landsc Ecol 30(1):153–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Sulak A, Huntsinger L (2012) Perceptions of forest health among stakeholders in an adaptive management project in the sierra Nevada of California. J For 110:312–317Google Scholar
  54. Svendsen ES, Campbell LK, McMillen HL (2016) Stories, shrines, and symbols: recognizing psycho-social-spiritual benefits of urban parks and natural areas. J Ethnobiol 36(4):881–907CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Turner BL II, Esler KJ, Bridgewater P, Tewksbury J, Sitas N, Abrahams B, Chapin FS, Chowdhury RR, Christie P, Diaz S, Firth P (2016) Socio-environmental systems (SES) research: what have we learned and how can we use this information in future research programs. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 19:160–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Zipperer WC (2002) Species composition and structure of regenerated and remnant forest patches within an urban landscape. Urban Ecosystems 6(4):271–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michelle L. Johnson
    • 1
    Email author
  • D. S. Novem Auyeung
    • 2
  • Nancy F. Sonti
    • 3
  • Clara C. Pregitzer
    • 4
    • 5
  • Heather L. McMillen
    • 1
  • Richard Hallett
    • 1
  • Lindsay K. Campbell
    • 1
  • Helen M. Forgione
    • 4
  • Mina Kim
    • 4
  • Sarah Charlop-Powers
    • 4
  • Erika S. Svendsen
    • 1
  1. 1.USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, NYC Urban Field StationBaysideUSA
  2. 2.NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, NYC Urban Field StationBaysideUSA
  3. 3.USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Baltimore Field StationBaltimoreUSA
  4. 4.Natural Areas ConservancyNew YorkUSA
  5. 5.Yale UniversityNew HavenUSA

Personalised recommendations