, Volume 41, Issue 7, pp 751–764 | Cite as

Is There a Metabolism of an Urban Ecosystem? An Ecological Critique

  • Nancy Golubiewski
Review Paper


The energy and material flows of a city are often described as urban metabolism (UM), which is put forward as a way to link a city’s ecology and economy. UM draws parallels to the biology of individual organisms, yet the analogy is misapplied. In striving to be interdisciplinary, UM makes this organismic comparison rather than identifying the city as an ecosystem, thereby ignoring developments in ecological theory. Using inappropriate rhetoric misdirects researchers, which influences scientific investigation—from problem statements to interpretations. UM is valuable in quantifying the city’s use of natural resources but does not achieve a comprehensive, integrated analysis of the urban ecosystem. To realize an interdisciplinary, perhaps transdisciplinary, understanding of urban ecology, researchers need to emphasize the essential tenets of material flows analysis, view the city as an ecosystem, and use language that properly reflects current knowledge, theory, and conceptual frameworks in the foundational disciplines.


Urban metabolism Urban ecosystem Material flows analysis Urban ecological model Urban ecology theory Socio-ecological system 



Thanks to those who shared their thoughts on earlier versions of this work, including Joan Martinez Alier, John Ward, and Mitch Pavao-Zuckerman and others who attended conference presentations. I appreciate discussions on the ecological perspective with Nancy Grimm, Mary Cadenasso, and Peter Groffman. Bryan Walpert and others provided helpful comments on manuscript drafts. The thorough and insightful comments offered by several reviewers helped strengthen the argument.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.AshhurstNew Zealand

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