Landscape Ecology

, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 15–30 | Cite as

Shifting concepts of urban spatial heterogeneity and their implications for sustainability

  • Weiqi ZhouEmail author
  • Steward T. A. Pickett
  • Mary L. Cadenasso



Spatial heterogeneity has myriad influences on ecosystem processes, ecosystem services, and thus the sustainability of urban areas. It acts as a medium for urban design, planning, and management to determine how processes affecting sustainability can operate and interact. Therefore, how spatial heterogeneity is conceptualized and measured in cities is crucial for enhancing sustainability.


We show that the two most commonly used, but contrasting paradigms of urban ecology, ecology IN versus ecology OF the city, determine how spatial heterogeneity is thought of and used in different ways. We identify the key implications of these theoretical contrasts for the practice and assessment of sustainability in urban areas.


We review and compare the different ways in which ecology IN versus ecology OF the city affect how to conceptualize, model and map urban spatial heterogeneity. We present a new framework to guide the comparison of spatial heterogeneity under the two paradigms.

Results and conclusion

The integrative nature of this new framework becomes apparent under the ecology OF the city paradigm, because it recognizes the hybrid social and bioecological nature of heterogeneity in urban ecosystems. The hybrid approach to patchiness resonates with the three pillars of sustainability—environment, society, and economy. We exemplify how the more comprehensive and integrated framework of spatial heterogeneity under the ecology OF the city paradigm (1) supports more effective measurement and integration of the three components of sustainability, (2) improves management of heterogeneous urban ecosystems, and (3) satisfies calls for improved ecological tools to support urban ecosystem design.


Ecology in cities Ecology of cities Spatial heterogeneity Urban sustainability Urban design 



This research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 41371197 and 41422104) and the One Hundred Talents program. The support of the U.S. National Science Foundation LTER program (Grant DEB 042376), CAREER program (DEB-0844778), and Urban Sustainability Research Coordination Network (RCN 1140070) is also gratefully acknowledged.


  1. Adams LW (2005) Urban wildlife ecology and conservation: a brief history of the discipline. Urban Ecosyst 8:139–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Band L, Cadenasso M, Grimmond CS, Grove JM, Pickett STA (2005) Heterogeneity in urban ecosystems: patterns and process. In: Lovett G, Turner M, Jones C, Weathers K (eds) Ecosystem function in heterogeneous landscapes. Springer, New York, pp 257–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beatley T (2000) Green urbanism: learning from European cities. Island Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  4. Ben-Joseph E (2005) The code of the city: standards and the hidden language of place making. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  5. Boone CG, Fragkias M (2012) Urbanization and sustainability: linking urban ecology, environmental justice and global environmental change. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Breuste J, Feldmann H, Uhlmann O (eds) (1998) Urban ecology. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Buijs S, Tan W, Tunas D (2010) Three pillars of megacities. In: Buijs S, Tan W, Tunas D (eds) Megacities: exploring a sustainable future. 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, pp 190–200Google Scholar
  8. Burger JR, Allen CD, Brown JH, Burnside WR, Davidson AD, Fristoe TS, Hamilton MJ, Mercado-Silva N, Nekola JC, Okie JG, Zuo W (2012) The macroecology of sustainability. PLoS Biol 10:e1001345CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  9. Buyantuyev A, Wu J, Gries C (2010) Multiscale analysis of the urbanization pattern of the Phoenix metropolitan landscape of USA: time, space and thematic resolution. Landsc Urban Plan 94(3–4):206–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cadenasso ML (2013) Designing ecological heterogeneity. Urban design ecologies: AD reader. Wiley, Hoboken, pp 271–281Google Scholar
  11. Cadenasso ML & Pickett STA (2008) Urban principles for ecological landscape design and management: scientific fundamentals. Cities Environ 1(2):Article 4Google Scholar
  12. Cadenasso ML, Pickett STA, Weathers KC, Jones CG (2003) A framework for a theory of ecological boundaries. Bioscience 53:750–758CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cadenasso ML, Pickett STA, Grove JM (2006) Dimensions of ecosystem complexity: heterogeneity, connectivity, and history. Ecol Complex 3:1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cadenasso ML, Pickett STA, Schwarz K (2007) Spatial heterogeneity in urban ecosystems: reconceptualizing land cover and a framework for classification. Front Ecol Environ 5:80–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cadenasso ML, Pickett STA, Groffman P, Band LE, Brush GS, Galvin MF, Grove JM, Hagar G, Marshall V, McGrath BP, O’Neil-Dumme JPM, Stack WP, Troy AR (2008) Exchanges across land-water-scape boundaries in urban systems strategies for reducing nitrate pollution. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1134:213–232CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Carpenter SR, Westley F, Turner MG (2005) Surrogates for resilience of social-ecological systems. Ecosystems 8:941–944CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Childers DL, Pickett STA, Grove JM, Ogden L, Whitmer A (2014) Advancing urban sustainability theory and action: challenges and opportunities. Landsc Urban Plan 125:320–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Chowdhury R, Larson K, Grove JM, Polsky C, Cook E, Onsted J, Ogden L (2011) A multi-scalar approach to theorizing socio-ecological dynamics of urban residential landscapes. Cities Environ 4:6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Curwell S, Deakin M, Symes M (eds) (2005) Sustainable urban development: the framework and protocols for environmental assessment, vol 1. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Douglas I, James P (2015) Urban Ecology. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  21. Ehrenfeld JG (2000) Evaluating wetlands within an urban context. Ecol Eng 15:253–265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Felson AJ, Bradford MA, Terway TM (2013) Promoting Earth stewardship through urban design experiments. Front Ecol Environ 11(7):362–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Forman RTT (1995) Land mosaics: the ecology of landscapes and regions. Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Gaston K (2010) Urban ecology. Cambridge University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Golubiewski NE (2006) Urbanization increases grassland carbon pools: effects of landscaping in Colorado’s front range. Ecol Appl 16:555–571CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Grimm NB, Grove JM, Pickett STA, Redman CL (2000) Integrated approaches to long-term studies of urban ecological systems. Bioscience 50:571–584CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Grimm NB, Faeth SH, Golubiewski NE, Redman CL, Wu J, Bai X, Briggs JM (2008) Global change and the ecology of cities. Science 319:756–760CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Groffman PM, Bain DJ, Band LE, Belt KT, Brush GS, Grove JM, Pouyat RV, Yesilonis IC, Zipperer WC (2003) Down by the riverside: urban riparian ecology. Front Ecol Environ 1:315–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Grove JM, Burch WR (1997) A social ecology approach and applications of urban ecosystem and landscape analyses: a case study of Baltimore, Maryland. Urban Ecosyst 1:259–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Grove JM, Locke DH, O’Neil-Dunne JPM (2014) An Ecology of prestige in New York City: examining the relationships among population density, socio-economic status, group identity, and residential canopy cover. Environ Manag 54:402–419CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Haase D, Frantzeskaki N, Elmqvist T (2014) Ecosystem services in urban landscapes: practical applications and governance implications. Ambio 43:407–412CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  32. Hager GW, Belt KT, Stack W, Burgess K, Grove JM, Caplan B, Hardcastle M, Shelley D, Pickett STA, Groffman PM (2013) Socioecological revitalization of an urban watershed. Front Ecol Environ 11:28–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Huang GL, Zhou WQ, Cadenasso ML (2011) Is everyone hot in the city? spatial pattern of land surface temperatures, land cover and neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics in Baltimore, MD. J Environ Manag 92(7):1753–1759CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Irwin EG (2010) New directions for urban economic models of land use change: incorporating spatial dynamics and heterogeneity. J Reg Sci 50:65–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Jenerette GD, Wu J (2001) Analysis and simulation of land-use change in central Arizona-Phoenix region, USA. Landscape Ecol 16:611–626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jenerette GD, Wu J, Grimm NB, Hope D (2006) Points, patches, and regions: scaling soil biogeochemical patterns in an urbanized arid ecosystem. Glob Chang Biol 12:1532–1544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Jenks M, Jones C (eds) (2010) Dimensions of the sustainable city. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Kong F, Yin H, Nakagoshi N, Zong Y (2010) Urban green space network development for biodiversity conservation: identification based on graph theory and gravity modeling. Landsc Urban Plan 95:16–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Koskela L (2008) Is a theory of the built environment needed? Build Res Inf 36:211–215CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lachmund J (2013) Greening Berlin. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  41. Larondelle N, Hamstead ZA, Kremer P, Haase D, McPhearson T (2014) Applying a novel urban structure classification to compare the relationships of urban structure and surface temperature in Berlin and New York City. Appl Geogr 53:427–437CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Locke D, Grove JM, Lu JWT, Troy AR, O’Neil-Dunne JPM, Beck BD (2010) Prioritizing preferable locations for increasing urban tree canopy in New York City. Cities Environ 3:Article 4Google Scholar
  43. Luck M, Wu J (2002) A gradient analysis of urban landscape pattern: a case study from the Phoenix metropolitan region, Arizona, USA. Landscape Ecol 17:327–339CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Machlis GE, Force JE, Burch WR (1997) The human ecosystem. 1. The human ecosystem as an organizing concept in ecosystem management. Soc Nat Resour 10:347–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Marshall V (2013) Aesthetic resilience. In: Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, McGrath B (eds) Resilience in ecology and urban design: linking theory and practice for sustainable cities. Springer, New York, pp 319–329CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. McDonnell MJ, Hahs AK (2008) The use of gradient analysis studies in advancing our understanding of the ecology of urbanizing landscapes: current status and future directions. Landscape Ecol 23:1143–1155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. McDonnell MJ, Hahs A (2009) Comparative ecology of cities and towns: past, present and future. In: McDonnell MJ, Hahs A, Breuste J (eds) Ecology of cities and towns: a comparative approach. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 71–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. McDonnell MJ, Pickett STA, Groffman P, Bohlen P, Pouyat RV, Zipperer WC, Parmelee RW, Carreiro MM, Medley K (1997) Ecosystem processes along an urban-to-rural gradient. Urban Ecosyst 1:21–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. McGrath B (2013) Slow, moderate, fast: urban adaptation and change. In: Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, McGrath B (eds) Resilience in ecology and urban design: linking theory and practice for sustainable cities. Springer, New York, pp 231–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. McGrath B, Pickett STA (2011) The metacity: a conceptual framework for integrating ecology and urban design. Challenges 2011(2):55–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. McGrath BP, Marshall V, Cadenasso ML, Grove JM, Pickett STA, Plunz R, Towers J (eds) (2007) Designing patch dynamics. Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  52. McIntyre NE, Knowles-Yánez K, Hope D (2000) Urban ecology as an interdisciplinary field: differences in the use of “urban” between the social and natural sciences. Urban Ecosyst 4:5–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. McPhearson T, Pickett STA, Grimm NB, Niemala J, Alberti M, Elmqvist T, Weber C, Breuste J, Haase D, Quereshi S (2016) Advancing urban ecology towards a science of cities. Bioscience 66:198–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Medley KE, McDonnell MJ, Pickett STA (1995) Forest-landscape structure along an urban-to-rural gradient. Prof Geogr 47:159–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Moffatt S, Kohler N (2008) Conceptualizing the built environment as a social-ecological system. Build Res Inf 36:248–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Musacchio LR (2008) Metropolitan landscape ecology: using tranlsational research to increase sustainability, resilience, and regeneration. Landsc J 27:1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Musacchio LR (2009) The scientific basis for the design of landscape sustainability: a conceptual framework for translational landscape research and practice of designed landscapes and the six Es of landscape sustainability. Landscape Ecol 24:993–1013CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Niemelä J (2014) Ecology of urban green spaces: the way for- ward in answering major research questions. Landsc Urban Plan 125:298–303CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Palazzo D, Steiner F (2011) Urban ecological design: a process for regenerative places. Island Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  60. Peierls BL, Caraco NF, Pace ML, Cole JJ (1991) Human influence on river nitrogen. Nature 350:386–387CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pickett STA (2010) The wild and the city. In: Redford KH, Fearn E (eds) State of the wild: a global portrait 2010. Island Press, Washington, DC, pp 153–159Google Scholar
  62. Pickett STA Jr, Burch WR, Dalton SE, Foresman TW (1997) Integrated urban ecosystem research. Urban Ecosyst 1:183–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML (1995) Landscape ecology: spatial heterogeneity in ecological systems. Science 269:331–334CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, Grove JM, Groffman PM, Band LE, Boone G, Burch WR, Grimmond SB, Hom J, Jenkins JC, Law NL, Nilon CH, Pouyat RV, Szlavecz K, Warren PS, Wilson MA (2008) Beyond urban legends: an emerging framework of urban ecology as illustrated by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. Bioscience 58:139–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, McGrath B (eds) (2013) Resilience in ecology and urban design: linking thoery and practice for sustainable cities. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  66. Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, Rosi-Marshall EJ, Belt KT, Groffman PM, Grove JM, Irwin EG, Kaushal SS, LaDeau SL, Nilon CH, Swan CM, Warren PS (2016) Dynamic heterogeneity: a framework to promote ecological integration and hypothesis generation in urban systems. Urban Ecosyst 34:1–14Google Scholar
  67. Pickett STA, Zhou W (2015) Global urbanization as a shifting context for applying ecological science toward the sustainable city. Ecosyst Health Sustain 1:1–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Pincetl S (2010) From the sanitary to the sustainable city: challenges to institutionalizing biogenic (nature’s services) infrastructure. Local Environ 15:43–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Platt RH, Rowntree RA, Muick PC (1994) The ecological city: preserving and restoring urban biodiversity. University of Massachusetts Press, AmherstGoogle Scholar
  70. Qian Y, Zhou W, Li W, Han L (2015a) Understanding the dynamic of greenspace in the urbanized area of Beijing based on high resolution satellite images. Urban For Urban Green 14:39–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Qian Y, Zhou W, Yu W, Pickett STA (2015b) Quantifying spatiotemporal pattern of urban greenspace: new insights from high resolution data. Landscape Ecol 7:1165–1173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Redman CL (2014) Should sustainability and resilience be combined or remain distinct pursuits? Ecol Soc 19:37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Scheiner SM, Willig MR (2011) A general theory of ecology. In: Scheiner SM, Willig MR (eds) The theory of ecology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 3–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Shane DG (2011) Urban design since 1945 – a global perspective. Chichester, Wiley, p 360Google Scholar
  75. Stearns FW, Montag T (1974) The urban ecosystem - a holistic approach. Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Inc, StroudsburgGoogle Scholar
  76. Steiner F (2014) Frontiers in urban ecological design and planning research. Landscape Urban Plan 125:304–311CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Sukopp H, Numata M, Huber A (1995) Urban ecology as the basis of urban planning. SPB Academic Publishing, The HagueGoogle Scholar
  78. Sukopp H, Weiler S (1988) Biotope mapping and nature conservation strategies in urban areas of the Federal-Republic-of-Germany. Landscape Urban Plan 15:39–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Troy AR, Grove JM, O’Neil-Dunne JPM, Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML (2007) Predicting opportunities for greening and patterns of vegetation on private urban lands. Environ Manag 40:394–412CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Turner BL II (2010) Vulnerability and resilience: coalescing or paralleling approaches for sustainability science? Glob Environ Change 20:570–576CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Turner MG, Gardner RH, O’Neill RV (2001) Landscape ecology in theory and practice. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  82. Waldheim C (2012) The landscape urbanism reader. Chronicle Books, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  83. Walker B, Holling CS, Carpenter SR, Kinzig A (2004) Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecol Soc 9:Article 5Google Scholar
  84. Wolf KL, Housley E (2014) Environmental equality: providing nearby nature for everyone. TKF Foundation, AnnapolisGoogle Scholar
  85. Wu J (2002) A spatially explicit hierarchical approach to modeling complex ecological systems: theory and applications. Ecol Model 153:7–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wu J (2010) Urban sustainability: an inevitable goal of landscape research. Landscape Ecol 25:1–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Wu J (2014) Urban ecology and sustainability: the state-of-the-science and future directions. Landscape Urban Plan 125:209–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Wu J, Wu T (2013) Ecological resilience as a foundation for urban design and sustainability. In: Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, McGrath B (eds) Resilience in ecology and urban design: linking theory and practice for sustainable cities. Springer, New York, pp 211–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Wu W (2013) Landscape sustainability science: ecosystem services and human well-being in changing landscapes. Landscape Ecol 28(6):999–1023CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Yaro RD, Hiss T (1996) A Region at Risk: the third regional plan for the new York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area. Island Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  91. Yohe G, Tol RSJ (2002) indicators for social and economic coping capacity – moving toward a working definition of adaptive capacity. Glob Environ Chang 12:25–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Zhou W, Cadenasso ML, Schwarz K, Pickett STA (2014) Quantifying spatial heterogeneity in urban landscapes: integrating visual interpretation and object-based classification. Remote Sens 6:3369–3386CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Zhou W, Huang G, Cadenasso ML (2011a) Does spatial configuration matter? understanding the effects of land cover pattern on land surface temperature in urban landscapes. Landscape Urban Plan 102(1):54–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Zhou W, Huang G, Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML (2011b) 90 years of forest cover change in an urbanizing watershed: spatial and temporal dynamics. Landscape Ecol 26:645–659CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Zhou W, Schwarz K, Cadenasso ML (2010) Mapping urban landscape heterogeneity: agreement between visual interpretation and digital classification approaches. Landscape Ecol 25:53–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Zhou W, Troy AR (2008) An object-oriented approach for analyzing and characterizing urban landscape at the parcel level. Int J Remote Sens 29:3119–3135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Zhou W, Troy AR, Grove JM (2008) Modeling residential lawn fertilization practices: integrating high resolution remote sensing with socioeconomic data. Environ Manag 41:742–752CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Zipperer WC, Wu JG, Pouyat RV, Pickett STA (2000) The application of ecological principles to urban and urbanizing landscapes. Ecol Appl 10:685–688CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Zurlini G, Petrosillo I, Jones KB, Zaccarelli N (2013) Highlighting order and disorder in social-ecological landscapes to foster adaptive capacity and sustainability. Landscape Ecol 28:1161–1173CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Weiqi Zhou
    • 1
    Email author
  • Steward T. A. Pickett
    • 2
  • Mary L. Cadenasso
    • 3
  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental SciencesChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.Cary Institute of Ecosystem StudiesMillbrookUSA
  3. 3.Department of Plant SciencesUniversity of California DavisDavisUSA

Personalised recommendations