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Urban ecology: 'Newly emerging' field comes to UC Berkeley

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DAVID MCALLISTER | SENIOR STAFF

The field of urban ecology is growing in prominence.

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DECEMBER 11, 2022

Urban ecology is a newly emerging interdisciplinary field which links humans to ecological processes in human-dominated landscapes.

Recently, UC Berkeley has been integrating this field of study into its coursework. Last semester, ESPM 150 Special Topics: Urban Ecology was taught by Professor Christopher Schell and graduate student instructor Tyus Williams.

“I was looking for a little bit of something more intellectually stimulating for me and something where I could really engage with students in conversation about urban ecology because it’s really fascinating stuff,” Williams said. “Within the turn of the last decade, we’re starting to ask ourselves more questions fundamentally and along the lines of like, ‘What does it mean to be a human society that’s not just present and existing but that’s a living, breathing organism?’ ”

Williams added that Schell’s notable work on urban ecology, specifically his paper on racism’s influence on eco-evolutionary processes, made him eager to help teach the class and learn from Schell.

According to Williams, studying urban ecology is equally as important as understanding natural biology or organismal biology.

“Humans are inextricably linked to the natural world around us,” Williams said. “We’re going to see more present situations and circumstances of human wildlife conflict that are coming from either habitat loss or droughts or avoidance and aversion from particular threats.”

Urban ecology covers topics such as human stressors, potential conflict with other species and cohabitation within cities, Williams noted.

Williams added that this field focuses on how humans can coexist with other organisms to ensure the prosperity of wildlife and the larger natural world.

“It will open eyes to students — and I think people on a larger level — to understand our decisions inherently radiate into the natural world and we have to think about those subsequent consequences,” Williams said.

Though urban ecology has only been studied for the past 20 to 30 years, Williams said he predicts it will continue to grow and become the next climate change science.

Williams added that as climate change continues, people are going to start noticing the natural world changing and more human-wildlife interactions are bound to occur.

“It’s going to start to become more of a nuisance where people are going like, ‘Okay, you know, it used to be like every year I had a cougar or a mountain lion coming through my backyard, but now it’s turning into like once a month,’ ” Williams said. “We’ll be here to hopefully ease that conscience and hopefully provide some critical solutions or ways to absolve those situations.”

Miles Nash, a campus sophomore studying electrical engineering and computer science who previously worked for The Daily Californian, shared his experience taking ESPM 150 last spring.

“I thought it was probably the coolest class I’ve taken here,” Nash said. “It took a very interesting perspective on a topic that I hadn’t heard that much about.”

Nash added that he has applied the concepts he learned in ESPM 150 in his daily life when he is observing the built environment around campus. The class has allowed him to notice the landscape in a way he hadn’t before.

Nash noted that the class provided him with the ability to think about how humans are impacting animals, plants and wildlife on a broader scale.

However, not everyone has the opportunity to explore this emerging field, as urban ecology has been absent from multiple UC campus curriculums, including UC Davis.

“UC Davis is, I think, the largest ecology graduate program in the country,” said Tali Caspi, a doctoral candidate in the ecology graduate group at UC Davis. “It’s pretty prestigious and we don’t have a single urban wildlife ecology course taught at UC Davis.”

Caspi said she thinks it’s important for urban ecology to be integrated into student’s studies, because the urban terrain has been excluded from research for many years. However, it has the potential to be the most inclusive due to the significant amount of the human population who live in cities.

This large population, in conjunction with the nature present in cities, makes urban landscapes accessible study systems and sites, according to Caspi.

“People stand to gain a lot from learning more about their natural environment and a city is just like a really approachable way of doing that for most people,” Caspi said.

Similar to UC Berkeley, UC Davis has one undergraduate urban ecology class, according to Caspi, which is taught by plant science professor Mary Cadenasso.

However, Caspi added that the class is very plant-focused, lacking a deep dive into urban evolution, behavior or urban wildlife ecology.

“I would love for there to be a more established discipline and praxis,” Caspi said. “We have a million questions that need to be asked and answered and so it would be great. If not a major, at least a concentration or sequence within a major.”

Though UC Berkeley does not currently offer an urban ecology major, the majors of conservation and resource studies, environmental science, society and environment and environmental economics and policy are all related to this interdisciplinary field, according to Christine Wilkinson, conservation biologist and postdoctoral researcher in the department of environmental science, policy and management.

Currently, Wilkinson said she is launching a project that focuses on data pertaining to human, wildlife and ecological health to understand the links between these factors. These connections will aid in rebuilding environmentally just and sustainable urban spaces.

“UC Berkeley students in particular should study urban ecology because it is playing out around them in the Bay Area,” Wilkinson said in an email. “With the stark gentrification and inequalities in the Bay Area, that trickle down to the ecology of the area, urban ecology is a particularly important lens for UC Berkeley students to understand this locale.”

Contact Zoe Kessler at 

LAST UPDATED

DECEMBER 12, 2022