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Urban ecology is the study of community structure and organization as manifest in cities and other relatively dense human settlements. Of particular concern is the dynamic evolution of cities and contrast in urban structure across time periods, societies, and urban scale. The notion of community is central to urban ecology; a premise of the ecological approach is that the aggregation of persons into communities has important implications for their life chances, for the behavior of groups, and for aggregate outcomes. Urban ecology is interdisciplinary, touching on sociology, demography, geography, economics, and anthropology. Early ecological thinking drew a parallel for human behavior with the topic of ecology in biology, and hence the name.
Contemporary urban ecology maintains this orientation, but has been spurred further by new data forms and methodological developments. The concern for social exclusion and the increasing ethnic diversification of high-income societies provides increasing impetus for the ecological approach and encourages revisiting Robert Park’s notion that spatial distance reflects social distance. Contemporary treatments emphasize dynamic changes in residential environments, extending classical concerns for the process of residential sorting and succession. In a related thread ecology investigates the restructuring of urban areas in light of significant transportation, communication, and industrial transformations. Scholars have used this framework to understand new urban forms and how systems of interurban hierarchy emerge.
Urban ecology readily lends itself to the exploitation of multi-level or contextual data and associated statistical approaches. In multi-level data, individual information (microdata) is merged with characteristics of neighborhoods or a wider geographic area. Individual outcomes are predicted not only from individual traits, but also from characteristics of the wider community. The ”neighborhood effects” literature, both substantively and methodologically, can be seen as a major intellectual development consonant with the approach of urban ecology. Similarly, the broad interest in the sociology of the macro-micro link overlaps significantly with ecologists’ interest in community, in multiple levels of aggregation, and in dynamic interchange. The multi-level ecological approach can be engaged at varying geographic scales, from tracing household mobility to neighborhood composition through examining how individual health and socioeconomic outcomes are influenced by structural conditions measured at the regional level.
The predisposition of urban ecological analysis to spatial phenomena has made urban ecology readily receptive to the use of geographic information systems (GIS). More than merely mapping, GIS technology applied to urban ecology allows the analyst to redefine communities and networks, and to link micro to macro. Whereas social scientists were once bound by the community aggregation defined by others (such as a census agency’s tract or ward boundaries), the increasing availability of point data allows a more refined analysis of the relationship between human organization, sustenance activity, community and territory. Such technological developments have stimulated a re-connection with biological ecology. Urban ecological analysis provides a framework for examining integrated human-natural systems. Here again human activity is seen as dynamic and community-based, both influencing and influenced by its surrounding environment.
While urban ecology may be identified most clearly with American urban sociology and the Chicago school particularly, its adherents and manifestations are much broader. It has been applied in analyses of urbanization in socialist countries as well as in the developing world. Still, the level of knowledge about urban ecology for settings outside of high-income societies is less clearly codified. It is far from certain that the models once applied to North America and Europe (and selected other locations) will apply so readily to other portions of world geography, especially to urban settings in low-income countries. Yet, themes of internal urban structure, geographical disparities in well-being, and community change are relevant to all of these settings.
- Hawley, (1950) Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. Ronald Press, New York.
- Micklin, M. & Poston, D. L. (eds) (1998) Continuities in the Study of Human Ecology. Plenum Press, New York.
- Saunders, P. (2001) Urban ecology. In: Paddison, R. (ed), Handbook of Urban Studies. Sage, London, pp. 36-51.