Urban Ecology Research Lab


Water is critical to sustainable economic development in Utah and to the sustainability of our urban
and natural ecosystems. Freshwater resources are facing immediate and long-term challenges due to population pressure and predicted changes in the amount and timing of precipitation. Utah’s population will at least double in the next two decades, with most of this growth occurring along the narrow Wasatch Range Metropolitan Area (WRMA). Growth is expected to generate a significant increase in water demand that will need to be addressed through water transfers, infrastructure investments, and efficiency programs. The overarching goal for UT EPSCoR is to enhance Utah’s research competitiveness and sustainable water decision-making through strategic investments in the state’s physical, human and cyber- science infrastructure. We will form transdisciplinary teams of natural and social scientists to carry out hypothesis-driven research on hydroclimatic sustainability in the WRMA, a coupled human-natural system that is changing as a consequence of climate change and rapid urbanization.

  • The role of local water resources in the water sustainability of Los Angeles, funded by the National Science Foundation. 
    Collaborators: Terri Hogue, Colorado School of Mines and Stephanie Pincetl, UCLA.

Like many cities in semi-arid regions, Los Angeles relies on extensive, centralized redistribution projects for its water supply. Water is transported hundreds of kilometers to support agricultural and urban activities in southern California; however, allocations from remote sources have been declining due to drought, over-extractions, and competing water needs. Increasingly, local governments and water districts are committing to increased reliance on local water sources within the southern California coastal areas including local groundwater, rainwater capture, conservation measures, and recycled water sources. Yet, these resources are managed by a complex set of agencies and water districts with different structures, histories, and priorities, but which often access similar water resources. In addition, the jurisdictions of different water management institutions rarely correspond to watershed and other hydrologic boundaries, such that the connectivities of the socio-political system and the connectivities of the ecohydrologic system present a set of very complex networks for water flows. We wish to understand the coupled ecohydrologic and decision-making processes that determine the availability of local water resources in southern California, with the goal of addressing the questions:
• What is the current structure of local groundwater, wastewater, and stormwater management?
• What are the ecohydrologic constraints on local groundwater and rainwater resources?
• What is the regional water balance?
• What are the overlaps and disconnects between the ecohydrologic and decision-making domains?
• What are feasible targets for conservation given our understanding of biophysical, technological,
political, and fiscal constraints? How are these impacted by scenarios of future climate change?

  • Alternative futures for the American Residential Macrosystem, funded by the National Science Foundation.
    Collaborators: many!  This is a large project with co-PIs at univerisities throughout the U.S.  The lead PI is Peter Groffman, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and CUNY Advanced Science Research Center.

An apparent but untested result of changes to the urban landscape is the homogenization of cities, such that neighborhoods in very different parts of the country increasingly exhibit similar patterns in their road systems, residential lots, commercial sites, and aquatic areas.  Ecologically, cities have now become more similar to each other than to the native ecosystems that they replaced; this has been called the "American Residential Macrosystem." The goal of this project is to determine how factors that effect change such as shifts in human demographics, desires for biodiversity and water conservation, regulations that govern water use and quality, and dispersal of organisms will interact with the factors that contribute to stability such as social norms, property values, neighborhood and city covenants and laws, and commercial interests. The project will determine ecological implications of alternative futures of the American Residential Macrosystem for the assembly of ecological communities, ecosystem function, and responses to environmental change and disturbance at parcel (ecosystem), landscape (city), regional (Metropolitan Statistical Area) and continental scales. We are studying five types of residential parcels as well as embedded semi-natural interstitial ecosystems across six U.S. cities (Boston, Baltimore, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, and Los Angeles). Education and outreach work will focus on K-12 teachers and students and on collaborative policy efforts with city, county, and state environmental managers.

  • Predicting CO2 emissions associated with urban development in the western U.S., funded by NOAA. 
    Collaborators: John Lin (lead PI) and Court Strong, Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences; David Bowling and Jim Ehleringer, Dept. of Biology; Martin Buchert, Dept. of City & Metropolitan Planning.

The global population has recently passed the 7 billion mark, with more than half residing in urban regions. Urban expansion has also been occurring rapidly in the U.S. The rise of the global urban population has concentrated anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants in urban regions, resulting in persistently elevated concentrations over urban areas. As urban expansion proceeds, the following key questions need to be addressed:
• How can carbon emissions from urbanizing regions be determined?
• How do decisions about urban form, land use transitions, and infrastructure determine the long-term trajectory of carbon emissions?
We are addressing these questions in the rapidly urbanizing American West, which is experiencing major transitions from rangeland to urban and agricultural to urban land use and where population growth has been especially pronounced, with large numbers of people settling in existing metropolitan areas in the region. The nature and form of these transitions have large implications for future carbon emissions.
Specific activities include:
• Model and understand current-day carbon emissions in multiple valleys at different stages of development in the Wasatch Range of Utah.
• Critically test and calibrate a new NASA product of hi-res CO2 emissions (Hestia) with long-term, continuous CO2 and isotope data, combined with targeted mobile lab observations.
• Transfer results from the calibrated Hestia product to a widely-applied urban planning model.
• Infer CO2 emissions in the Salt Lake Valley (SLV) going back to 1950, using land use and urban form records and radiocarbon proxies of CO2 in tree rings.
• Using an urban planning model, integrate stakeholder engagement efforts that have already yielded land use scenarios along Utah’s Wasatch Range to examine resulting CO2 outcomes.
• Examine the close to century-long transition of carbon emissions associated with urban development in the SLV, from 1950 to 2040.
• Extend the carbon emission projections, beyond Utah, to two additional cities in the Western U.S., based on scenarios that bracket likely developmental patterns.
• Deliver to the research and policymaking community a planning tool that can project the carbon emissions as a  result of different urban development patterns in the Western U.S.

  • Alliance to strengthen the STEM tapestry (ASSisT): Motivating critical identity shifts to weave the STEM disenfranchised into science the sustainability workforce, funded by the National Science Foundation. 
    Collaborators: Nalini Nadkarni (lead PI), Dept. of Biology; Sydney Cheek O'Donnell, Dept. of Theatre; Jordan Gerton, Dept. of Physics & Astronomy; Russ Isabella, Dept. of Family & Consumer Studies.

Although there are many programs designed to broaden participation in science and STEM, few individuals in "STEM-disenfranchised" populations -- individuals who feel alienated, marginalized, or incapable of participating in STEM -- choose to make use of these opportunities, due mainly to their own self-identities. This project's focus is on three STEM-disenfranchised groups: 1) adults who have been recently released from incarceration; 2) youth who have been released from juvenile custody; and 3) refugee youth, and builds on existing science education programs. The research team will establish the "Alliance to Strengthen the STEM Tapestry (ASSiST)" -- with members from academia, workforce agencies, NGOs, and government agencies -- to explore how individuals who have an identity prematurely tied to failure in science might benefit from novel interventions that promote a shift of self-identity to becoming science learners, which will then lead them to explore STEM education and job training resources that already exist. Three novel interventions will involve drama activities, story-telling, and ecological restoration projects. This bold approach is designed to help these populations interweave their diverse ways of knowing with STEM workforce, higher education, and to become science-aware citizens, which will enhance U.S. leadership in STEM. ASSisT will create a strategic plan that can be interwoven with those of other NSF INCLUDES Alliances, and identify pathways to distribute outcomes to a national level. This work will provide pathways to bring other groups that are disenfranchised and who -- if motivated and directed -- could strengthen the STEM workforce and education tapestry.