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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Urban Ecology

Today is Earth Day, Friday is Arbor Day and the month of April is Earth Month.  It seems like a good time to talk about contributing to the health of the Urban Ecosystem.  An ecosystem, when balanced and functioning properly, provides protection from extreme events and helps to control and regulate itself.  The urban environment is no different, and when it is managed as an ecosystem it can regulate water run-off, temperature, and can weather pests and other extremes.

A healthy urban ecosystem has a diverse makeup of plants that will allow a community to prepare for any potential threats to the ecosystem.  Having a mix of trees allows a community to better weather a pest problem like Emerald Ash Borer or Dutch Elm Disease.  The USDA suggests that the urban forest should contain no more than 20% of one family of trees, no more than 15% of one genus, and no more than 10% of one species.  This mix of trees allows an urban forest to have some defense against a pest that targets a certain type of tree.  This also insulates a community from the potential high cost associated with treating or removing trees that are affected by the pest.

Having a healthy ecosystem in urban areas can also help with problems associated with surface run-off.  Most communities only deal with storm and surface water through the use of “Grey Storm Water” systems.  This is the use of what many people consider traditional storm water systems.  These systems rapidly take water that hits an impervious surface and moves it somewhere else.  With grey systems, storm water carries a large amount of contaminants down into the grey systems and the rapid movement of water can overwhelm the systems that are being used to deal with storm water.  This can lead to flooding, or in the case of communities with combined sewer overflows (CSO), the discharge of untreated sewage into the waterways that are adjacent to the communities.  Urban areas can use “Green Storm Water” systems which incorporate plants into the storm water systems to alleviate some of these problems.  Trees are particularly good at providing benefits when areas are designed to be used as a part of the storm water system.  Trees will intercept the water in the canopy reducing the amount of water making it to the impervious surfaces.  In a green storm water system, the plantings and other “green” areas are tied together and allow trees and other plants to take some of the storm water and contaminants up into the plant.  This allows some of the contaminants to be broken down into usable products by the plants reducing the contamination of surface water.

Plants provide a number of other benefits to urban areas as well.  Trees and other plants respire and can help to cool an urban area through the process of transpiration.  The shade that they provide also reduces the heat that the cement and asphalt hold cooling the urban area.  The shade can also reduce the amount of heat that is allowed into buildings, reducing the need to use air conditioning systems.  This also reduces the heat that is released into the urban area, as air conditioners do not create cool air, but remove heat from the conditioned space and vent it outside of the conditioned space.

Having a well-maintained urban forest and other urban landscaping also has benefits on the economy of a region.  In one study, consumers felt safer, and on average, expressed a willingness to spend up to 11% more in an area that had a well-maintained landscape.

A healthy urban ecology provides a number of benefits to the communities in which they are located.  For more information on urban ecology and how you can contribute to a balanced community ecosystem, please contact Jason Haupt (


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