In the summer of 2015, a group of professors from the United States and Germany heldan Urban Ecology Collaborative Research Workshop on the campus of NYU-Berlin. Leading the discussions were Anne Rademacher, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Anthropology; Mary Killilea, Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology; and Sigismund Sliwinski, Faculty of Environmental Studies and Architecture / NYU-Berlin.

NYUrban Greening Lab is the product of this intensive workshop.

The Underlying Concept:

The workshop was organized as a first step toward a larger institutional and collaborative research agenda, which we call here the NYUrban Greening Lab. To follow is a summary of that broader agenda:

Intellectual Basis: The Need for Innovation, Integration, and Interdisciplinarity in the Study of Urban Environmental Change

Understanding biophysical and social change in the cities of the Anthropocene requires new tools, approaches, and intellectual infrastructure. Conventional, discipline-based research falls far short when our goal is to responsibly analyze and address twenty-first century urban environmental problems.

Urban ecology has emerged at the cutting edge of comprehensive, effective environmental research approaches in cities. Grounded in the biophysical sciences, it combines an ecosystem ecology-based approach to urban environmental systems with complex social analyses. The most comprehensive, effective urban ecology research projects are by definition collaborative; they demand interdisciplinary teams whose members contribute expertise and data from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Likewise, effective urban ecology pedagogy requires new and innovative approaches that can rigorously convey field methods and analytics from several disciplines.

Despite its promise, collaborative urban ecology research and teaching have yet to reach their potential. This is due in part to a lack of research infrastructure, as few urban ecology initiatives have the capacity to integrate their data across differently-positioned scholars, projects, and field sites. We propose the NYUrban Greening Lab as a solution to this problem. The Lab will serve as a first-of-its-kind intellectual center; it will facilitate data integration, more effective research coordination, curricular development, and mutual learning among researchers from the biophysical sciences, the social sciences, and design studies. Once it is fully functional, the Lab will facilitate truly interdisciplinary urban ecology research, teaching, and analyses of critical urban environmental issues.

Urban environmental problems are by their very nature simultaneously biophysical and social puzzles. Unlike other efforts to coordinate and share urban environmental research findings, the NYUrban Greening Lab will invite the full participation of scientists working in the biophysical sciences as well as scholars from the social sciences, humanities, and design fields. What unites these scholars is their interest in urban ecology as an interdisciplinary arena in which full diagnoses of environmental conditions require input from multiple disciplines. Such a platform is unprecedented, and sorely needed.

The unique, international infrastructure of New York University’s global campus network, The Global Network University, provides an extensive preliminary research community to initiate the Lab’s startup phase. In addition to our proposed hub for the NYUrban Greening Lab in Berlin, NYU operates eleven academic centers and two portal campuses across the world. In many of these centers, environmental scientists and social scientists conduct urban ecology research and teach urban ecology-related courses. At present, their projects, course offerings, and data sets remain unintegrated, and as a result, they are far less effective as research and teaching tools than they might otherwise be. The NYUrban Greening Lab will remedy this problem.

In the Lab’s startup phase, researchers from NYU Washington Square and NYU Berlin will partner with researchers from several NYU global sites to share research, analyses, and project development work. By integrating research projects and data from a range of urban ecosystem sites and projects across the world, scholars will be poised to assemble heretofore impossible comparative and analytical material related to key urban ecology questions.

 

Objectives and Activities

The NYUrban Greening Lab will be a central hub for assembling project and analytical material. It will serve as a coordination point for urban ecology research collaborations across disciplines and global urban field sites. A fully developed Lab will be equipped to host and coordinate urban ecology research activities, team-teaching and curricular development initiatives, and scholarly exchange across sites and research partners both within and beyond the NYU network.

Our core intellectual project is served and strengthened by two parallel clusters of activities. First, our shared theoretical orientation and basis for collaboration assumes an urban ecosystem in which social and biophysical factors must be simultaneously considered and analyzed in any environmental problem. This is expressed, in part, in Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan’s concept of “ecologies of urbanism,” developed in Ecologies of Urbanism in India.[1] It is further informed by the recent urban ecology conceptual model presented by Pickett, Cadenasso, and McGrath,[2] and Sliwinski’s analytical matrix, called the Urban Greening Matrix.[3]

The Lab will enable research collaboration to develop, refine, and field test these theoretical and analytical instruments, so that together the researchers may develop a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary analytical model for evaluating urban ecology problems. When fully developed, such a model, and its associated conceptual, methodological, and pedagogical tools, will fill an urgent gap at the disciplinary intersection of ecosystem ecology, environmental social science, and urban design.

In addition, the Lab will enable integrated data collection and analysis across cases and across urban field sites. Whenever appropriate to the research question at hand, the multi-sited, worldwide placement of Lab affiliates will enable unprecedented levels of regional and global urban ecology data integration. Likewise, students in affiliated GNU sites will benefit from courses and special projects designed to involve them in Lab research.

The unique structure of the NYUrban Greening Lab affords an unprecedented opportunity for scholars across multiple geographic, cultural, and biophysical locations to conduct simultaneous fieldwork and collaborative intellectual work.

Each research collaborative will undertake parallel analysis, curricular, and scholarly materials development projects. In this way, the Lab will serve dual objectives of promoting GNU cross-site analytical initiatives and ensuring that teaching, student research, and scholarly production are supported in the context of such collaborations.

Berlin is an ideal city to host the NYUrban Greening Lab, and NYU-Berlin has the institutional and infrastructural capacity to do so. Germany’s capital city serves as a world center for innovative research, teaching, and in-practice experiments in urban sustainability. It provides rich potential for field-based research, and offers numerous policy and programmatic approaches to urban sustainability. The NYU-Berlin program is a designated partner of the newly formed Department of Environmental Studies at NYU in New York, and the two units share curricular consistency, research faculty, and students. In addition, NYU-Berlin has been party to multiple pilot projects that have produced innovative pedagogical techniques and research collaborations between New York based professors and their GNU and NYU-Berlin-based counterparts.

These include:

  • Collaborative research, course development, and teaching by Rademacher and Sliwinski for the course, “Urban Greening Lab: Berlin” at NYU-Berlin, Rademacher teaching its sister course in Washington Square, “Urban Greening Lab: New York.”
  • Faculty Exchange Visit for Sliwinski, who spent one week at NYU-New York to share the process and content of the “Greening Berlin” course, as well as to continue collaborative research and curricular development work with Rademacher.
  • Research support, course development and multi-sited team teaching for “The City and The Sea,” with instruction and collaborative research across sites at NYU-Washington Square and NYU-Abu Dhabi. This initiative is ongoing and coordinated through Killilea; it currently involves Dr. John Burt at NYU-Abu Dhabi and collaborators at NYU-Shanghai.

The Urban Ecology Collaborative Research Workshop

 The first step toward realizing the broader NYUrban Greening Lab vision involved establishing and activating formal research collaborations between ecologists, social scientists, and design studies professionals who might conduct research with and through the Lab. Long term, comparative urban ecology research projects will also form the basis for the pedagogical projects associated with the Lab, so our first priority was operationalizing research projects.

To that end, we proposed an Urban Ecology Collaborative Research Workshop, to be hosted by the three Lab organizers and held at the NYU-Berlin Academic Center in July 2015.

We identified over a dozen scholars from the three relevant discipline areas, with equal attention to those based in the EU and the US. Our aim was to secure balance among attendees, so that the proceedings could address the possibility of cross-continent collaboration.

The summer holiday timing of the Workshop made it less convenient for several of those we invited to actually attend. Our participant list contained three European participants (in addition to Sliwinski) and two American participants (in addition to Killilea and Rademacher). Unfortunately two of our three European participants had to cancel at the very last minute, due to family medical emergencies.

As visitors to Berlin for the first time, the two visiting American scholars were provided essential exposure to the dramatic differences evident between that city’s urban ecological situation and those more familiar to American researchers. The many field visits featured in the Workshop program thus functioned as important opportunities for exposure to new research questions and important comparative insights.

Many of the comparative questions that emerged from the proceedings are reflected in the Action Papers that participants produced at the end of the workshop, which are attached to this Report. Examples include projects such as Groffman’s “Coupled Social and Biophysical Dynamics of Spontaneous Vegetation in Urban Ecosystems” and Rademacher and Larchmund’s “Tracks to Parks.”

 

Outputs and Future Directions: 

A core accomplishment of the workshop was the extent to which it opened leading urban ecologists to important discussions about the theory and practice of urban ecology itself. It also introduced researchers who had never before engaged with Berlin, or, for that matter, urban ecology in any European context, to the vast and complex contrasts between American and European cases.

Among our European colleagues, the workshop invitations enabled new connections. In order to make it more feasible for our European counterparts to participate in Lab startup activities, we plan to organize follow-up events in both Washington Square and Berlin.

For example, Salman Quereshi, a leading landscape ecologists from Humboldt University, will visit Washington Square and deliver a talk to the NYU Department of Environmental Studies. Although he was not present at the workshop, he has expressed keen interest in joining Cadenasso and Rademacher in developing the project described in the Action Paper, “Coproducing a ‘Green’ Urban Fabric: Investigating Intentions, Assumptions, and Dynamics of Three Environmental Improvement Initiatives in New York City.”

In addition, Sigi Sliwinski will coordinate several Lab events at NYU-Berlin that will feature workshop researchers who were unable to attend the workshop. These include Katrin Bohn of Technische Universität Berlin and Antje Bruns of Humboldt University.

 

Contingent on funding, we aim to reconvene the Urban Greening Lab scholars within a six month to one year period.

[1] Rademacher, Anne, and K. Sivaramakrishnan, eds. 2013. Ecologies of Urbanism in India: Metropolitan Civility and Sustainability. Hong Kong and New York: HKU/Columbia University Press.

[2] Pickett, S., M. Cadenasso, and B. McGrath, eds. Resilience in Ecology and Urban Design: Linking Theory and Practice for Sustainable Cities. New York: Springer.

[3] The Urban Greening Matrix is a design-based analytical tool developed by Professor Sigismund Sliwinski of NYU-Berlin.  It is currently in press.