Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Role of Urban Green Spaces in Maintaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (#ICCB2013 Symposium)

California Poppies in a Fresno garden

California poppies brighten up an urban home garden in Fresno, California. Photo by Kaberi Kar Gupta @2012

A large number of conservation biologists (what is the collective pronoun for such? gaggle? confabulation? murmuration? murder?) have flocked to Baltimore this week for the 26th International Congress for Conservation Biology (#ICCB2013 on twitter). This includes a number of my colleagues and friends with whom I had helped put together a symposium on urban biodiversity. Kaberi and I were initially planning to be back in the US in time to attend this conference, but aren’t able to because we have too many things to get done here in India before winding up this sabbatical. As such, this is yet another conference I must miss (like ESA 2012), and given that the internet connectivity is rather slow and flaky, I haven’t even able to participate in the twitter conversation in the backchannel (unlike last year). I’ll try to be online during our session this thursday, and will tweet/retweet as and when I can in the meantime.

While the Congress does have a (quite busy) twitter hashtag, and should be pretty good for communication overall, their website leaves something to be desired : you can download the entire program and book of abstracts in a big PDF, but session details and individual paper abstracts are not available online, and (as of this writing), only the symposia for Monday and Tuesday are visible via the Program and Special Events link. Nevertheless, here are the details of our symposium this Thursday, which I hope those of you in Baltimore will be up for, bright and shiny in the AM:


Symposium: The Role of Urban Green Spaces in Maintaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Room 303
Thursday, July 25, 08:00 to 10:00
Organizer(s): Christopher Lepczyk, University of Hawaii at Manoa; Myla Aronson, Rutgers University; Paige Warren, University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Madhusudan Katti, California State University, Fresno; Charles Nilon, University of Missouri, Columbia

Urban areas are typically considered novel ecosystems, filled with non-native species and having few positive attributes. However, urban ecosystems are not homogenous entities in that they contain a variety of habitat types, many of which have value to conservation. One habitat type of particular relevance for conservation is green space. Urban green spaces vary markedly in terms of meaning, ranging from remnant habitat to managed parks to gardens. However, the unifying aspect of such green spaces is that they can offer critical habitat to many species of plants and animals, provide locations for people to experience nature, and provide a number of important ecosystem services. Hence, the theme of this symposium is to bring together a group of prominent scientists and practicioners to address the role urban green spaces play in maintaining biodiversity, providing ecosystem services, and enhance human well-being. Because green spaces are used and experienced by so many different people and species, understanding them requires both social and ecological components as well as the stakeholders involved in them.

08:00 Contributions of green roofs to urban biodiversity J. Scott MacIvor, York University

08:15 Spatial and temporal urbanisation gradients– are they interchangeable? Karl Evans, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield 

08:30 Sustainability begins at home: Backyard habitats for birds and people Susannah Lerman, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

08:45 Which is the better green space? A comparison of traditional grass lawn and waterwise gardens in a semi-desert urban landscape Kaberi Kar Gupta, California State University, Fresno

09:00 Vacant land conversion to community gardens: influences on generalist arthropod predators and biocontrol services in urban greenspaces Mary Gardiner, Cleveland State University

09:15 Using Citizen Science and community partnerships as tools for studying urban stopover habitats in Milwaukee, WI Tim Vargo, Urban Ecology Center

09:30 Portland-Vancouver ULTRA-Ex: Analyzing the connection between governance and environmental quality in urban ecosystems Alan Yeakley, Portland State University

09:45 Synthesis: the value of green spaces to conservation Christopher A. Lepczyk, University of Hawaii at Manoa


My co-conspirators and I are planning to write a synthesis paper drawing together the presentations in this symposium, and as part of that process, I’ve asked everyone to share their talks online (on figshare or slideshare). I will share all of those here as they become available. Kaberi’s talk on our work in Fresno’s residential yards (the slides for which she is polishing at the moment) will be delivered by one of my co-organizers. Meanwhile, if you are in Baltimore, do drop in on the symposium, at least on my behalf! And if you do go, please drop me a line here in the comments below, especially if you have any questions or thoughts.

Prisoner of Light

Earth at night

Isaac Asimov played a crucial role in the development of my juvenile imagination, with his wonderful ideas unhampered by his lack of felicity with literary prose. I’ve even invoked his planet Trantor in exploring the limits and ethics of urbanization. I am delighted, therefore, to find that Asimov’s wonderfully imaginative short story Nightfall inspired the latest blog post by Meera, my neighbor here in In turn, her lovely prose (and the poem she quotes) brought to mind of a bit of my own juvenilia, a poem I had written many moons ago, about trying to break free from the prison of light, to embrace the night. A night we have gradually banished from much of the world today, as evident in the above image you may have seen, of Earth at night, this one composited from over 400 satellite images from NASA and NOAA. (Here’s another recent view, captured by a single satellite during March-April 2012.)

Unlike the world of Nightfall, we have but the one Sun, not six – yet within a few decades of global urbanization we have managed to make strangers of most stars! Many urban-dwelling members of our own species may now be astonished and bewildered, if not actually driven mad, should they suddenly be confronted with the full splendor of the brilliant night sky as it appears still over the world’s high deserts, for instance. I have seen Venus cast a shadow in the pre-dawn night (while camping in the Sahyadri mountains a quarter century ago). I have also had friends report in complete amazement their discovery that the milky way can actually be seen by the naked eye from some places on this earth! And I hope we can halt, and roll back, the marching of the armies of light across our planet, and bring back the night. Not only for ourselves, for we need the stars and the night to nourish our souls, but also for migratory birds and all the wonderful nocturnal creatures who need the dark and the starlight.

Here, then, is the youthful me railing against the light, as I wandered through a suburban woods in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills one spring night, trying to blot out the city lights and find some stars, mayhaps an owl, and find myself.


Prisoner of Light

The soft darkness, an element forgotten
or never yet discovered perhaps? Night,
feeling, reaching out for me with the
gentle fingers of the strong wind, draws
and propels me, into the bottomless pit
of my self. The invisible, dark red
glow of Palash blooms, the Flames
of the Forest, half opened buds of an
incomplete spring paint the night in
terrible, fascinating hues, that drive me
out of my mind and out of my heart.

My intellect struggles to express, throws itself
against the walls of an imprisoned knowledge.
A captive imagination revolts against that dictator,
Language, hurls itself at the grammar bars, and
though bruised, trickles out gradually through
the gaps, amorphous fluid that it is. A chaotic
upheaval as estranged Reason and Emotion,
each denying the other, yet forced to coexist,
come face to face, in the noisy graveyard
of my deforested mind; captive, under siege from
the fluorescent battalions marching all night.

The uneasy half moon, ashamed of itself,
seeking the anonymity of a mist-veil,
unable yet to shut off its light, watches
the fugitive jackal of my intellect scavenging
on the rotting remains of my self-respect
under the cover of lightness. The sombre
trees, living tombstones on my buried
humanity, run from me, as I crash madly
through the dead wilderness of my mind,
like a blind rhinoceros searching for
a resting place, a home or a grave.

But the army of Light, it cannot
bear to watch! It hauls me out of
the enchanting night. Its vice-like grip
squeezes the darkness, pulls my shrivelled,
dry self back into the circle of radiation.
An eternal prisoner of Light, once again
I fail, to understand, to unify myself.

– Madhusudan, 13 March 1989, Dehradun.

Instant Noodle Soup and Ecological Enlightenment on the Trans-Himalayan Urban Frontier

KeeGompa panoramic

I haven’t been posting much on this blog lately, and in case you’re wondering why, I had a good excuse. I spent most of June up in the trans-Himalayan desert, in Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India. I went up with my whole family at the impromptu invitation of old friends who have been working in the region for nearly 2 decades – it was a long-term dream come true for me and Kaberi! We drove up from Delhi, taking three days on the road to get there. Then we were supposed to stay for just about 10days before driving back. As it happened, while we were there, that awful intense monsoon storm hit Uttarakhand and the lower reaches of the Spiti-Sutlej valley. We only received some rain and an inch or two of unseasonal snowfall, with the snow melting away within hours. The larger storm battered the mountains below us quite heavily though, and all our exit roads got blocked. So we got stuck there for another 10 days… but how can anyone complain about being stuck in such a gorgeous landscape, with such lovely creatures for company?

I took the snow day to write one of the longer essays I’ve written lately, pondering the nature of urbanization, and how the global city now seemed to have no limits, having penetrated into the far reaches of the Himalaya, right here at the edge of the roof of the world. Where a monk at an ancient monastery (Kee Gompa, pictured above) offered this tourist a bowl of instant noodle soup! In turn triggering a contemplation of apparent lack of limits to the reach of urbanization on our planet, which is now posted up on The Nature of Cities blog where I am a contributor.

Have a read, and let me know what you think. What is your experience of the limits of urbanization? What is the smallest patch of urban habitat you have ever seen? What makes it urban?

Following the footsteps of Darwin and Wallace into… Facebook and Twitter?

What would Darwin and Wallace have been doing in this age of online social networks? Or more accurately, had these social networking tools been available to them in their century? Would they have maintained active Facebook pages to share stories (blog posts, really) from their adventures on the high seas, and their many fascinating discoveries about the animals and plants they encountered? Would they have tweeted their emerging insights into the process of Evolution by Natural Selection, or revealed them one Facebook update at a time?

Darwin FB

If you look at the sheer volume of correspondence these gentlemen maintained during the 19th century (Darwin’s letters; Wallace’s letters), and the number of books they wrote for the public (i.e., non-academic readers), you’d have to think the answer to all of the above questions would have to be a fairly enthusiastic “yes“! Well, except may be that last one about sharing the theory of evolution, which Darwin (at least) might still have preferred to keep under wraps. In general, though, even a cursory reading of the biographies of these gentlemen naturalists makes it clear that they were really plugged in, well connected with their contemporary networks of naturalists (amateur and professional) and scientists throughout the western world, as well as in the remote countries where they traveled collecting rocks, fossils, plants, and animals.

Would Darwin have even heard of Wallace’s independent discovery of the principle of Natural Selection if not for the social network of the day, which led the latter to mail Darwin a copy of his paper on the subject? And it was Darwin’s own network of friends (like Huxley) who knew about his earlier discovery of the principle, who made sure he got the credit he deserved. 

And without the extent of Darwin’s correspondence and social connectedness, would we have the wonderful story of Darwin’s last act of kindness towards a beetle collected by a fellow beetle-fancier and show salesman, narrated wonderfully by David Quammen in one of my absolute favorite radio segments: Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus?

Which is why I believe that Darwin and Wallace and the many active biologists of their generation would have absolutely been blogging about their work, and would have been early adopters of our 21st century social communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter and Google+. I am delighted that someone has set up twitter accounts in both their name (@cdarwin; @ARWallace). And I believe we modern day biologists have much to gain by following in their footsteps, and making the most of these tools to not only communicate our discoveries, but to also build collaborations, bring large datasets together, and in so many other ways, actually further the very process of conducting our science.

My own collaborative research and writing ventures over the past decade have relied greatly upon my being active in the blogosphere, and on twitter and Facebook. Yet so many of my colleagues remain skeptical of the value of online social networks, and continue to consider it a waste of time. The snootiness of some in today’s academic ivory towers towards such common communication baffles me. But their ranks are shrinking every day as more and more of my friends and colleagues are beginning to use Facebook and twitter, some of them even setting up blogs.

And so, when my friend Sue Bertram (blog, twitter) recently asked me to help write a paper addressing our luddite colleagues to tell them about the value of online social networking tools, and also how to use them and make the most of them, I jumped at the chance. We had fun writing the paper during our respective parallel sabbaticals: me bumming around in India, Sue surfing along the central California coast. Indeed, we would have had a much harder time writing this paper if not for twitter and dropbox, the two pillars of our collaboration (in this instance). I am happy to announce that our paper has just been published in the Future of Publication section of open access online journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution!

So point your browsers this way and download today:

Bertram, S. and Katti, M. 2013. The Social Biology Professor: Effective Strategies for Social Media Engagement. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 6:22-31. doi:10.4033/iee.2013.6.5.f.

We hope you find it useful, and welcome any thoughts or comments you might have on the paper – either on the journal website or right here, under this post.