Tag Archives: ULTRA

As Ecosystems, Cities Yield Some Surprises – a report on the ULTRA-Ex symposia at ESA 2011

As I have been tootin my own horn in several posts here this past week, I co-organized two symposia (1 & 2 and a workshop on Wednesday for a day of Urban Stewardship at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America which ended in Austin earlier today. The two symposia brought together researchers from 21 sites in the ULTRA-Ex network, and we met again later for a late evening workshop to discuss ways to nurture, grow, and sustain a grassroots network of collaborative long-term urban research sites. More of my thoughts on that later. For now, read the following report from science writer Hillary Rosner, who happened to be in the audience for much of the day, and even came to the evening workshop on an empty stomach! I’m very happy at the turnout to the events, and the quality of the conversations throughout the day – and thrilled to have our work appear in the online pages of the Gray Lady!

Researchers at Boston University have been measuring the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide emissions. Researchers at Boston University have been measuring the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide emissions on different days of the week.
Green: Science

In Boston, scientists measuring the city’s greenhouse gas emissions have found what they call a “weekend effect,” a clear drop-off in the amount of carbon dioxide entering the city’s atmosphere on Saturdays and Sundays. In Fresno, researchers have discovered that backyard water use increases with wealth, as does backyard biodiversity. And in Los Angeles, ecologists studying the city’s “ecohydrology” have calculated that planting a million new trees, an idea with fairly universal appeal, would have the drawback of increasing water consumption by 5 percent.

The researchers, who presented their findings this week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Austin, Tex., are all involved in a nascent program to understand the nation’s cities, home to 80 percent of the population, as functioning ecosystems. The goal is to educate urbanites about their environment and how they can act to make it more sustainable.

The program, called Ultra, for Urban Long-Term Research Area, is a joint effort of the National Science Foundation and the Forest Service. A total of 21 projects are under way, including two in New York City. In establishing financing (known as Ultra-Ex grants) for exploratory sites in 2009, the science foundation called urban sustainability one of “the greatest challenges to the long-term environmental quality of the nation.”

At a research site in Fresno, Calif., overseen by Madhusudan Katti, an ecologist at California State University’s campus there, the aim is to untangle the interactions between city water policy, outdoor water use at homes and biodiversity to help inform policy. On the average, wealthier households in Fresno use more water in their yards, yet not because the water is more affordable for them: the city has no metering system, so residents pay a fixed monthly rate.

Reducing water use is considered crucial to guaranteeing long-term sustainability, yet Dr. Katti found that using less water could cause local bird diversity to decline.

“Half the population globally lives in cities, but we don’t have a conceptual understanding of how cities work as dynamic systems,” Dr. Katti said. “We need to generate that understanding.”

Nathan Phillips, an ecologist at Boston University who runs one of the city’s two Ultra-Ex sites, told the audience at the conference that his project, which includes rooftop plant experiments both in and outside the city as well as measurements of greenhouse gases, had revealed a “pulsing type of urban metabolism.”

In a visible signature of human activity, emissions of carbon dioxide increase during the week and decline on the weekends, he said. The next step is putting sensors on 160 Boston buses and identifying the locations of natural gas leaks around the city.

In New York City, one Ultra-Ex project based at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is exploring links between public health, green spaces, and ecosystem services, or nature’s ability to perform functions like cleaning the air and water or preventing flooding. The project is studying seven green roofs, including one at the main post office building on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, to understand their role in preventing sewage from spilling into the city’s waterways during heavy rains.

Some Ultra-Ex projects have a social justice component. In Syracuse, the research helped prevent the installation of a sewage pipe in a low-income neighborhood. Scientists were able to show that installing features like green roofs and porous pavements could reduce storm water runoff.

Just as these research sites are beginning to reveal how such urban ecosystems function, federal budget cuts are calling their future into question. At the ecology meeting, a few dozen Ultra researchers met to discuss how to merge their independent projects into a more closely knit network with an online hub, with or without a central financing source. Cities, after all, will still live and breathe and eat and sweat regardless of what happens in Washington — where there is, by the way, an Ultra-Ex site researching the environmental factors that cause neighborhoods to decline or flourish.

Water management & urban resilience: a talk given at the Resilience 2011 conference

[slideshare id=7278621&doc=resilience2011-katti-talk-110316002024-phpapp01]

I presented the above talk last Saturday afternoon at the Resilience 2011 conference held on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe over the past few days. Here’s the abstract of my talk:

Resilience in an urban socioecological system: exploring the dynamic interactions between water policy, residential water usage, the urban landscape, and plant and bird diversity

Madhusudan Katti*, Andrew Jones, Henry Delcore, Derya Ozgoc-Caglar, and Tom Holyoke

Ecological theory has begun to incorporate humans as part of coupled socio-ecological sys- tems. Modern urban development provides an excellent laboratory to examine the interplay among socio-ecological relationships. Urban land and water management decisions result from dynamic interactions between institutional, individual and ecological factors. Landscaping and irrigation at any particular residence, for example, is a product of geography, hydrology, soil, and other local environmental conditions, the homeowners’ cultural preferences, socioeconomic status, identity construction, neighborhood dynamics, as well as zoning laws, market conditions, city policies, and county/state/federal government regulations. Since land and water management are key determi- nants of habitat for other species, urban biodiversity is strongly driven by the outcome of interac- tions between these variables. This study addresses the significance of water as a key variable in the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA), shaping current patterns of landscape and water use, at a time when the city of Fresno is installing meters as a regulatory tool to conserve water. A recent study from the Fresno Bird Count found that bird species richness and functional group diversity are both strongly correlated with residential irrigation and neighborhood income levels. Tree species diversity shows a similar pattern. Water usage in the FCMA is also directly linked to socioeconomic status, but what exactly are the social behaviors entailed by socioeconomic sta- tus? How will water use behaviors change across the socioeconomic spectrum with changes in the cost of water due to metering? In turn, how will plant and bird diversity change in the aftermath of metering? We examine several theoretical models explaining outdoor water use behaviors, with the aim of assessing the resilience of such behaviors with the introduction of water metering in Fresno, and the resilience of urban plant and bird communities to resulting changes in water use in the landscape. We argue that socioeconomic status results from a complex interplay of cultural, economic, structural, and social-psychological factors, influencing institutional policies regarding the governance of water resources, and in turn impacts biodiversity within the urban landscape through spatial and temporal variations in water usage. This study is part of a long-term research project that examines the impacts of human water usage and water use policies on biodiversity within an urban environment.

Andrew Jones’s presentation on Socio-ecological Systems


Those are the slides Andrew used for his talk in the Biology Colloquium on Friday. I have recorded audio of his talk as well, and will try to add it here ove the next few days.

Socioecological systems: moving beyond the human exemptionalist paradigm

My friend, collaborator, and comrade, Andrew Jones from the dept. of Sociology on our campus will speak in the Biology Colloquium today about the conceptual framework that is helping us understand/unravel the relationships between human water use and biodiversity in the urban ecosystem, as part of our Urban Long-Term Research Area – Fresno And Clovis Ecosocial Study – i.e., the ULTRA-FACES project. And is this the first time a sociologist will be speaking in the biology seminar series? Perhaps, at least in the 6 years I’ve been here.

Here’s a flyer with more details on the event, which are also available on the colloquium website. Please come join us if you can.

Download this file

Water: a critical source of sustenance and existential angst for cities everywhere

I found the above video via my friend (and once-and-future collaborator) David Lewis’ Facebook page, after realizing that he was among the initial recipients of an ULTRA-Exploratory award. More interestingly, his team is also studying questions about urban water use (like us), but in a very different regional context than Fresno-Clovis, as you can see above!

I found this video shortly after a stimulating skype chat with George Hess, at NCSU, who as PI of the Triangle ULTRA project has set up the OpenULTRA wiki to begin some meta-networking across the nascent ULTRA sites. I sure hope fellow scientists at all the other sites are also open to joining the wiki and opening up our research to share ideas and findings with each other, and with the public whose ecologies we are studying.

The Triangle ULTRA is also focused on questions of water use and equity in water distribution – but at a broader institutional level than our individual homeowner focus. And, given that the Triangle refers to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle Region of mega urban sprawl in North Carolina, they’re dealing with a much larger set of institutions (govt. bodies) than we are in Fresno-Clovis.

So, from what I know, at least 3 of the 19 (?? that we know of?) ULTRA projects are focusing on water issues! I look forward to collaborating with these folks across sites, and being able to make some interesting comparisions in the near future as our projects proceed along parallel paths. And I will continue to share what I can here on this blog too.

Cool, eh?!

Resilience in an urban socioecological system: water management as a driver of landscape and biodiversity in the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area, California.

As noted here a couple of weeks ago, I recently received word of being awarded my first National Science Foundation grant for a collaborative project on urban water use and biodiversity here in the growing Fresno-Clovis Metro Area. This is the biggest grant proposal I’ve ever written, involving as it did 20 collaborators from 4 different institutions (CSU-Fresno, UC Davis, UC Merced, and the local station of the USDA Forest Service) spanning the disciplines/departments of biology, geography, plant sciences, psychology, anthropology, sociology, water technology, political science, natural science, education, and earth and environmental science. Whew! 

What did I just try to bite off? – I remember thinking a year ago after hitting that submit button! What on earth did I go and do that for? 

Nevertheless, our proposal got great reviews – just falling short of making it into the first group of 17 projects funded under the Urban Long-Term Research Area Exploratory Award (ULTRA-Ex), but remaining on a “waiting list” pending additional funds. And now, after a long wait, we are actually getting the grant!

So what did we bite off, you ask? Here’s an abstract of what we will be chewing on over the next two years – and do keep coming back here for I will try to share what we learn as we go along:


Resilience in an urban socioecological system: water management as a driver of landscape and biodiversity in the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area, California.

PI: Madhusudan Katti, California State University, Fresno

Co-PIs: C. Derya Özgöç-Çağlar (CSU-Fresno), Mary L. Cadenasso (UC-Davis), John T. Bushoven (CSUF), Andrew R. Jones (CSUF).


Human beings have transformed the Earth into an increasingly urban planet, with nearly half of humanity now living in cities. A city is a unique type of ecosystem where human social, economic, and cultural activities play a prominent role in shaping the landscape, in turn influencing the distribution and abundance of other species, and consequent patterns of biodiversity. The long-term sustainability of cities is of increasing concern as they continue to grow, straining the infrastructure and pushing against environmental constraints on available natural resources. A key natural resource is water, especially in the more rapidly urbanizing arid regions of the world. Understanding water management and use in cities is therefore critical to developing a deeper theoretical understanding of urban ecosystems as well as effective urban policy. The American West faces a water crisis. Drought, urban growth, climate change, and the continued demands of agriculture have combined to heighten the competition among water users, and spurred the search for institutional arrangements to conserve water. A common tool used by governments to regulate and reduce water consumption is the water meter, combined with a use-based pricing structure. In the rapidly urbanizing San Joaquin Valley of California, located in an arid region subject to prolonged drought cycles likely to get exacerbated under regional climate change projections, many cities are now installing meters to reduce household water use. Metering is expected to reduce water availability throughout the urban ecosystem, with residential landscaping choices mediating its effects upon the distribution of plants and animals. Urban land use decisions result from dynamic interactions between institutional and individual level factors. Landscaping and irrigation at any particular residence, for example, is a product of local environmental conditions, the homeowners’ cultural preferences, socioeconomic status, neighborhood dynamics, as well as zoning laws, market conditions, city policies, and county/state/federal government regulations. Since land use is a key determinant of habitat for other species, overall urban biodiversity is strongly driven by the outcome of interactions between these variables, but these interactions remain poorly understood. This project will address the significance of water as a key resource shaping regional patterns of landscape and biodiversity in the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area. Fresno is currently installing water meters and will start charging for use by 2013, while Clovis has been doing so for almost a century. This contrast in water policies between the two cities provides a unique comparative experimental opportunity to study the impact of metering on human landscaping choices and consequent patterns of urban biodiversity. The objectives of this project are to analyze and contrast current patterns of water use in these cities, focusing on: 1) institutional policy and decision making regarding metering, 2) individual homeowner decision making about landscaping, 3) landscape structure at multiple spatial scales, and, 4) patterns in the distribution of plant and bird diversity. The study relies on a range of methods from multiple disciplines including field observations, institutional and individual homeowner surveys, face-to-face interviews with stakeholders, geographical information systems, remote sensing, global positioning systems, statistical tools, systems modeling, and advanced computer visualization techniques. In addition to addressing many fundamental ecological and socioeconomic questions, the research will be tightly integrated with the education of undergraduate and graduate students, and a strong citizen science component built upon the ongoing Fresno Bird Count project. 

The project will have significant implications for urban socio-ecological theory, methodology, and application.  In terms of theory, this project will shed light on complex dynamics of interrelated processes among government regulatory policies, human behavior, landscape and habitat structure, and plant and bird distribution at multiple spatial and temporal scales. In terms of methodology, the research will integrate multidisciplinary methods and advanced technologies to investigate the complexity of the study system, leveraging a “natural” experiment occurring due to Fresno’s installation of water meters, and involving citizen scientist participation in data gathering. With respect to application, the project will provide practical information for urban governance by measuring the impact of a common regulatory tool on citizen behavior, and resulting impacts on landscape and biodiversity. Understanding the relationships among institutions, individual citizens, and biodiversity will help guide urban planning towards more sustainable, resilient, and environmentally healthy cities, in the region and throughout the world. This project is supported by an Urban Long-Term Research Area Exploratory Award.


The above “public” abstract is the one that will appear on NSF’s website after they’ve completed the paperwork to start our grant. Our proposal, ofcourse, had the usual, more technical, Project Summary, which you can read/download below the fold.

The squeaky wheel gets the worm after all…

That is one of my favorite mixed metaphors of all time, courtesy of Ted Case, who taught a pretty awesome Ecology class that I took as a grad student at UCSD a long time ago. He was discussing something about parent-offspring conflict and how the bird that makes the most noise gets the most benefit when parents come to stuff their nestlings’ mouths with fresh caught worms. Ergo, the squeaky wheel gets the worm!

I was reminded of that last Monday, within the first hour of a grant writing workshop I’m attending all this week, sponsored by CSU Fresno’s RIMI project and NIH. In webinar (from NIH Program Officers) after seminar (from our Dean and RIMI faculty here) we were told that one of the key things we should do early in the grant writing cycle is to get in touch with a relevant NIH (or NSF) Program Officer, to run initial grant proposal ideas by them (best in the form of a short concept paper), and then to stay in regular contact with them while developing the proposal, and through the review process after submission. As one NIH officer put it: “remember what they say in Chicago: do it early, and do it often” (the it being, of course, getting in touch with the relevant Program Officer). Its not as easy as it seems for a beginning (or unsuccessful) grant writer, nervous as one is about putting one’s ideas on the line to begin with. But I think we often don’t realize that Program Officers at these granting agencies are not gate-keepers trying to keep us out of the exclusive club, but guides who can help us find the right way in – if we work with them and let them help us! Get them on your side so they may even advocate for you!

Be the squeaky wheel, if you really want that worm…

While listening to this sage advice from several speakers, I worked up the courage to nag my Program Officer at NSF. You see, I (insanely at the head of a team of 18 collaborators) had submitted a grant proposal for a multidisciplinary urban socioecology project a year ago, under the new Urban Long Term Research Area Exploratory Award competition. Last August, we got good reviews, and were put in the encouraging “fund-if-possible” category, just behind 17 other projects that got funded right off the bat! For us (and four others) it turned out not be immediately possible to fund – but we were told to wait. And waited we did. I nudged the Program Officer in charge of our grant in November, and was told to wait a while longer. And wait we did. Amid the madness of the spring semester I didn’t get around to asking again, and grew increasingly apprehensive.

Along come these grant gurus this week, exhorting us to “stay on the radar screen of the Program Officers“! So, on Monday afternoon, I sent another email to mine, asking for an update on the status of our proposal, and updating him on some of the interesting (unfunded) progress we had made on the project in the meantime. And waited.

Today (Thursday), while in another session of the workshop, I got an email from my NSF Program Officer, apologizing for the delay in the decision, and telling me they had now found enough money to fund our project! In full!! Thank you very much, o friendly guide (not gatekeeper) for helping find a way to get us into that exclusive club of NSF funded researchers! And thank you, grant gurus of the RIMI, for making me get back up on that radar screen.

So there you go… this squeaky wheel did get the worm, after all!

Now if you want to know how that worm turns out, keep an eye on this blog for I will be sharing some details of our grant proposal here soon, and continue to keep posting results from our project as it develops.