#ialeuk2014 – Urban landscape ecology: Science, policy and practice

Something else to keep me busy this year is the organisation of the Annual Conference of the International Association for Landscape Ecology (UK). We’ll be hosting the conference at King’s in central London on 1-3 September 2014. We will be having two days of presentations on science, policy, planning and practice, networking events and workshops. We’re still planning them, but we’re hoping that fieldtrips on the final day will include visits to the Thames Barrier and surrounding area and to the top of the Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building.

The theme of the conference this year is ‘Urban landscape ecology: science, policy and practice’. We are keen to hear from researchers, policymakers, and practitioners developing new evidence, policies, strategies, plans or projects on the ground that relate to the landscape ecology of urban and peri-urban areas. The call for abstracts has just gone out; please submit abstracts (300 words) for presentations and posters to conference2014@iale.org.uk by 28 February 2014. We expect selected papers will compose an edited volume on current key issues in urban landscape ecology. The full call for abstracts is copied below.

We’ll be updating the conference website regularly throughout the year as conference planning continues, so keep checking back at: http://iale.org.uk/conference2014 Further details of the conference programme and how to register will be available there soon. We’ll be using the hashtag #ialeuk2014 so please use this on social media. And any questions or queries, don’t hesitate to get in touch via conference2014@iale.org.uk

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Call for Abstracts – Urban landscape ecology: Science, policy and practice

Cities are growing rapidly. Across Europe, more than 70 per cent of people already live in urban areas, including 80 per cent of the UK population. The growth of cities poses ever-increasing challenges for the natural environment on which they impact and depend, not only within their boundaries but also in surrounding peri-urban areas. Landscape ecology – the study of interactions across space and time between the structure and function of physical, biological and cultural components of landscapes – has a pivotal role to play in identifying sustainable solutions.

This conference will consider how concepts from landscape ecology can inform the maintenance and restoration of healthy, properly functioning natural environments across urban and peri-urban landscapes, as the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal wellbeing.

Conference themes are likely to include: ecological connectivity of terrestrial and aquatic environments; ecosystem services, including regulation of air quality, urban heat, and water quality and quantity, as well as cultural services; planning for change; and landscape-scale management of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

We are keen to hear from researchers, policymakers, and practitioners developing new evidence, policies, strategies, plans or projects on the ground that relate to the landscape ecology of urban and peri-urban areas.

Please submit abstracts (300 words) for presentations and posters to conference2014@iale.org.uk by 28 February 2014. Selected papers will compose an edited volume on current key issues in urban landscape ecology.

There will be two days of presentations on science, policy, planning and practice, networking events and workshops. We are hoping that fieldtrips on the final day will include visits to the Thames Barrier and surrounding area and to the top of the Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building, from where we can consider connectivity across London and beyond.

Further details of the conference programme and how to register will be available soon.

General enquiries: conference2014@iale.org.uk
Website: http://iale.org.uk/conference2014
Social media: #ialeuk2014

Launching effective interdisciplinary human-environment research

After a while bouncing around various outlets, the paper that emerged from the CHANS Workshop at US-IALE 2009 in Snowbird has been published. Presented as a meeting review in the ESA Bulletin, Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS): Approach, Challenges, and Strategies discusses what the CHANS approach is and what the current challenges and strategies in this field are. For example, we suggest the following are the keys to launching effective CHANS research projects:

Identify the goals and final products of the project

  • Goals and products could include answers to scientific questions, hypothesis testing, a simulation model or decision-support tool, policy or management recommendations, or education.
  • Identify and articulate analysis boundaries and scales of interest: spatially, temporally, and in terms of physical processes.
  • A preliminary conceptual model may help initiate discussion among potential collaborators; the conceptual model need not be correct in what it is illustrating, but rather serve to “break the ice” and generate discussion.

Build a team around the identified goals and products

  • Identify project manager(s) and submanagers, where the submanagers may be discipline specific and responsible for a particular component of the project.
  • It may also be beneficial to assign to one person responsibility for overseeing and maintaining the project timeline. It might be advantageous for this person not to be a manager or submanager to minimize potential conflicts.
  • Once the team is together, reexamine the initial goals and final products.

Methods necessary to accomplish project goals and products should now be developed.

  • It is important to recognize that the final products may change in response to the project team’s vision and analysis. Team members must be prepared to be flexible, to reevaluate the project’s conceptual framework and methods as a partnership matures.
  • Potential challenges of complexity and uncertainty should be discussed at this point; where in the project may they later manifest themselves? How may they be overcome?
  • Each team member should be recognized as “a tool in a toolbox,” each providing a unique contribution that works in tandem with the other tools (e.g., the compass and ruler) to build the entire project.

We conclude; “The CHANS approach is emerging from its infancy, characterized by the use of rudimentary language skills in describing deeply complex systems. With proper support, it stands to contribute to a better understanding of the multifaceted interactions between human and natural systems, and thus inform societal choices in pursuit of sustainability.”

Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

Around the time I wrote this blog about the National Assessment of UK Forestry and Climate Change Steering Group report I was thinking about writing a proposal to the Leverhulme Trust for an Early Career Fellowship. I found out recently that my proposal was successful and so from January 2011 I will be back at King’s College, London!

The Leverhulme Trust makes awards in support of research and education with special emphasis on original and significant research that aims to remove barriers between traditional disciplines. Their Early Career Fellowships are awarded across all disciplines and in 2010 approximately 70 were expected to be awarded to individuals to hold at universities in the UK. Given the emphasis on original, significant and cross-disciplinary research made by the Trust I looked for something that matched my research skills in coupled human and natural systems modelling but that pushed work in that area in a new direction. I thought back to the ideas about model narratives I have previously explored with David O’Sullivan and George Perry (but have not worked on since then) and Bill Cronon’s plenary address at the Royal Geographical Society in 2006 on the need for ‘sustainable narratives’. With that in mind, and given the UK Forestry and Climate change report I had been reading, I decided to make a pitch for a project that would explore how narratives from the use of models could help individuals identify how local actions transcend scales to mitigate global climate change in the context of the anticipated woodland planting that will be ongoing in the UK in future years. It proved to be a successful pitch!

I’m sure I will blog plenty more about the project in the future, so for now I will just leave you with the proposal rationale (below). I’m looking forward to getting to work on this when I get back to London, but before that there’s plenty more things to get done on the Michigan forest landscape ecological-economic modelling.

Model narratives for climate change mitigation
The abstract, vast, and systemic narratives that dominate the issue of global climate change do little to illustrate to individuals and groups how their actions might contribute to mitigate the effects of what is often framed as a global problem (Cronon 2006). Ways to improve the ability of individuals and groups to identify how their local actions transcend scales to mitigate global climate change are needed. In this research I will explore how narratives produced from computer simulation models that represent individuals’ actions can provide people with insights into how their behaviour affects system properties at a larger scale. Although the narrative properties of simulation models have been highlighted (O’Sullivan 2004), the use of models to develop localised narratives of climate change which emphasise individual agency has yet to be explored. Confronting individuals with these narratives will also help researchers reveal important underlying, and possibly implicitly held, assumptions that influence choices and behaviour.

This research will address the following general questions:

  • How can computer simulation models be better used to reveal to individuals how their local actions can contribute to global environmental issues such as Climate Change Mitigation (CCM)?
  • What are the narrative properties of simulation models and how can they be exploited to help individuals find meaning about their actions as they relate to global climate change?
  • By using simulation tools to spur reflection what can we learn about the factors influencing individuals’ choices and behaviour with regards CCM options?

Answering these questions will require a uniquely interdisciplinary research approach that spans the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. Such ground-breaking, boundary-crossing work is necessary if we are to re-connect the physical sciences with the publics they intend to benefit and find solutions to large-scale and pressing environmental problems. For example, one of the key findings from a recent report by the National Assessment of UK Forestry and Climate Change Steering Group (Read et al. 2009) was that “[t]he extent to which the potential for additional [greenhouse gas] emissions abatement through tree planting is realized … will be determined in large part by economic forces and society’s attitudes rather than by scientific and technical issues alone” (p.xvii). The report also argued the need “to better understand and consider the role of different influences affecting choices and behaviour. Without the appropriate emotional, cultural or psychological disposition, information will make no difference.” (p.210). Narratives based on scientific understanding which portray how individuals can make a difference to large-scale, diffuse environmental issues will be important for fostering such a disposition. Simulation models – quantitative representations of reality which provide a means to logically examine how high-level and large-scale patterns are generated by lower-level and smaller-scale processes and events – have the potential to contribute to the construction of these narratives.

US-IALE 2010 Notes

The 25th US-IALE annual meeting I attended in Athens, Georgia, a couple of weeks ago was notable for the presence of so many important figures in the field of landscape ecology. Several gave interesting plenary talks and the Presidents Symposium had presentations by many of the previous US-IALE Presidents and past editors of the journal Landscape Ecology. I also attended interesting presentations and discussion in the wildfire symposium and elsewhere.

Plenary Presentations
In the introductory plenary Profs. Richard Forman, Gary Barrett and Monica Turner gave their views on the origins and state of the field. Forman described his PhD work, rooted in the theory of island biogeography, in a Pine barrens landscape. He told how he suddenly realised he had been ignoring the context of his ‘islands’ and decided to look at how he might consider his study area as a landscape of patches arranged in a mosaic. He also talked about the ‘ecumenicalism of landscape ecology’ and how it is an important field for the development of interdisciplinary human-environment research.

Barrett spoke about the importance of the Allerton Park meeting in 1983 and the relationship of landscape ecology to the LTER network. He highlighted that landscape ecology is a ‘meeting point of [ecological] theory and application’ and the creation of the journal Ecological Applications (but also noted the creation 27 years earlier of the Journal of Applied Ecology).

Turner, the organiser of the very first US-IALE meeting, pointed out how similar current research themes are to those of 25 years ago. Questions still of relevance to landscape ecology include those about the relative importance of different drivers of ecological patterns and the importance of heterogeneity for driving ecosystem processes and species interactions.

Of the other plenary presentations, I found Joe Tainter’s presentation very interesting. His ‘big’ talk discussed the rise and fall of civilisations from the perspective of social and cultural complexity and Energy Return On Energy Investment (EROEI). He highlighted that sustaining complex societies requires a high EROEI and used the Roman and Byzantine Empires as examples to illustrate this. He stressed that sustainability is an active condition of problem solving – the capacity for which must itself be sustained – and questioned whether renewable energy resources (such as solar and wind power) have sufficient EROEI to allow us to do that in the future.

Presidents Symposium
In the Presidents Symposium, Jianguo Wu provided a pluralistic and hierarchical perspective of landscape ecology. Wu argued that the goal of landscape ecology should not just be about reporting on landscapes but about changing them. He also argued that the human landscape is the ‘most operational spatial scale for sustainability science’. He highlighted the formation of two new sections in the landscape ecology journal; ‘Landscape Ecology in Review’ and ‘Landscape Ecology in Practice’.

These issues were taken up later in the same session by Paul Opdam who discussed the transfer of pattern-process knowledge to society (as he wrote about with Joan Iverson Nassauer). He argued that there are three ways to do this; i) by asking questions about how our scientific knowledge is used in practice by planners, managers and stakeholders, ii) developing methods by testing them in practice, and iii) co-producing knowledge with non-scientists. He also argue that practical application of knowledge is the key methods for the ‘learning scientist’ and that research along these lines would be welcomed in the Landscape Ecology in Practice section of the journal.

Wildfire Symposium
The wildfires session contained some familiar faces. Rachel Loehman and Maureen Kennedy presented progress on their wildfire-related models and Don McKenzie outlined his efforts to take much of the recent work towards a coherent ‘theory of landscape fire’. The key elements to this theory he suggested would be energy, regulation (management) and scaling. In particular he emphasizes that we need to work hard on understanding the importance of landscape memory and the legacy of previous wildfire events on future ones.

Particularly encouraging to see was the work by Paul Hessburg and Nick Povak on self-organization and wildfire scaling in California (using data for 1950-2007). They argued that broken-stick regression is needed to represented their wildfire frequency-area data, as scale free power-law behaviour is only present across about two orders of magnitude in the medium size fires. At the lower end of the frequency-area distribution (smaller, frequent fires) they suggested bottom-up controls on the wildfire regime due to insects, stand dynamics and topography, and at the upper end of the frequency-area distribution (larger, infrequent fires) they suggested top-down controls on the wildfire regime due to climate and geology. This work examining the drivers of different wildfire regime scaling statistics certainly seems to be the way to go.

Other Discussions
My presentation seemed to go down well and I got some interesting questions. Frederik Doyon of Université du Québec en Outaouai was particularly interested in our work in the mixed hardwood-conifer forests of Michigan. Also in my session, Maria Santos presented her work comparing culture and ecology between the Mediterranean oak woodland landscapes of Portugal and California. We discussed some of the links between her work and my PhD research.

All round it was a good meeting with some interesting discussions in the various plenary session, symposia and in the pub. Here’s to another 25 years of US-IALE.

US-IALE 2010 Preparation

Next week is the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Symposium of the US chapter of the International Association of Landscape Ecology (US-IALE). I’ll be in attendance in Athens, Georgia and am currently working on my presentation, entitled Ecological-economic modeling for sustainable forest management (scheduled for Thursday 8th, 2.20pm in room T/U). In the context of our larger modelling project I’ll present work we’ve published, stuff we’re still working on, and the initial results from putting it all together.

Several symposia have been organised and I plan to be at those that consider landscape ecology and wildfires, bioenergy and land-use change, and climate change and landscape connectivity. Particularly interesting should be Don McKenzie’s presentations on ecosystem energetics and scaling laws in the wildfire symposium and Paul Opdam’s presentations on Natura 2000 and the role of landscape ecology in the climate change symposium. Two of the plenary addresses I’d like to catch are Collapse and Sustainability: Lessons from History (Joseph A Tainter) and Linking Renaissance Ecologists with Citizen Scientists to Advanced Scientific Research and Literacy (Carol Brewer).

As usual CSIS has a strong presence at US-IALE this year with seven presentations, including the insights of Jack Liu and Wu Yang into the challenges and opportunities for landscape ecology and conservation in coupled human natural research, the analysis by Andres Vina and Xiaodong Chen of the potential conservation benefits that might be offset by natural disasters, Mao-Ning Tuanmu’s work on Giant Panda habitat and the work by Pete Esselman and Dana Infante on the National Assessment of the Status of Fish Habitat. The full list of CSIS presentations is below.

It’s shaping up to be a good couple of days! I’ll try to tweet and blog some thoughts as they arise during the conference and maybe reflect on things afterwards also.

CSIS Presentations at US-IALE 2010
6th April
Are conservation benefits offset by natural disasters? — The case of the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. Andrés Viña, Xiaodong Chen, Wei Liu, et al.

Coupling human and natural systems: Challenges and opportunities for landscape ecologists. Jianguo Liu

The spatial framework and results of the initial National Assessment of the Status of Fish Habitat. Peter C Esselman, Dana M Infante, et al.

7th April
Effects of human-environment relationships on the spatiotemporal dynamics of giant panda habitat. Mao-Ning Tuanmu, Wei Liu, Andrés Viña, et al.

8th April
Ecological-economic modeling for sustainable forest management. James D A Millington, Michael B Walters, Megan S Matonis, et al.

Mechanisms for effective conservation in coupled human-natural systems. Wu Yang, Wei Liu, Mao-Ning Tuanmu, et al.

Patterns and drivers of reforestation: A case study in the Qinling Mountains, China. Yu Li, Andrés Viña, Jianguo Liu

The Omnivores’ Trifecta: A feast of ideas

This week I went to a seminar presented by Dr Richard Bawden of the Systemic Development Institute, Australia. This was the first event in MSU’s “conversation about our food future”. It turned out to be much more interesting than I had hoped; Bawden is an engaging and charismatic speaker who presented a thoughtful perspective on what he termed ‘The Omnivores’ Trifecta’: Agriculture, Food and Health and the Systemic Relationships between them. He covered a hearty spread of ideas, so I’ll recap his most interesting points in bite-sized pieces:

i) Bawden suggested that Agriculture, Food and Health (A-F-H) when considered separately are not a system. But by understanding each as a discourse (i.e. as a subject for “formal discussion of debate”) they become viewed in a systemic perspective.

ii) At the intersection of these three subjects are four very important (sub-)discourses which Bawden termed the “engagement discourse subsystem”. These are: business, lay citizens, governance, and experts.

iii) Bawden proposed that it is the profound differences in episteme (worldview) between these discourse ‘subsystems’ that are at the heart of the majority of the conflicts across the A-F-H system and the environment in which it is situated.

iv) These epistemic differences are so profound as to be polemic. Bawden bemoaned this fact and highlighted that “Dialectic yields to Polemic“. He emphasised that dialectics are the only way forward to forge a world in common and that polemics prevent deliberation, debate and kill democracy.

v) To illustrate these points Bawden used the case of Australian agriculture since the mid-20th century. He described this case as being characteristic of many messy, wicked problems and argued that reductionist science alone was insufficient to bring resolution (and hence is why he founded the Systemic Development Institute). During this argument he quoted Beck but questioned whether we have reached second modernity. Bawden argued that the “culture of technical control” still prevails within current modernist society has an episteme that privileges fact over value, analysis over synthesis, individualism over communalism, teaching over learning and productionism over sustainablism.

vi) On these last two dichotomies, Bawden suggested that the question of what is to be sustained (and therefore what sustainability is) is a moral question not a technical one.

vii) He proposed that higher education is about learning differently not learning more; the ability to look the world and make sense of it for oneself (and then take action in response) is what characterises a good education. Awareness of the presence of different worldviews is key to this ability. Furthermore, Bawden argued that the complete learner will be prepared to enter a form of learning that the academy is currently unable to provide because it is too reductionist. This learning would require critical reflection of one’s own worldview, as Jack Mezirow has proposed.

viii) Bawden then presented the diagram that synthesises his message (see below). This diagram describes the “integrated process of the critical learning system” and shows how perceiving, understanding, planning and acting are connected within our rational experience of the world and how they are linked to the intuitive facets of learning.


Quite the feast of ideas eh? I’m still digesting them and might be for a while. But the key message I take away from this is a post-normal one; in learning about human-environment interactions and to solve current wicked problems, inter-epistemic as well as inter-disciplinary work will be needed. Although different scientific disciplines such as ecology, biology, and chemistry have different terminology and conventions, they share a worldview – the one that favours facts over values and aims to subsume empirical observations into universal laws and theories. Other worldviews are available. Inter-epistemic human-environment study would seek to cross the boundaries between worldviews, recognize that reductionist science is only one way to understand the world and is unlikely provide complete answers to wicked problems, and emphasise dialectics over polemics.

Plant Now and Use Sustainably

In the climate change debate there’s been a lot of talk about current Amazonian rainforest deforestation, but I’ve heard much less about the role of the UK’s forests for carbon sequestration. Given the relative size of the UK to the Amazonian rainforest that’s not so surprising – The Nature Conservancy suggests the area of rainforest cut down each year (20 million hectares) is the same as the combined area of England, Scotland and Wales. The estimated 5000 years it took [.pdf] to go from 75% of the UK covered by forests and woodlands to the current 12% just doesn’t compare.


Recently, however, the case been made for increasing UK forest and woodland cover as a form of climate change mitigation. This summer the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan identified woodland creation as a cost-effective way of mitigating climate change and recognised the importance of supporting tree-planting initiatives. More recently, the National Assessment of UK Forestry and Climate Change Steering Group has provided its response to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and argues there is a clear need for more woodlands.


One of the main findings of this initial assessment was that an increase in woodland area of 23,000 ha per year over the next 40 years could abate 10% of UK 2050 greenhouse gas emissions. With echos of the recommendation from the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change to ‘Act now or pay later’, the key message from this assessment is ‘Plant now and use sustainably’. The long maturation times of forest systems means that it may take take 50–100 years for actions to pay off.

Being such a long-standing investment it’s vital that the benefits of planted woodlands and forests are not outweighed by negative impacts on biodiversity, food security, landscape and water supply. From this stand-point there is much to be done and the assessment recommends that “further scientific and socio-economic analysis is required to enable the UK to achieve the full [climate] adaptation and mitigation potential of forestry” and that “clear, robust, research programmes will be needed to underpin the changes of forestry policy and practice which are required to meet the new and challenging circumstances”.

A question that immediately springs to my mind is where these woodlands should be placed to maximise their carbon sequestration payoff while minimising negative impacts on other aspects of the landscape. For example, if arable agricultural land is to be converted, how will biodiversity be affected by the removal of hedgerows? What would this conversion of agricultural land mean for local economies? Which species will benefit in terms of habitat connectivity and which will lose out? Addressing questions like these will be important as forest policy moves toward returning UK forest cover area near levels seen elsewhere in Europe.