Research Interests : Patterns, drivers and management of biodiversity in human dominated landscapes; urban ecology; plant ecology; restoration ecology.
The majority of humanity now lives in cities or urban areas, with this proportion expected to continue increasing for the foreseeable future. As novel ecosystems, urban areas offer an ideal opportunity to examine multi-scalar processes involved in community assembly as well as the role of human activities in modulating environmental drivers of biodiversity. A key question in both basic and applied urban ecology is “What are the processes that shape biodiversity in urban landscapes?” To answer this question, I have built a research program to observe and experimentally test hypotheses on the processes that shape urban plant and animal communities and to direct management, design, and planning decisions for attracting and maintaining biodiversity in cities. I test the hypothesis that the biota of cities are shaped by a hierarchical series of environmental, anthropogenic, and biotic filters (Aronson et al. 2016, Ecology), and that the importance of these filters for species composition changes at different spatial and temporal scales. In this model, I employ a commonly used framework in community assembly theory, that of hierarchically imposed “filters” through which species must have the adaptive traits to “pass” in order to colonize or persist in a community. A key difference between urban biotic communities and non-urban ones, however, is that they are shaped in complex ways by human values, preferences, and activities.
I have tested these filters in a variety of ways. I led a working group to collate and synthesize the largest urban biodiversity database to-date to answer questions on the processes that drive global urban biodiversity. We have published several manuscripts from this work (e.g., Aronson et al. 2014, La Sorte et al. 2014, 2018), examining the anthropogenic, climatic, and biogeographic filters of urban biodiversity. We have also examined the socio-economic factors that drive urban biodiversity across the globe (Kuras et al. 2020). Additionally, I am the US Hub Leader of the Urban Biological Invasions Consortium, focused on understanding the patterns, drivers and management of invasive species in urban areas. Ongoing and future research efforts include examining historic and current connectivity (using shipping and air transportation networks) among cities to better understand the role of global biotic interchange in structuring biodiversity.
I am currently the PI (along with Charles Nilon at the University of Missouri) of UrBioNet, an international research coordination network funded by NSF (2014-2021) to develop a network for research and practice for urban biodiversity conservation. This research aims to: 1) Develop global databases on multiple taxa in cities; 2) identify general patterns and processes shaping urban biodiversity across the world’s cities and to quantify the relative importance of physical, climatic, and social factors in driving patterns of urban biodiversity; 3) develop recommendations for monitoring biodiversity in urban areas; and 4) share findings and data with the scientific community and with practitioners and students in land management, urban design, urban planning, and urban policy. Outcomes from this network will not only help to push forward our understanding of the ecology of cities, but will also provide useful information to planners and managers for the monitoring of and planning for biodiversity in urban regions.
To understand the filters of biodiversity at regional scales, I have focused my work in the New York metropolitan region, examining the patterns, drivers, and traits of invasive species across the urban landscape (e.g., Aronson et al. 2007, 2015). I address the local filters that drive urban biodiversity using experimental and observational studies. I use urban green spaces (UGS), key spaces that play critical roles in preserving biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem functions, and supporting human well-being, for these studies (Aronson et al. 2017, Lepczyk et al. 2017). Specifically, I experimentally examine the biotic interactions, particularly competition and herbivory, that drive plant communities and populations (e.g., Aronson and Handel 2011, Piana et al. 2019). In all of this work, I and my students have utilized trait based analyses to further our understanding of community assembly and function in urban greenspaces (e.g., Aronson et al. 2007, Dolan et al. 2017, Frazee et al. 2019).
I also use interdisciplinary approaches in my work, including how cities approach planning for biodiversity and ecosystem service planning (Nilon et al. 2017) and how ecological restoration projects can act as stewardship catalysts in cities (Sorensen et al. 2018). My recent interdisciplinary work has focused on understanding the relationships between socioeconomic factors and biodiversity (e.g., Kuras et al. 2020, Johnson et al. 2020).