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EcosystemsInside Latest York’s Concrete Jungle with Amy Karpati

Inside Latest York’s Concrete Jungle with Amy Karpati

Inside Latest York’s Concrete Jungle with Amy Karpati

Bhavya Jha
|March 29, 2023

A little bit red fly with black spots sent everyone right into a frenzy last fall. People were stomping on spotted lantern flies on the sidewalks and quick to swat at them wherever they appeared. Was the response merited? Or was all of it on account of sensationalized messaging about this invasive species? I sat down with urban ecologist and conservation biologist Amy Karpati to resolve this query and to listen to her takes on the changing ecology and ecosystems in and outdoors of Latest York City, in addition to the challenges and opportunities for restoring them.

Ecologist and environmental educator Amy Karpati teaches within the M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

Karpati is a professor at Columbia University’s School of Skilled Studies where she teaches two courses, The Science of Urban Ecology and Reversing the Biodiversity Crisis, as a part of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. Her courses deal with the study of relationships between organisms and their physical environment in an urban context, and biological conservation. She has worked with various environmental nonprofits, including the Pinelands Preservation Alliance in Latest Jersey and Teatown Lake Reservation, a 1,000-acre nature preserve and environmental education center in Westchester County, Latest York.

Within the Q&A below, Karpati talks about invasive species, “green gentrification,” and the way biophysical and sociocultural facets of cities may be modified to support biodiversity and improve urban ecosystems.

The next interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What does it mean to be an ecologist? What do you study?

Within the broadest term, ecologists study the relationships between living organisms and their environment and with one another. They will focus on different sub-areas, so you’ll be able to have forest ecologists, aquatic ecologists, plant ecologists, and animal ecologists. My background has been more in urban ecology and restoration ecology, so I take a look at cities as ecosystems and take a look at to work out how we are able to restore biological structure and performance to our urban environments to make them more sustainable.

In defining ecology, you furthermore may talked in regards to the environment. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Ecosystem versus environment—what’s the difference?

They’re somewhat different. Colloquially, they may be used interchangeably. Ecologists often say that the ecosystem is the biotic, or living a part of the landscape, plus the abiotic, or nonliving part.

The living part is the plants, animals, and microorganisms, and the nonliving part is the water, air, sunlight, and minerals. The environment is abiotic, or the nonliving backdrop that these living things are inhabiting. How all those intersect and interact is the ecosystem.

I believe in common terminology, most individuals do include the living and nonliving part after they discuss the environment, which I believe is technically accurate. I just have a separation in my head of the environment because the nonliving backdrop when I believe of an urban environment consisting of infrastructure and buildings.

The spotted lantern fly became a problem last fall, but were you concerned about them? How do you assess if an invasive species is problematic?

Oh yes, I remember people were wearing spotted lanternfly Halloween costumes. Yeah, it was sort of sensationalized, however it was also a giant deal, you understand? Non-native species are tough because most of them have a neutral effect within the landscape. They don’t really have much of an impact, but every infrequently, you get a non-native species that becomes invasive. So it has bad impacts on the remaining of our ecosystem. The spotted lantern fly is in cities. It remains to be a pest because it might probably attack street trees and park trees, but I believe a number of the priority about it was its presence outside of the town in protected forest areas.

A multicolored and spotted insect spreading its wings.

A spotted lanternfly displaying its wings. Photo: WanderingMogwai via Creative Commons

Seeing one would send my friends right into a frenzy of attempting to kill the fly. Do you empathize with that?

I do. I just I find it hard to not be pessimistic about that really controlling it. I don’t understand how much of a difference that makes. People just stomping on them…I don’t think it’s going to stop the invasion, but on the very least, it raises public awareness about invasive species, which I assume has some value.

You furthermore may mentioned the forests outside of cities. How do you stop invasive species?

So, let’s start here—the urban landscape has been so dramatically altered from what it was before. Manhattan was a temperate deciduous forest. Clearly, you look out the window, and also you don’t see that. People think mostly about plants, but we’ve a number of non-native plant species that grow in the town. Some could say we’ve to take those out and take a look at to bring back native species, but those native species were co-evolved with the native landscape. We don’t have that native landscape anymore, so we are able to’t expect those native species to give you the chance to survive in Manhattan.

Now, some ecologists will say there’s value to those non-native species that just grow on their very own out of the sidewalk cracks which can be performing the identical functions of carbon sequestration, stormwater control, and temperature regulation. They usually’re growing here without our help because they will tolerate this type of environment, so the control of invasive species in cities is somewhat more nuanced.

If you happen to’re looking outside of the town where you do have more of the native ecosystem like a forest, the true problem is when those invasive species get into those systems and wreak havoc. In the town, they’re probably not threatening a native ecosystem. It’s such a man-made mishmash landscape to start with, but this topic of controlling species is an unsettled debate.

In your work, you speak about improving ecosystem functions and ecosystem services. What are these functions and services?

It is perhaps easier to start out by the services because that’s the best to hook up with people. Ecosystem services are the things that the ecosystem provides that we depend on for our own survival and sustainability. This includes water filtration, climate mitigation, stormwater control, pollination services for our food supply, soil fertility for agriculture, temperature control provided by vegetation, and erosion control.

So, to make use of soil fertility for example: We rely on soil fertility for agriculture. The ecosystem function is the strategy of decomposition and the natural recycling of nutrients. The ecosystem service is the soil fertility that this decomposition provides.

What do improvements of those functions appear like? What are creative solutions that may decelerate or stop the deterioration of our urban ecosystem here in Latest York?

The funny thing here is that it looks like an oversimplification, but principally any sort of urban greening will enhance how the urban ecosystem functions and, subsequently, the services that it provides for us. Planting more trees provides more cooling services. Restoring saltwater marshes across the coast of Latest York City provides storm surge control and carbon sequestration. Anything that enhances the biodiversity of the urban environment goes to reinforce ecosystem function.

If you happen to put a green roof on a constructing, it’s going to assist with temperature regulation. If I plant one species, it will have low biodiversity. If we plant a bunch, now rapidly you’re making a habitat for pollinators, which provides pollination services.

Do you see much difference in urban ecology issues and solutions across Latest York’s boroughs?

In additional residential areas, there’s more greenery than the more business business districts, but what’s cool is that there’s potential for it just about anywhere. You frequently consider urban greenery as just being parks, after which we lament that there’s not enough room for parks. But you’ll be able to have green partitions, corridors, alleyways, and bus stops. There’s just a lot potential. They’ll have different values, but they still perform a positive service.

Sometimes, communities undergo green gentrification. Have you ever heard of that? Green gentrification is once you think you could have the most effective intentions of adding parks and green spaces to a neighborhood, but what can occur is that then property values go up. The unique residents are priced out as property values increase, in order that they don’t even get to stay around for the greening of their very own neighborhood because wealthier people move in.

A notorious example is the High Line. I actually have such mixed feelings about it; my students and I were just talking about it at first of sophistication today. I do like some parts of it, and yeah, it’s beautiful. I mean it was such a cool concept to take this old unused industrial infrastructure and sort of rejoice it by turning it right into a public, accessible green space.

What was it before?

It was a rail line that wasn’t in use anymore, and when it was developed into The High Line that we all know now, that they had landscape architects and horticulturists are available in and thoroughly design where different plants would go for the aesthetics. So it was like this abandoned area that rapidly we added this lush green landscape to.

If you happen to take a look at photos of what it looked like before, it had plants growing throughout. But they were plants that the majority of us would consider weeds. We wish to call it spontaneous urban vegetation. So it was already performing this function since it was vegetated just naturally by the urban biota. It was performing carbon sequestration and stormwater control, and it was a green space. It just wasn’t an intentional green space, so to most of us, it didn’t have the worth that an intentionally planned and manicured green space does.

Do you could have thoughts on how well urban ecological issues are addressed across the boroughs?

As you’ll expect, the reply is inequitably. A whole lot of it comes right down to funding and resources on the neighborhood level for a way much green space may be there but additionally be maintained. It’s so piecemeal. You have got your neighborhood-level things and city-level things, however it is for sure inequitable distribution of green space.

What continues to still be a challenge for you in the sector and why?

It’s not a lot the science; it’s the social-political aspect. If we’re talking about sustainability or conservation, we’ve the science and technical tools to advance a conservation sustainability agenda, but we don’t have the societal or political will to really put those solutions in place. That’s the largest and most frustrating challenge—the human behavioral components and missing human motivation to really recognize that we’ve a climate crisis and biodiversity crisis, and it must be addressed now—or fairly yesterday.

Where should readers considering this space go next?

It is dependent upon the extent of understanding people have. Science journal articles are great, but so is Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris. It challenges our perception of what nature is and tries to deconstruct that, so we are able to construct it back up in a way that really recognizes nature as existing in our cities and being worthy of protection or enhancements. We will create more nature in our cities, and we sort of must at this point. It’s read, though somewhat controversial within the ecology field. It makes the argument that nature exists all over the place, not only in Yosemite or Yellowstone, but even on this abandoned rail line on the book cover.


Bhavya Jha is a second-year M.P.A. candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.


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