Cities that function well ecologically are critical to meeting pressing needs like mitigating and adapting to climate change and providing high-quality places to live for a growing and diversifying populace. This research project will help increase the ecological functioning of cities by addressing a fundamental question: In a complex urban/metropolitan system, what are the synergies and tradeoffs between conserving biodiversity and providing ecosystem services to people? The investigators will focus on the Green Infrastructure Vision of the Chicago Wilderness alliance, a conservation consortium of more than 240 organizations. The Green Infrastructure Vision, designed to implement the Chicago Wilderness Biodiversity Recovery Plan, is already influencing long-range land planning throughout the Chicago metropolitan region. The Green Infrastructure Vision identifies 1.5 million acres of recommended resource protection areas -- lands that need careful planning and management in order to protect the 360,000 acres of already protected lands and waters in the Chicago Wilderness network. Two postdoctoral researchers will work with the ULTRA-Ex research team (who come from a diversity of research institutions and governmental agencies) to accomplish two major objectives. Their first objective is to conduct a critical examination of the connections between the biodiversity-recovery goals of the region-wide Green Infrastructure Vision and the delivery of critical ecosystem services to human communities throughout the Chicago region. The researchers will examine links between social and ecological systems in the context of biodiversity management, green-infrastructure conceptualization and implementation, and the delivery of ecosystem services from cultural to biogeochemical. Their second major objective is to develop a multi-faceted, interactive, web-based Chicago hub of urban environmental researchers. This hub will include an interactive platform for managing data, communicating research findings to planners and the public, and collaborating and interacting with scientists and practitioners. It will also be an umbrella and focal point for urban ecosystem research and policy, and it will partner with regional education and outreach programs.

This research project will develop new information about biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, green-infrastructure planning, asset-based analysis, and resilience theory. A novel facet of the project is the application of scientific tools to investigate the relationship between the protection of biodiversity and the delivery of a range of ecosystem services in a complex metropolitan landscape. The project will provide scientifically objective information to strengthen planning and conservation practices in the City of Chicago and the entire Chicago metropolitan region. Needs faced in the Chicago region are faced in other urban areas. Project results therefore will have utility for understanding the dynamics of complex socioecological systems of other regions of the U.S. and the world. The research project will strengthen the infrastructure of science by integrating research groups consisting of ecologists, urban planners, and social scientists in several universities, a federal agency, and the city of Chicago administration. The project also will strengthen interdisciplinary education in the social and natural sciences through a Chicago-wide interdisciplinary graduate course taught by faculty, researchers, and planners from several institutions. This award was funded as an Urban Long-Term Research Area Exploratory (ULTRA-Ex) award as the result of a special competition jointly supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Project Report

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE As the world continues to urbanize, it becomes critical to better understand the interplay between the ecosystem services provided by urban green infrastructure and the quality of life for urban residents. The Chicago ULTRA-Ex research team focused on three major projects that addressed the complex relationships between urban nature (patterns of biodiversity and green space in the urban built environment) and human wellbeing. The first project examined the feasibility of developing a web-based platform that would allow researchers from different regions who are studying interactions between people and urban nature to share results and ideas via a virtual on-line collaborative place. The team explored viable options for developing a proof-of-concept version of this virtual meeting place, a "Chicago ULTRA-Hub." Researchers incorporated geospatial data-analysis capabilities into HUBZero technologies by taking advantage of various open-source Geographic Information System (GIS) tools and libraries. They also developed a proof-of-concept LiDARHub based upon open-source data-management and GIS libraries. LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is a remote-sensing technique with a unique capability to capture three-dimensional information of the Earth’s surface, even in heavily vegetated areas. The LiDARHub framework provides an accessible interface that allows users to take advantage of the LiDAR technology with only a web browser. In addition to pursuing the two hub-related efforts, the team investigated the potential utilization of LiDAR for mapping region-wide urban green infrastructure and critical ecosystem services. Two new algorithms were developed: one that measures vertical gaps within a forest, and a second algorithm that fuses LiDAR data and multi-spectral images for mapping vegetation and calculating vegetation volume. The second project employed GIS technologies to examine the delivery of ecosystem services across Chicago neighborhoods. In one study the team determined if neighborhoods of different socio-economic groups in Chicago differ in (1) proximity to open space, (2) proximity to Lake Michigan, (3) tree-canopy cover, or (4) bird biodiversity. Results suggest that census tracts with more low- to mid-income Hispanic residents are farther away from both open space and Lake Michigan, and have less tree canopy cover and bird biodiversity, than other census tracts. Tracts characterized mostly by low-income African Americans are not statistically different in terms of proximity to open space, nor in terms of tree-canopy cover or bird biodiversity, than those characterized by higher-income residents, but are significantly farther from Lake Michigan compared to the higher-income census tracts. However, these findings do not take into account the quality of the open space, or of the tree-canopy across Chicago. Preliminary results of a second study indicate that both vegetation volume and cover influence nighttime temperature in Chicago, and that vegetation between 250 and 500 m of the weather station is most influential on nighttime temperature. Thus, variation in an ecosystem service provided by tree canopy occurs at very local scales. A third study revealed that the availability of pollinators across the urban landscape is highly variable spatially. Future research will look into the implications for human wellbeing of these local-scale patterns of variation in ecosystem services. The third project assessed stewardship activities in the Chicago Wilderness region (southern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois, northern Indiana, and southwestern Michigan) by replicating the Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project, or STEW-MAP, of New York City. STEW-MAP surveys the characteristics and activities of civic-stewardship organizations, and maps the geographic locations in which they operate. The team found that many of the region’s high-quality habitats are under some form of civic stewardship. Within the city boundaries of Chicago itself, stewardship is taking place in both rich and poor neighborhoods, and in neighborhoods of different races and ethnicities. Thus, while the environmental movement is often critiqued as being the domain of the white middle class while issues raised by the poor or people of color are sidelined, data from Chicago indicate a different, more equitable, pattern of stewardship activities of a wide range of civic organizations.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Saran Twombly
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Illinois at Chicago
United States
Zip Code