The Ecology of an Urban Wild

Posted on Dec 20, 2014

Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist, summarizes current research conducted in the meadow in his article, “The Ecology of an Urban Wild: Monitoring Spontaneous Plants in Bussey Brook Meadow”, published in the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 issue of The Arnold Arboretum’s publication Silva.

A walk down the Blackwell Footpath in the Arboretum’s Bussey Brook Meadow presents visitors with opportunities to observe a spontaneous wildflower meadow, a flourishing wetland, and a diversity of both native and introduced plants and animals. A report published by the City of Boston Environment Department in 2000 included the Bussey Brook Meadow in its inventory of the city’s significant “urban wilds”—areas not maintained to a proscribed horticultural standard and lacking amenities other than unpaved pathways. Unlike many of the locations included on the list, the 24 acres that make up Bussey Brook Meadow are an ideal site for research, because it is protected through the Arboretum’s indenture and not subject to loss from future development.

As interest in the subject of “urban ecology” has blossomed over the past twenty years, ecologists have found that traditional concepts of natural systems ecology do not adequately describe the complex interactions that characterize urban environments. Recognizing the need for more information and new conceptual approaches, the National Science Foundation established two Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites in 1999 specifically devoted to the study of urban ecosystems. Over the past ten years, studies at sites in Phoenix and Baltimore have generated abundant data about the ecological functioning of modern cities. The initial success of these projects has highlighted the need for more sites where urban ecology can be studied over time.

In 1996, the Arboretum Park Conservancy partnered with the Arboretum to preserve this landscape, which was assembled from parcels of land that formerly belonged to the MBTA, the City of Boston, and Harvard University. Under the current management regimen, the meadow will serve as a site where Arboretum scientists and visiting scholars can document long-term changes in plant succession and measure ecosystem functions including vegetation structure, wildlife abundance, phenology, and biogeochemical cycling. In addition, the Arboretum will continue to maintain the Blackwell Path which crosses the parcel as a pedestrian link from the Forest Hills subway station to the historic landscape.

In the past year alone, Bussey Brook Meadow has spurred four separate studies by researchers from Tufts and Boston Universities, and has been used by students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Medical School, and Brandeis University. The Arboretum has also become a participatory member of two ULTRA (Urban Long-Term Research Area) exploratory projects funded by the National Science Foundation and USDA Forest Service. One is coordinated by the Geography Department of Boston University, while the second is a multi-institutional endeavor coordinated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

As such, Bussey Brook Meadow becomes a permanent site for monitoring spontaneous urban ecology that can only become more valuable over time.