Urban Ecology: A Closer Look at Ourselves and the City

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In a time of urbanization when our relationship with the environment is immediate and unsteady, Urban Ecology has never seemed as important a class as it is now. Unfortunately, due to the frequent in-person field trips and hands-on projects that make up a majority of the class, Urban Ecology is not available this school year as a science elective. But the significance of the course remains.

Urban Ecology––both the class and discipline––is the study of how people in suburbs and cities interact with their environment. It is very interdisciplinary, blending content from traditionally distinct disciplines such as economics, psychology, biology, sociology, geography, and public policy. It calls into question things such as the design of our transportation systems, the effects of urban sprawl, and the benefits of green infrastructure.

The curriculum, taught by biology teacher Marissa Maggio, is broken into 11 parts: Introduction to Ecology; Introduction to Urbanization and Urban Geography; Urban Soils; Urban Aquatics; Biodiversity: Urban Flora and Habitation Fracturing; Biodiversity: Human Impact on Urban Wildlife Populations; Global Impact and Patterns; Urbanization and Human Health; Urban Conservation; Urban Planning and Land Management; and Political and Economic Drivers of Best Management Practices.

Though Urban Ecology is a single-semester course, there is a considerable amount of work involved. The class involves weekly textbook and article readings in addition to biweekly two-page reflection papers; these reflection papers involve examining certain Urban-Ecology-related issues of a major global city (assigned to you at the beginning of the course) and comparing and contrasting it to those of New York City.

The class also involves numerous field trips across the city and even an optional camping trip, an aspect that made the course very applicable and enjoyable. I attended the trip in the Fall of 2019; it took place over Columbus Day weekend at a camping site in upstate New York. We went hiking, canoeing, and had a lot of downtime to explore the site. We also helped prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Required class trips include visits to an NYC sewage treatment plant and Freshkills Park. Of course, there are written assignments about trips afterward, but they don’t deter from the excitement.

The course culminates in three class presentations: a poster board detailing a specific issue in ecology, a PowerPoint presentation of a literature review of an approved topic related to Urban Ecology, and a green building design and build. The projects get progressively tougher and cover a wide variety of skills. The literature review involves reading research papers and creating an annotated bibliography, whereas the building project consists of making an actual building design plan and constructing the building using materials.

As if the projects themselves are not enough, students have to participate in online discussion forums via Jupiter Grades about each other’s projects and provide feedback. This happens for every project and is part of a student’s grade.

Last, but certainly not least, a component of the class is cafeteria duty, a requirement for all students. Once a week for 15 minutes at the end of a lunch period, students help direct recycling and composting practices for the other students in the cafeteria. They receive an initial from one of the lunch supervisors as proof of their service.

The Urban Ecology elective is every bit as interdisciplinary as the discipline itself: it involves multiple avenues of learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. The course requires a lot of commitment and collaboration, but it is enjoyed by many of its students. “[The students] leave with a heightened awareness of national affairs and are much more conscious of the impact we all have on the environment in our daily lives,” junior Katherine Lake said. “I feel so much more educated after just a semester of learning and am confident that the world would benefit immensely if everyone was provided with this opportunity.”