Exploring linkages between ecosystem services, public health, and the green area factor in New York City, “UltraEx”

Ben Orlove, Nada Petrovic, Brain Dowd-Uribe
Project Complete

The UltraEx project broadly examines the benefits of urban gardens in East Harlem from both an environmental and social perspective, allowing us to better understand how urban greening efforts can succeed through social engagement. The increased concentration of populations in urban areas is accompanied by strains on ecosystem services. For example, urban populations modify regional water cycles by importing large amounts of clean water and exporting waste water. The concept of decentralized efforts to improve urban ecosystems is one possible way to remove the strains. For example, an important idea is local assessment of ecosystems, via the Green Area Factor (GAF), which is coming into wide use in Europe. An interdisciplinary group at Columbia University will study part of Manhattan and the Bronx to examine feasibility of such a decentralized program, based on GAF, for improving ecosystem services and public health in dense urban environments. The program offers urban stakeholders the ability to improve urban ecological services within the context of neighborhood cultures and organizational needs, while contributing to overall sustainability goals of the city.  This research will produce new knowledge on how a variety of urban stakeholders view, value and interact with both natural and engineered urban ecosystems, and the linkages that various stakeholders perceive between these systems and environmental and public health. The major goals of the CRED component of the UltraEx project are:  1) to establish the acceptance and value of urban greening efforts/ interventions to NYC stakeholders, 2) to examine how different urban stakeholders perceive, value and interact with, the local urban ecosystems within their neighborhoods and the greater city 3) compare perceptions to calculated environmental benefits of urban greening interventions. We are particularly interested in examining the interaction of social goals and environmental benefits and the differing perceptions of environmental benefits by garden users (i.e. awareness of temperature vs. awareness of storm water issues).  Finally, we are examining how different types of externally imposed garden governance (nonprofit vs. city ownership) influence outcomes.


Major Findings

  • We have found that pairs of gardens display a 1-2 degree difference in temperature, which we are currently correlating to garden shade.
  • We have also found that growing, closeness to nature, and social interactions are the top stated reasons for participating in a garden, and that garden ownership influences how certain the gardeners feel about the future existence of the garden.


Broader Impacts

  • Results not yet disseminated, will come in form of a summary report to distribute to garden members and nonprofits interested in gardens.
  • This project will improve public knowledge on the importance and benefits of urban gardens.  Urban gardens in New York City are in danger of being sold to private interests (many were nearly auctioned off in the late 90’s by Mayor Giuliani).  Documenting the importance of these spaces has the potential to help protect them in the future.


CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.