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Frontiers Award for incorporating the spatial dimension into ecology and applying it to the design of nature reserves and sustainable cities

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology has gone in this fourteenth edition to the ecologists Lenore Fahrig, Simon Levin and Steward Pickett for incorporating the spatial dimension into ecosystem research.The three award winners have made fundamental contributions both to the development of the theory and mathematics of spatial ecology, and to its application to the design of nature reserve areas, wildlife management plans, as well as road networks and sustainable cities, according to the jury.

Fahrig, Levin and Pickett have never worked together, but their work has been fundamental, both theoretically and practically, in the field of what is known as ‘spatial ecology’. Levin has led its mathematical development, building it into models for the analysis of complex ecosystems. Fahrig studies the impacts on biodiversity of habitat fragmentation and loss of connectivity between remnant patches of biodiversity. Meanwhile, Pickett is a pioneer of urban ecology, which assumes that cities will harbor a growing percentage of the population, making it vital to consider how urban spaces too can be used to conserve biodiversity.

The new laureates, the citation reads, have independently developed “the theory and mathematics of spatial ecology,” with wide-ranging applications that include “the design of nature reserves, and sustainable road networks and sustainable cities.”

Understanding how physical space affects ecosystem dynamics and the life of organisms “is vital in ecology,” explains Pedro Jordano, committee secretary and a researcher at Doñana Biological Station. Landscapes and their management are important for migrations, for instance, and affect both species’ adaptive capacity and the size of the human footprint on ecosystems.

In contrast to previous models, which focused on the conservation of large areas while avoiding the presence of humans, the award winners have developed spatial ecology, which demonstrates the value that smaller habitats have within themselves and as examples that can be extrapolated to other larger scales of territory; the importance of connecting fragmented habitats, and even the possibility of preserving biodiversity in the urban environment.

Mathematical tools to identify patterns

Simon Levin made his own landmark contribution when he unveiled his vision of spatial ecology in the paper “The Problem of Pattern and Scale in Ecology,” published in 1992, which is to this day still one of the most cited in the ecological sciences. As Jordano explains, until then “ecology was lacking a doctrinal corpus that explained how to integrate different spatial scales, from local areas to continents. Us researchers may start in small spaces, a pond for example, but we need to understand processes on a planetary scale.”

Simon Levin-premios-Fronteras-ecologia-sostenibilidad-Fundacion-BBVA

Simon Levin, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology - Princeton University

Levin, Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University (United States), has equipped ecology with the mathematical tools to identify patterns recurring across different spatial scales.

Until relatively recently, there was not much mathematical theory that incorporated the spatial dimension of species interaction into models. So I set out in the 1970s to build ecological models that incorporated spatial structure,” he explained, after learning of the jury's decision.

Levon, according to Jordan, provided the theoretical framework and the missing models “to understand how physical space influences ecosystem dynamics and the lives of organisms.” It underpins studies that explain the processes of carbon fixation by forests, how animal and plant life are distributed across the landscape, the migration of animals or the dispersal of plants, how populations are structured and interact with each other, or how degradation processes in nature create impassable barriers and bring about situations of isolation.”

The importance of small areas and ecological corridors

Lenore Fahrig, Professor of Biology at Carleton University (Canada), refers to aerial views to illustrate how spatial ecology works: “We study how the distribution of the landscape, the different patches you can see from a plane, affects the life of organisms,” she said in an interview after hearing of the award. Fahrig is a pioneer in the study of landscape fragmentation and its impact on biodiversity.

Leonore Fahrig-premios-Fronteras-ecologia-sostenibilidad-Fundacion-BBVA

Lenore Fahrig, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology

“Habitat gets broken up into smaller patches due to human impact,” the award record notes. Fahrig, “has developed theoretical, data-driven methods for reducing the effects of habitat loss by maintaining connectivity between fragmented areas. (…) Her work researches the fundamental role that road networks and small conservation areas play in the distribution and abundance of species.”

One of the conclusions of Fahrig’s work is that small patches have their value. As Jordano explains, “the developmentalist approach limited conservation to large areas, ignoring smaller ones; Fahrig has shown that it is also important to conserve small areas, because if they are well interconnected, they can help preserve biodiversity.

Designing cities for the coexistence of nature and people

Pickett, a researcher at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (United States), developed the field of urban ecology. His work has been carried out in close collaboration with specialists in “architecture, urbanism, art, sociology and economics.

Steward Pickett-premios-Fronteras-ecologia-sostenibilidad-Fundacion-BBVA

Steward Pickett, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology

As Pickett himself said after hearing of the award, “I think about cities as ‘patchworks’ with many layers. So there is the ‘built’ layer - the buildings, roads, infrastructure… But there is also a layer of policy and norms. There is a layer that deals with peoples’ social differences - class, ethnicity and so on. And finally there is the green layer, the ecological part: nutrient cycling and water flow. I try to deal with urban planning by sewing all these layers together.”

For Pickett there is a need to flip our urban planning priorities: “Cities are now designed for cars; we need to flip that around and think about cities as being places in which biology has to function and biodiversity has to prosper to perform functions that are useful for climate control, water control and even for people’s physical and mental health. We should design cities first for the coexistence of people and nature together, and bump the physical dimension and transport efficiency further down the list.”