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Urban ecosystems

Introduction: what grassland habitats are found in urban areas?

Lawns and urban squares

These grassy areas are generally quite small. Boundary fences, buildings, hedges, trees and shrubs may affect the whole area, making the environment more sheltered and less varied.

However variation in the plant community may still occur however, for example due to the presence of trees or shrubs. There may also be trampled areas where people sit or children play and where trackways lead across the grass. Street lights may have an effect, particularly in urban squares.

Playing fields

The area of grass is often extensive and you may see differences due to variation in climatic conditions. Open areas will be much more exposed to extremes of climatic conditions than areas sheltered by boundary fences, hedges or buildings.

Playing field edge

A school playing field showing an exposed open area and a sheltered boundary
Goalmouth trampling

A trampled area around the goalmouth of a football pitch

Isolated trees affect local climatic and soil conditions, but may also form a focal point where people gather, so changes in soil conditions due to trampling may be a factor. On playing pitches there is also often variation in the amounts of trampling.

Fieldwork: what abiotic factors could you investigate?

It is possible to plan a fieldwork investigation which compares the plant communities between two or more different areas of grassland or along an environmental gradient. The tables below describe those abiotic (non-living) factors that are reasonably easy to measure and that may be affected by the differences discussed above. Remember that:

The effects of abiotic (non-living) factors are of course closely linked to biotic factors, in particular to human management and activity. Click for more information about the influence of these biotic factors, in particular mowing and trampling.

Measuring soil conditions

Factor What to measure Variation due to:
Water content
Directly affects plant growth and other biological soil processes e.g. decomposition
Field moisture content
The total soil moisture at a given moment. Some of this water drains away as soil dries and is not available to plants but measurement can provide useful comparative data
Changes in soil structure, climatic conditions, artificial irrigation and vegetation cover
Infiltration rate : the rate at which water enters the soil
Changes in soil structure, soil water content and vegetation cover
Soil depth Distance from the soil surface to the bedrock below: only useful on shallow soils e.g. on chalk Factors that cause compaction e.g. mechanical rolling and trampling
Soil penetration The depth penetrated by a weighted pin, dropped from a set height
Soil pH
Directly affects plant growth as well as the availability of mineral salts
Acidity or alkalinity of the soil: small differences can be important to plants but may be difficult to detect without sophisticated equipment Use of chemicals, e.g. fertilisers; use of materials e.g. limestone chippings for pathways; closeness to bonfire sites

Measuring climatic conditions

What to measure
Causes of variation:
Light: directly affects plant growth but also temperature and relative humidity Data can be difficult to interpret (see Comparing shaded and unshaded woodland)

Also considering measuring:
- amount of shade
- under trees - canopy cover
Prevailing weather conditions

The closeness of trees and other plants, buildings, street lamps and other human artefacts


Moss growing on a lawn, shaded by trees and buildings. Is relative humidity high here?
Rainfall: affects soil moisture and relative humidity Amount of rain over a set period of time. Long term data particularly useful
Temperature: influences plant growth directly, also affects relative humidity Air temperature. Long term data most useful

Maximum and minimum temperatures
Relative humidity: Particularly important to plants such as algae, mosses and liverworts. Relative humidity of air: consider microhabitat measurements
Wind: affects temperature and relative humidity. May cause direct physical damage to plants Wind speed

Wind direction

Looking for a next step?
The FSC offers a range of publications, courses for schools and colleges and courses for adults, families and professionals that relate to the urban environment. Why not find out more about the FSC?

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