Inconsistent definitions of “urban” result in different conclusions about the size of urban carbon and nitrogen stocks

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Abstract

There is conflicting evidence about the importance of urban soils and vegetation in regional C budgets that is caused, in part, by inconsistent definitions of “urban” land use. We quantified urban ecosystem contributions to C stocks in the Boston (Massachusetts, USA) Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) using several alternative urban definitions. Development altered aboveground and belowground C and N stocks, and the sign and magnitude of these changes varied by land use and development intensity. Aboveground biomass (live trees, dbh ≥ 5 cm) for the MSA was 7.2 ± 0.4 kg C/m2 (mean ± SE), reflecting a high proportion of forest cover. Vegetation C was highest in forest (11.6 ± 0.5 kg C/m2), followed by residential (4.6 ± 0.5 kg C/m2), and then other developed (2.0 ± 0.4 kg C/m2) land uses. Soil C (0–10 cm depth) followed the same pattern of decreasing C concentration from forest, to residential, to other developed land uses (4.1 ± 0.1, 4.0 ± 0.2, and 3.3 ± 0.2 kg C/m2, respectively). Within a land use type, urban areas (which we defined as >25% impervious surface area [ISA] within a 1-km2 moving window) generally contained less vegetation C, but slightly more soil C, than nonurban areas. Soil N concentrations were higher in urban areas than nonurban areas of the same land use type, except for residential areas, which had similarly high soil N concentrations. When we compared our definition of urban to other commonly used urban extents (U.S. Census Bureau, Global Rural–Urban Mapping Project [GRUMP], and the MSA itself), we found that urban soil (1 m depth) and vegetation C stocks spanned a wide range, from 14.4 ± 0.8 to 54.5 ± 3.4 Tg C and from 4.2 ± 0.4 to 27.3 ± 3.2 Tg C, respectively. Conclusions about the importance of urban soils and vegetation to regional C and N stocks are very sensitive to the definition of urban used by the investigators. Urban areas, regardless of definition, are rapidly expanding in their extent; a systematic understanding of how our development patterns influence ecosystems is necessary to inform future development choices.

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