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



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.