Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in menu_set_active_trail() (line 2386 of /home/nixotca/public_html/gk12/includes/

Activity 1: Introduction to Urban Ecosystems

Title:  Are Cities Ecosystems? Introduction to Urban Ecosystems - Teacher’s Guide

Activity Description/Rationale

Aim:  Are cities ecosystems and if so, how do they affect local organisms?   

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to the urban ecosystem that is their neighborhood.  Students will brainstorm the similarities and differences between urban and rural ecosystems and discuss how ecosystems have changed over time.  Ultimately, they will decide, are cities ecosystems? And if so, how has the rapid change and growth cities affected local organisms?

This activity will take the place of 1 one- hour class period (1 hour total). 

  • The first part of the lesson will have students look at photographs from New York City's Manhatta Project of the city in 1609 and in 2008, and compare the abiotic, biotic, and human-made structures in the ecosystems during those times.  Students will have a discussion to determine if cities today are indeed ecosystems.  
  • The second part of the lesson will have students listen to a scientist who is studying evolution in New York City.  Students will work in groups to answer questions about evolution in urban environments, using an article and the radio segment to support their findings. The class will discuss their results and why it is important to study evolution and adaptation in urban environments.
  • The third part of the lesson will go over the course structure and syllabus with the students. 

Goals: Process Skills, Content Knowledge, Attitudes

Content Goals:

  • Identify the biotic and abiotic features of both urban and rural ecosystems
  • Understand how environments, such as cities, have been altered over time and how this change affects local organisms

Skill Goals:

  • Work in groups to answer questions on evolution in urban environments
  • Generate authentic questions for further study of urban evolution


Activity Instructions

Day 1:  60 minute class

Step 1:  Are cities ecosystems? (25 minutes)

  • Show students photo of NYC today and NYC 400 years ago (Mannahatta Photos)
  • Break students into 4 groups.
    • 2 groups brainstorm abiotic/biotic parts of NYC today
    • 2 groups brainstorm abiotic/biotic parts of NYC 400 years ago
  • Both student groups collaborate to form one master list on board or chart paper
  • Circle the parts that are necessary for species survival
  • Whole class share and discuss the following:
    • Similarities/ differences
    • Are cities ecosystems?
    • What implications does this have on animal behaviors (birds) living in the city today?

Step 2:  Why and how do urban ecosystems evolve? (25 minutes)

  • Pass out NY Times article, Evolution Right Under Our Noses (Edited), by Carl Zimmer, July 25, 2011, one copy to each student. 
  • Students will listen to the accompanying interview of scientists featured in magazine. 
  • Class will be separated into groups of 3-4 students.  Each group will have one question to answer using the article and interview.  Sample questions include:
    • Why study evolution in urban areas, like NYC?
    • What drives evolution in cities?
    • What are some factors that control the species population in NYC?
    • How do scientists study evolution in urban environments?
  • Groups will record their answer onto chart paper and present their answer to the class.  Students will also present another original question of their own that was sparked by their search.
    • Can show students graph of NYC population change from 1698 to 2010 to understand better how evolution occurs so rapidly in cities. 

Step 3:  Introduction to Course (10 minutes)

  • Teacher will go over course syllabus, expectations, and research project with students
  • Students will be asked to start bird journal for homework


After this activity, students should begin working on their bird journal entries and begin brainstorming possible questions to pursue as part of their research project.  Also, they should review common types of urban birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website in preparation for the next day's activity.  


Student participation in group work and class discussion will be assessed. 

Instructor’s Notes

Teacher may choose to begin the class by going over the course description and syllabus first, or use a different article than the NY Times one we have suggested, if it better relates to the class and school location.