Urbanization and riparian forest woody communities: Diversity, composition, and structure within a metropolitan landscape

Derric N. Pennington, James R. Hansel, David L. Gorchov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

105 Scopus citations


Understanding how urban land-use structure contributes to the abundance and diversity of riparian woody species can inform management and conservation efforts. Yet, previous studies have focused on broad-scale (e.g., urban to exurban) land-use types and have not examined more local-scale changes in land use (e.g., the variation within "urban"), which could be important in urban areas. In this paper we examine how local-scale characteristics or fine-scale urban heterogeneity affect(s) the diversity, composition, and structure of temperate woody riparian vegetation communities in the highly urbanized area of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. We use an information-theoretic approach to compare vegetation models and canonical correspondence analyses to compare species responses to urban variables. We found that urban riparian areas can harbor a high diversity of native canopy and shrub species (38 and 41, respectively); however, native and exotic woody plant species responded differently to urbanization. Exotic canopy species increased with the level of urbanization while native canopy and understory species declined. Understory species diversity displayed a greater response to urbanization than did canopy diversity, suggesting temporal lags in canopy response to disturbances associated with present and recent land-use changes. Certain native and exotic woody species represent ecological indicators of different levels of urbanization. Native species characteristic of pre-European settlement conditions were restricted to the wide riparian forests with little urban encroachment. Several native early-successional species appear tolerant to urbanization. Two exotic species, the tree Ailanthus altissima and the shrub Lonicera maackii, were the most abundant and ubiquitous woody species and appear to exploit urban disturbances. These exotic species invasions have the potential to modify forest composition and ecological function of urban riparian systems. In addition, altered hydrology may be a contributing factor as canopy and understory stem density of high-moisture-requiring species decreased with an increase in impervious surface and grass cover and with proximity to roads and railroads. In the face of urbanization, maintaining wide riparian forests and limiting building, road and railroad development within these areas may help reduce the invasion of exotic species and benefit hydrological function in temperate riparian areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)182-194
Number of pages13
JournalBiological Conservation
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010


  • Development
  • Disturbance
  • Exotic species
  • Indicator species
  • Land cover
  • Riparian forests
  • Urbanization


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