Search for a project

Ecosystem services associated with aquatic plants in urban landscapes

Dr Christopher Hassall (SoB), Christian Berretta

Project partner(s): Leeds City Council

Contact email:


Current projections of urbanisation predict that between 2000 and 2030 the extent of urban areas will increase by an estimated 185%, representing a considerable threat to biodiversity and complex challenges for urban planners and conservationists alike (Hassall, 2014). Urban landscapes are often likened to biodiversity deserts, being of little benefit to wildlife and with limited ecological functionality. Recent evidence, however, has shown that moderate levels of urbanisation support a greater diversity of plants (McKinney., 2006), and that urban ponds sustain comparable numbers of invertebrate species and families compared to non-urban ponds, providing strong ecological evidence that these aquatic features may provide a promising avenue for supporting urban biodiversity (Hill et al., 2017). Indeed, a recent drive to find nature-based solutions to urban sustainability issues has led to a renewed interest not only in what ecosystems occur in cities but how those ecosystems can be reintroduced or enhanced to provide ecosystem services.

Urbanisation and agricultural intensification over the last century have resulted in the drainage, damming, and degradation of many freshwater environments. Even throughout non-urban areas in the UK a considerable amount freshwater habitat has been lost. However, most research and practical landscape management has focused on terrestrial systems, through interventions such as the planting of trees or flower meadows. Fewer resources are provided to the creation and study of aquatic habitats, due to the logistical difficultly and expenses associated with their management.

This project will focus on the relationships between aquatic plant communities and the urban environment. Specifically, this project will address two key topics.

1) Influence of urban environment of aquatic plant distribution and functional ecology

Urban aquatic plant distributions are determined by a combination of dispersal and habitat-level processes: can a species reach a new site, and can it establish once arrived? Theories about the niche/neutral processes underlying urban aquatic plant distributions will be tested using an extensive dataset of UK urban pond plant communities. Specific hypotheses will be tested, including: (i) biotic homogenisation of urban sites, (ii) stronger spatial structuring of communities in cities, (iii) and the hump-backed relationship between urbanisation and plant species richness observed in terrestrial ecosystems. These analyses can be expanded by incorporating functional plant traits to investigate functional diversity and redundancy within urban waterbodies. 

2) Mechanistic role of aquatic plants in the delivery of urban ecosystem (dis)services

Urban aquatic plants contribute both positively, through the enhancement of biodiversity, the phytoremediation of urban run-off, and the improvement of local aesthetics, as well as negatively, through their role as invasive species (e.g. New Zealand pigmy weed) or nuisance species (e.g. toxic algal blooms). The student can select from a variety of such services and disservices to apply an empirical approach to understand the mechanisms by which the plants influence the urban environment. Examples might include:

1. Experimental mesocosms to evaluate the capacity of particular plant communities to reduce pollution (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorous).

2. Field trials to study the impact of aquatic planting techniques (e.g. riparian, floating island) on ecosystem services.

3. Resilience and sustainability of different planting regimes in urban ponds and lakes.

4. Socio-ecological survey work investigating the link between perceptions of water bodies and other ecosystem services.


Urban greening and regeneration represent a key method for addressing urban challenges, but also a considerable potential expenditure for statutory bodies and organisations with responsibility for urban management. This project will contribute important knowledge to the evidence base for nature-based solutions with direct relevance to the management of West Yorkshire urban spaces and potential application at a much wider scale.

Student Profile

Candidates must demonstrate several key skills appropriate to this research topic and have a strong biological research background, with emphasis on aquatic plant ecology and freshwater biology: 

• Strong quantitative skills

• Understanding of ecosystem services and functions 

• Familiar with core population ecology concept and dynamics 

• Identification of aquatic plant and macroinvertebrate species. 

Desirable skills or knowledge for this project include:

• Aquatic biodiversity or working with mesocosm systems

• Nature-based solutions or urban infrastructure 

• Urban planning, engineering or water management

• Invasive species biology, management and policy.

Click here for a full project description.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Biology
  • Botany
  • Civil engineering
  • Conservation
  • Conservation biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental biology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Environmental management
  • Environmental science
  • Evolution
  • Geography
  • Hydrology
  • Natural resource management
  • Natural sciences
  • Plant science
  • Sustainability
  • Sustainability and environmental management
  • Water management