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Understanding urban trees: form, function and vulnerability

Project Description

More than half the global population already live in urban areas and that figure will rise to 66% by 2020. Ecosystem service provision in urban areas is therefore becoming increasingly important for people’s quality of life and the wider environment, to which urban trees make a disproportionate contribution. These services include urban heat island mitigation, air pollutant filtration, storm water regulation and carbon sequestration, but there is little understanding of how ecosystem service provision varies among tree species. In addition, whilst the majority of urban forest research focuses on the ability of trees to improve the urban environment, less attention is paid to the effects of the urban environment (e.g. increased pollution, urban heat island effect, drought stress) on the trees themselves. Without understanding the resilience and vulnerability of the existing urban forest to these pressures, it is challenging to select species suitable for the urban environment, particularly in the face of future threats such as climate change.

This PhD will address the three following questions:
1) What are the most common urban trees in a typical UK city and how are they distributed throughout the urban fabric?
2) What is the relationship between the distribution of common tree species, size and ecosystem service provision?
3) Which urban tree species, at specific life-stages, are vulnerable to different urban stresses?

The student will use a novel combination of plant science methodologies, remote sensing and GIS to understand how to manage the tree resource in urban areas in a resilient way. This position would be ideally suited to an enthusiastic PhD student interested in using a combination of field, laboratory, GIS and remote sensing techniques to address the research questions. In addressing these highly time-sensitive questions, the student will have the opportunity to gain a diverse skill set in ecology, plant physiology, landscape ecology, remote sensing and GIS. The student will be based in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, with supervisors; Dr Jill Edmondson, Dr Holly Croft and Prof. Colin Osborne. This interdisciplinary proposal also benefits from a formal collaboration with Sheffield City Council, with Dr Nicola McHugh also acting as a supervisor, providing the opportunity for the student to co-design elements of the research with practitioners. This student will also b work directly with the Trees and Woodlands Team at the council with the potential to gain insight into policy making at a local authority level.

By studying indicators of both tree health and ecosystem service provision this project will provide an important evidence base to support decision making and enable the development of tree planting strategies that ensure a sustainable urban forest. It will enable a better understanding of how to design green infrastructure for urban resilience. This is of particular importance as climate change and urbanisation are both threats to the urban forest.

Science Graduate School
As a PhD student in one of the science departments at the University of Sheffield, you’ll be part of the Science Graduate School. You’ll get access to training opportunities designed to support your career development by helping you gain professional skills that are essential in all areas of science. You’ll be able to learn how to recognise good research and research behaviour, improve your communication abilities and experience the breadth of technologies that are used in academia, industry and many related careers. Visit to learn more.

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (£15,009 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment View Website. ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place in the w/c 10th February 2020.

How good is research at University of Sheffield in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 44.90

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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