Urbanization and the carbon cycle: Current capabilities and research outlook from the natural sciences perspective

Lucy R. Hutyra, Riley Duren, Kevin R. Gurney, Nancy Grimm, Eric A. Kort, Elisabeth Larson, Gyami Shrestha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

163 Scopus citations


This paper explores the urban carbon cycle from the natural sciences perspective, identifying key knowledge gaps and priority areas for future research. The combination of large, concentrated carbon fluxes and rapid change makes cities key elements of the carbon cycle and offers the potential for them to serve as "first responders" for climate action. Estimates of urban-scale carbon fluxes are significantly more uncertain than at larger spatial scales, in part because past studies have mostly avoided local/urban scales where the mix of anthropogenic and natural fluxes is complex and difficult to observationally isolate. To develop effective emission reduction policies, we need to understand emission sources and how they may be changing. Such improved quantification and understanding of underlying processes at the urban scale will not only provide policy-relevant information and improve the understanding of urban dynamics and future scenarios, but will also translate into better global-scale anthropogenic flux estimates, and advance our understanding of carbon cycle and climate feedbacks across multiple scales. Understanding the relationship between urbanization and urban carbon flows requires intellectual integration with research communities beyond the natural sciences. Cities can serve as interdisciplinary process laboratories that are sufficiently constrained in both spatial and governance scale to support truly integrated research by the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering. A thoughtfully crafted science research agenda that is grounded in sustained, dense observations relevant to estimating urban carbon fluxes and their controlling processes and is focused on a statistically significant sample of cities will advance our understanding of the carbon cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)473-495
Number of pages23
JournalEarth's Future
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Urban Carbon Cycle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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