Nitrogen cycling and urban afforestation success in New York City


Afforestation projects are a growing focus of urban restoration efforts to rehabilitate degraded landscapes and develop new forests. Urban forests provide myriad valuable ecosystem services essential for urban sustainability and resilience. These essential services are supported by natural soil microbial processes that transform organic matter to critical nutrients for plant community establishment and development. Nitrogen (N) is the most limiting nutrient in forest ecosystems, yet little information is known about N cycling in urban afforestation efforts.

This study examined microbially mediated processes of carbon (C) and N cycling in 10 experimental afforested sites established across New York City parklands under the MillionTreesNYC initiative. Long-term research plots were established between 2009 and 2011 at each site with low and high diversity (two vs. six tree species) treatments. In 2018, 1-m soil cores were collected from plots at each site and analyzed for microbial biomass and respiration, potential net N mineralization, and nitrification, denitrification potential, soil inorganic N, and total soil N. Field observations revealed markedly different trajectories between sites that exhibited a closed canopy and leaf litter layer derived from trees that were planted and those that did not fit this description. These two metrics served to group sites into two categories (high vs. low) of afforestation success. We hypothesized that: (1) afforestation success would be correlated with rates of C and N cycling, (2) high diversity restoration techniques would affect these processes, and (3) inherent soil properties interact with plants and environmental conditions to affect the development of these processes over time.

We found that high success sites had significantly higher rates of C and N cycling processes, but low and high diversity treatments showed no differences. Low success sites were more likely to have disturbed soil profiles with human-derived debris. Afforestation success appears to be driven by interactions between initial site conditions that facilitate plant community establishment and development that in turn enable N accumulation and cycling, creating positive feedbacks for success.


Publication info: Mejía, G., Groffman, P., Downey, A., Cook, E., Sritrairat, S., Karty, R., Palmer, M., McPhearson, T. 2022. Nitrogen cycling and urban afforestation success in New York City. Ecological Applications.


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