Scientists & Staff

Michelle Johnson

Research Ecologist
NYC Urban Field Station
431 Walter Reed Road
Fort Totten Cluster #2, Box #12
Bayside, NY, 11359-1137
Phone: 718-225-3061 x104

Contact Michelle Johnson

Current Research

At the NYC Urban Field Station, I have become involved in many urban socio-ecological systems research projects.

Environmental Stewardship. Recent research is strengthening our understanding of the role civic ecologists play in stewarding urban natural resources. An on-going NYC Urban Field Station project, STEW-MAP surveys and maps activity areas, or turfs, of voluntary environmental stewardship organizations in the city. Now replicated in many U.S. cities (e.g., Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle), we are initiating comparative analyses across these cities, to examine relationships among cities' physical characteristics, governance structures, and stewardship organizations' networks and organizational structures.

Urban Parks. Understanding existing conditions is critical to natural resource management activities, yet city parks often lack baseline data on these conditions. Working with NYC Parks and the Natural Areas Conservancy, we are examining park users' activities and meaning in relation to ecological data collected within natural areas (e.g., forest, grassland, wetlands, and salt marshes) in NYC parks.

Urban Tree Health. I am working with Rich Hallett and Nancy Sonti in developing methods to quantify urban tree health, with the potential for examining how tree health varies not only by species but by locational factors. Starting with New York City trees, this work has the potential to expand to other cities and along the urban-rural gradient. Previous work by Rich Hallett and Jennifer Pontius has examined these metrics in rural forest contexts. Also, we are examining the collection of these metrics by people with varying skill levels (e.g., no experience, professional, scientist).

Landscapes of Resilience. The Northern Research Station is in the early stages of developing a Center for Resilient Landscapes in collaboration with Rutgers University. I plan to apply my land use modeling experiences to assist in developing socio-ecological models of disturbance and resilience, situated in the New Jersey landscape.

Community Gardens. In urban areas, community gardens provide access to nature to city residents. Gardens also can be a vehicle for change. Building on existing interviews and qualitative analysis examining the impact of community gardens, we are also examining the relationship between gardens and neighborhood change.

Research Interests

My research interests are broad, having begun my career as an avian ecologist and transitioned to conservation planning and now urban ecology. I am interested in many aspects of dynamic socio-ecological systems, particularly sustainability and resilience. I approach these interests with a diverse set of skills, including spatial analysis, quantitative social science, and systems thinking.

Past Research

My dissertation work focused on scenarios of land use change along an urban-rural gradient in southern and central Maine. For this work, I constructed a cellular-automata model of land use change to develop five distinct scenarios of future land use/land cover conditions at a watershed scale, making use of Bayesian network-derived land use suitability data created by participating stakeholders. One contribution this work made was in integrating coarser-scale land conservation and agriculture patterns with finer scale development patterns in a single framework. I also investigated the effects of reading scenario narratives in a survey format on the public's willingness to participate in land use planning activities. Reading scenarios increased both willingness to participate and self-efficacy (one's assessment of whether one can make an impact when engaging in a behavior). However, these results varied by which scenarios survey respondents viewed. Scenarios where local foods, forest management, and land conservation were emphasized increased willingness to participate in respondents, whereas scenarios of a more global markets emphasis did not. These results have implications for increasing representation in public participation efforts in planning. Additionally, my dissertation examined questions of presentation scale on the perceived personal relevance to scenarios and effects of scenarios on sense of community.

Why This Research is Important

We now live in the Anthropocene, which has fundamentally changed our concepts of human and environment. Understanding human-environmental interactions is more critical than ever. Given the ongoing trends of urbanization and coastal living, understanding the functioning of New York City as a socio-ecological system has implications for managing natural resources here and in other urbanized contexts.


  • University of Maine, Ph.D. Ecology and Environmental Sciences, 2014
  • University of Vermont, M.S. Natural Resource Planning, 2004
  • Eckerd College, B.S. Biology, 1997

Professional Organizations

  • Scenarios, Service, and Society Research Coordination Network (2013 - Current)
  • American Association of Geographers (2010 - Current)

Publications & Products

National Research Highlights

New York City skyline.

In New York City, the Value of Urban Trees Adds Up

Year: 2019

New York City’s urban forest produces cleaner air, lower energy costs, reduced ultraviolet radiation, and less storm water in the city’s sewer system. USDA Forest Service scientists and partners analyzed a sample of the city’s 7 million trees and found that they provide services with an annual value of more than $100 million.

Last modified: Monday, December 8, 2014