Alexander Felson

Assistant Professor, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Associate Professor Yale School of Architecture; Director, Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory; Director, Joint Degree Program F&ES / SOA

Research Overview

Alexander J. Felson Research Statement

Current Research

§  Urban ecology and site scale land development practices,

§  Ecologically informed urban design and local to regional planning,

§  Green infrastructure and coastal resilience,

§  Urban forest community and population dynamics,

§  Constructed ecosystems and restoration ecology,

§  Social science research and community driven and site scale designed experiments.

In the face of complex environmental challenges, ecologists are hard pressed to expand the application of ecological knowledge in new ways that can contribute to the shaping of anthropogenic environments. Those that shape buildings, infrastructure and land are not applying the most current ecological understanding to inform their design and management practices. Relevant ecological theory remains sparse since ecologists have traditionally disregarded human settlements. Translating theory into a design strategies and management practices remains challenging with mixed success. A framework and process to shift ecologists into an action-oriented science is needed.

To situate ecologists in the proactive role of shaping land and generating the appropriate science to inform shaping, Felson trained as a hybrid with dual degrees in ecology and landscape architecture. Felson teaches studies and practices as a designer-ecologist in order to direct science towards shaping social-ecological change and promoting resilience. Felson integrates ecological understanding and research methods with urban design and land development strategies to study and shape the feedbacks, adaptive capacity, vulnerability, and resilience of coupled human and natural systems. He encourages place-based approaches to urban ecology and through his research, design and planning projects, he connects scientific analysis into the aesthetic and function of the built environment.

Felson's research focuses on linking urban and landscape design with applied ecological research.  The goal is to study, adapt and reshape human settlements in response to pressing sustainability challenges and to bridge the fields of urban ecology and ecological urban design by implementing projects that include observable and testable phenomena. Thus the design projects include experimental components that test the ecological implications of urbanization in a constructed urban ecosystem. This work is primarily conducted through the Urban Ecology and Design Lab (UEDLAB).

He developed ‘designed experiments’ in 2005. Designed experiments provide a framework and a track record that defines the science that is needed through the design process, expands on how scientific research can inform shaping strategies, improves communication, and identifies pragmatic actions for scientists.The designed experiments approach offers: (1) a platform for ecologists to design and situate hypothesis-driven research in urban areas on sites, historically, inaccessible to ecological experiments; (2) a method for generating replicated scientific data about the ecological processes of constructed ecosystems; (3) a framework for connecting ecologists with stakeholders; and (4) a means for designers and land managers to update their underlying assumptions and expand their ecological knowledge.

The UEDLAB seeks to answer the following questions: (1) How do we define urban ecosystems? (2) In conducting urban ecological research, how can we implement effective and adaptable experimental methods specific to urban sites and human subjects? (3) How do we apply scientific methods to construct and manage urban ecosystems?


Aproactive integration of scientific knowledge and ecological assessment into the process of land development will increase environmental performance. Current research and design areas within the UEDLAB that address the above questions include:

·       PLANNING: Ecological and socio-ecological research-driven land-use planning

o   Example 1: Tuxedo Reserve wildlife and land development.   We established an academic research project as part of the masterplan for this development project.  Our aim was to facilitate the developers’ willingness, as they were building houses in ecologically-sensitive areas, to have ecologists conduct site-specific analysis which would guide the development process and contribute to refining the masterplan.  In the course of providing expertise, the researcher(s) also tested prevailing knowledge about what constitutes a high-value amphibian pond.

o   Example 2: Land use planning, coastal and river adaptation and green infrastructure. We addressed the challenges of sea level rise and green infrastructure through urban stormwater applications on such projects as the Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience Plan, the Seaside Village Bioswales and the Quinnipiac River Backyard De-nitrification project. 

·       DESIGN: Constructed urban ecosystems and land configuration

o   Example 1: Constructed urban ecosystems. With the large-scale experiment of the design and implementation of the Million Trees Project we are exploring the correlation between biodiversity and ecosystem function. The experimental design rests on a gradient that includes differences in compositional, structural and functional diversity. In this case we expect to find variation in functional properties (carbon storage, infiltration, decomposition) among the plots with different treatment variables and we are interested in defining some of the trade offs, rather than defining the mechanistic relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

o   Other examples: civic space (Santa Fe Railyard Park, Harlem community garden) and suburban development (re-widling and the MOMA project)

·       TECHNOLOGIES: Reproducible inventions combining design, ecology and technology

o   Example 1: Multifunctional urban landscapes. “Geothermal wetlands” are wetlands engineered for human settlements.  They provide: 1) thermodynamic service (equivalent evaporative and convective heat rejection as a traditional cooling tower), 2) water conservation service (water benefits including conservation through strategic reuse, stormwater infiltration and water quality improvements), and 3) ecosystem service (moderate microclimatic conditions that enhance urban spaces and cultural landscapes). 

o   Other examples: green infrastructure(Seaside Village bioswales).

The UEDLAB seeks to integrate ecosystem services with public space, communities and populations to enhance urban ecosystems while informing social and cultural practices. The UEDLAB seeks to address problems that arise by working closely with stakeholders and communities, through trans- and interdisciplinary collaboration, often combining bottom-up (community engagement, stone soup model) and top-down (design, site planning and experimental research) models, in a solution-oriented approach.

The agenda for my research moving forward is to take these model approaches to establishing research and developing built work and negotiate larger scaled projects in India through the various connections I have initiated and working from the bottom up.


The following three working principles guide the UEDLAB approach to studying, adapting and reshaping cities:

1. Applied Urban EcologyTaking a proactive stancethrough the integration of experimentalresearch with designed landscapes, the UEDLAB couples applied urban ecology with built projects. Through innovative strategies and interventions it aims to introduce new areas of scientific inquiry into these projects while providing an opportunity for integrating research findings back into the design of urban landscape (Felson 2010). The designed experiments model is one example of this approach.

2. Cross-sector Collaboration: negotiating across sociopolitical boundaries

By engaging the multiple stakeholders responsible for shaping and inhabiting the built environment in dialogue during the planning, design, and research phases, the UEDLAB works across sectors to create urban socio-ecological projects. This inclusive approach enhances the beneficial outcomes for all parties involved and encourages stakeholders to take responsibility for managing and maintaining urban ecosystems.  It also allows urban ecology research to infiltrate new areas of the urban environment and thus to expand.

3. Multiscale Practice: redesigning city form and function in an effort to address the disconnect between human settlements and their supportive biological systems. Redesigners of the built environment face challenges that arise from physical to political and social constraints. The UEDLAB approach is to work across spatial and temporal scales to optimize the performance of ecosystem functions. We view green infrastructure as a first step towards coastal adaptation.  In one project, for example, while working with The Nature Conservancy, we assessed regional at-risk coastal areas and, in collaboration with the local town planner and engineer, developed cultural maps that highlight groups of homeowners. Our efforts may provide collective bargaining opportunities for housing blocks. We are concurrently constructing bioswales for a planned community in Bridgeport as a collective stormwater adaptation strategy that runs across property lines.