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The Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis: Achieving a greater scientific understanding of our urban world

Barbara M. Thiers

In light of the increasingly urban future of our planet, a thorough understanding of the biological processes at work in urban areas is necessary for the continued survival of Earth’s inhabitants, including humans. The first step in that understanding is to know what thrives, survives, or perishes in cities, now and in the past. The Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis (MAM) Project begins this study by looking at vascular plants, with the digitization of roughly 700,000 herbarium specimens from eleven institutions, including public and private universities, state agencies, arboreta, museums, and botanic gardens, in the urban corridor from New York City to Washington, D.C. As the largest, oldest, and most populated urban corridor in the U.S., this area and its flora present a unique opportunity for the study of urbanization, particularly given its rich herbarium collections, containing specimens collected over the last 400 years. The data mobilized in this effort will help us achieve a better scientific understanding of living urban systems, a critical need for urban planners, restoration ecologists, environmental engineers, (landscape) architects, and conservationists engaged in creating more sustainable and better designed cities, including the constructed and restored natural environments of our urban areas.

Digitization of each specimen in the MAM Project will result in a high resolution image, a databased record of collection metadata, and a georeferenced point, all of which will be made publicly available online. Building on already successful regional programs, the MAM Project will partner with schools, universities, botanical clubs, and the general public to crowd source databasing efforts and to recruit citizen scientists to help build urban floras online, enabling not only increased digitization efficiency, but educational and research opportunities as well. The MAM Project also includes new developments for data cleaning and standardization in Symbiota, which will expedite the use of digitized specimen data for research, and new reporting features which will advance digitization workflow and project management. This award is made as part of the National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program, and all data resulting from this award will be available through the national resource (