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Exploring ecologies within urban spaces

13 April 2023
How do urban railways provide refuge for biodiversity? 2023 Honours Research Fellow Mik Barrow explains her Honours research into how decisions around railway infrastructure consider urban ecology.

By Mik Barrow, Faculty of Science and Emma Holland, Sydney Environment Institute

Emma Holland: What are you researching for your honours 

Mik Barrow: I’m researching the role that railway infrastructure plays in providing refuge for urban biodiversity, the role of relevant transport authorities in shaping these ecosystems, and the motivations underpinning these management decisions. 

Despite the expansion of urban ecology scholarship highlighting the importance of green space, and indeed green infrastructure, in urban areas, there remains a contentious debate regarding what types of nature belongs within a cityscape. The aim of my research is to understand how key players come to decide what management decisions are most appropriate and how this is shaped by what we collectively perceive as a green asset versus an out-of-place burden within the urban landscape.  

What is your academic background and what was the inspiration behind your Honours research? 

I am currently in the final year of my degree studying a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Advanced Studies, majoring in environmental studies and wildlife conservation. Each of my majors takes a different approach to studying the environment and devising solutions for environmental crisis. I knew early on that if I were to do an Honours project, I would like to combine knowledge derived from each aspect of environmental science to produce an interdisciplinary piece of research. I grew up surrounded by bushland so when I started commuting to the city for university, I was always taken back by how even the smallest patches of bushland within the city were home to an abundance of plant varieties. Over the course of my studies, long train rides have allowed me to engage in Sydney’s rail system extensively. I was always curious to see what plants and animals were thriving along these spontaneous wildlife corridors, so a research focus on Sydney’s urban biodiversity seemed only fitting.  

What do you hope this research will contribute to society and its future? 

Railway infrastructure is widely regarded as a necessary feature of urban landscapes to facilitate the movement of resources, goods and people between and within cities. Its function has historically been viewed primarily for anthropogenic purposes, which fails to see the role railways plan in controlling and contributing to urban biodiversity. Railway ecology as a concept emerged predominantly as a means to assess the ecological downgrading of cityscapes due to the presence of railway infrastructure. 

My research focuses more on the positive aspects of railway infrastructure. Understanding the criteria behind what nature is considered tolerable in a perceived human-dominated space may provide insight into how urban biodiversity has been both ecologically and socially mediated. As such, understanding the presence of both intentional and unintentional landscapes in Sydney, and the changing perspectives on such a matter, is a key step in determining the requirements of green space and how they can better suit all stakeholders involved. I hope the findings can contribute to the discipline and guide management of railway ecosystems in Sydney to promote the already thriving biodiversity along these urban corridors.  

Why were you interested in applying for an honour fellowship with the Sydney Environment Institute? 

I was initially drawn to SEI because of the Ecologies of forgotten urban ecosystems project as part of the Biocultural diversities theme. I had previously conducted brief research as part of a class with Professor Kurt Iveson, my current Honour’s supervisor who is working on the project, and I was keen to research further. Upon looking into the Institute, its values and its people, it was the multidisciplinary approach that sparked further interest for me. It is important to me that when approaching any environmental issue, a range of perspectives and disciplines should be considered, and I believe that the Institute can help me achieve this in my Honours project.

Aside from research, what are your interest and passions? 

I enjoy being outside, going on walks in the nearby bushland, and swimming in the local river. I am passionate about gardening and growing my own fresh produce. My current project in the garden is building and growing a bed of wildflowers to promote pollinators in my backyard. When I’m not outside, I like to cook with these fresh ingredients and share them with my friends. 


Mik Barrow is in her final year of a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Advanced Studies at the University of Sydney, majoring in environmental studies and wildlife conservation. She is currently undertaking her Honours, researching the role transportation infrastructure plays in providing urban refugia for Sydney’s biodiversity and how this is shaped by different infrastructure management. Mik’s current academic focus sits within the Ecologies of forgotten urban ecosystems project as part of the SEI’s Biocultural diversities theme.  

Header image: railway by Florian Olivo via Unsplash.