A landscape approach to nitrogen cycling in urban lawns reveals the interaction between topography and human behaviors

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Lawns are a common ecosystem type in human-dominated landscapes which can have negative impacts on water quality due to fertilizer applications, but also host a range of ecosystem services. While many studies have addressed water and nitrogen (N) dynamics in lawns, few have considered how topography interacts with human behaviors to control these dynamics. Our overarching objective was to determine if mesoscale topography (hillslopes within lawns) interacts with human behavior (fertilizer use) influencing patterns of N mobilization and removal in lawns. To that end, we measured several hydrobiogeochemical characteristics associated with N dynamics along topographic gradients in fertilized and unfertilized residential and institutional lawns. We found topographic gradients affect the hydrobiogeochemistry of lawns, with significant effects of landscape position (top versus toe slope versus bottomland swales), but with direction and strength of the effect often varying among different lawn types (exurban versus suburban front yards versus suburban backyards versus institutional). Fertilizer application did not affect the hydrobiogeochemical properties of lawns. Rather, results from this study suggest lawns in suburban front yards were at greatest risk of N mobilization due to a complex suite of characteristics including proximity to impervious surfaces, swales with low saturated infiltration rates, and potential vulnerability to N deposition from vehicles. This study highlights the need to consider landscape controls of water and N fluxes and how they interact with human behaviors to better understand how these landscapes function. These results contribute to the emerging understanding of the structure, function and environmental impacts of lawns.

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