Relationships Among Airborne Microbial Communities, Urban Land Uses and Vegetation Cover: Implications for Urban Planning and Human Health

EPA Grant Number: F13F41297
Title: Relationships Among Airborne Microbial Communities, Urban Land Uses and Vegetation Cover: Implications for Urban Planning and Human Health
Investigators: Mhuireach, Gwynhwyfer
Institution: University of Oregon
EPA Project Officer: Hunt, Sherri
Project Period: September 29, 2014 through September 29, 2016
Project Amount: $84,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2013) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Fellowship - Urban Planning , Academic Fellowships


Parks, street trees and other forms of green infrastructure have important health benefits, but urban densification can reduce vegetation cover and diversity, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Plants are major sources of microbes, and reduced exposure to microbial diversity has been implicated in the increase of such chronic diseases as allergies and asthma, suggesting that the demonstrated health benefits of urban green infrastructure may accrue partly through increased microbial diversity near vegetation. This study seeks to (1) quantify differences in airborne microbial communities within and across neighborhoods and whether observed differences are associated with neighborhood greenness; (2) investigate whether differences in vegetation or microbial communities are associated with reported student asthma or allergy; and (3) evaluate the degree to which vegetation patterns, airborne microbial community characteristics and health outcomes are associated with socioeconomic status.


An interdisciplinary approach will combine methods and techniques from microbial ecology, landscape architecture and epidemiology to investigate relationships among green infrastructure, airborne microbial communities, socioeconomic status and children’s health in six elementary school neighborhoods in Eugene, Oregon. Spatial and temporal variation in airborne microbial communities within and among neighborhoods will be explored by sampling seasonally for four 1-week periods over 1 year. Highthroughput sequencing of the 16S and ITS regions of the rRNA gene will be used to identify bacteria and fungi (respectively) in air samples, and geographic information systems and remote sensing will be used for vegetation and green space analysis. The resulting data will be analyzed against student health records of allergy and asthma from the six elementary schools using spatial and non-spatial statistical techniques (e.g. principal components analysis, land use regression, structural equation modeling).

Expected Results:

This project will produce a quantitative model of the strength and direction of relationships among urban vegetation patterns, airborne microbial community composition, socioeconomic status and children’s health. Specifically, it will investigate whether and how neighborhood vegetation—from public open spaces to street trees—influences airborne microbial communities, whether the relationship varies by socioeconomic status and how children’s health is related to their access to green space and exposure to plant- and soil-associated microbes. The results are intended to provide foundational knowledge for how to better design and allocate urban green infrastructure to improve human health. Such understandings have the potential to reinvigorate historical connections between urban design and epidemiology by examining urban green space as health infrastructure using emerging tools from microbiology.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

The United States is at a critical nexus of urban planning. The country’s population is expected to increase by more than 83 million people by 2050, most of whom will reside in urban areas. Understanding environmental influences on public health will help urban planners, designers and policy-makers target large-scale investments in public infrastructure projects. This project will further understanding of the multiple pathways through which urban green space may influence human well-being. Improved knowledge of the spatial and temporal dynamics of these relationships could enhance the design of healthier and more equitable cities of the future.

Supplemental Keywords:

children’s health, microbiome, urban structure and planning

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2015
  • Final