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Sci Total Environ. 2003 Oct 1;314-316:67-87.

The long-term impact of urbanisation on aquatic plants: Cambridge and the River Cam.

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  • 1NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Monks Wood, Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon, Cambs. PE 28 2LS, UK.


Historical and contemporary records have been used to assess the impact of urbanisation on the aquatic plants of the River Cam and its narrow floodplain in Cambridge. Of the 62 native aquatic plant species which have been recorded in the study area since 1660, 40 (65%) were still present in the period 1985-1999 whereas 22 (35%) are apparently extinct. There is a striking relationship between the fate of species and their trophic requirements, with species of less eutrophic habitats having suffered disproportionately. Historical records demonstrate that the River Cam became grossly polluted by sewage from Cambridge in the 19th century, but the chemical and biological quality of the river improved from 1897 onwards. However, the majority of the species recorded from the river and nearby ditches persisted until after maximum incidence of sewage pollution, which may even have stimulated the growth of 'weed' in the river. Losses of aquatic plant species from two riparian commons, Coe Fen (35%) and Sheep's Green (50%), have been particularly great. The level of these and other areas of low-lying common land by the river has been systematically raised by the controlled tipping of waste in hollows, followed by levelling and resowing. The main effects of urbanisation on the flora therefore arose from the transformation of riparian pastures into suburban open spaces. Commons which are used purely for amenity purposes have lost almost all their aquatic plant species. Those which are still grazed retain more, and continuance of grazing is probably essential if a varied aquatic flora is to be maintained. The interpretation of botanical records in terms of recorded management history is likely to throw further light on the processes of urbanisation, although the number of sites with a sufficiently detailed botanical record may be limited.

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