Our People

Robert McDonald

Lead Scientist, Nature-Based Solutions

Arlington, Virginia

Headshot of Robert McDonald.

Rob McDonald 2013 NatureNet Science Fellow Robert McDonald. © Mark Godfrey


Conservation for Cities, Urban Sustainability, Water Use


Misty Edgecomb
ph. +1 617-532-8317


Dr. Robert McDonald is Lead Scientist for the Nature-Based Solutions at The Nature Conservancy. He researches the impact and dependencies of cities on the natural world, and helps direct the science behind much of the Conservancy’s urban conservation work. He holds a PhD in Ecology from Duke University and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed publications, and a recent book, entitled Conservation for Cities (Island Press) which documents the role green infrastructure can play in the well-being of urban residents.

Prior to joining the Conservancy, Rob was a Smith Conservation Biology Fellow at Harvard University, studying the impact global urban growth will have on biodiversity and conservation. He also taught landscape ecology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, helping architects and planners incorporate ecological principles into their projects. He holds a B.S. degree in biology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Cities Throw Shade at Rising Heat, by Planting Trees

USA Today features Rob on how trees keep cities cool. 

We're Putting Unprecedented Pressure on Protected Lands

Axios covers Rob's publication on threats to protected lands around the world. 

Growth of City Trees Can Cut Air Pollution

Rob speaks to BBC News about how city trees reduce air pollution.

Why Public Health Researchers are Looking to Urban Trees

Smithsonian Magazine interviews Rob about his research into the public health benefits of trees. 


Visit Rob's Google Scholar Profile for a full list of publications.

Studies by Rob

Planting Healthy Air

A report by Rob shows how urban trees can save lives in 245 cities around the world.

What We're Doing to the Environment May Be Costing Us Our Drinking Water

The Washington Post quotes Rob on his research that indicates declines in water quality caused by human activity have driven up the cost of water treatment in nearly a third of all large cities.

Climate Change Could Leave 1 Billion Urbanites High and Dry by 2050

Scientific American reports on Rob's research into how climate change and rapid urban growth will impact water security.

Study Warns of Energy Sprawl

The New York Times quotes Rob on the future of energy sprawl in the United States.


Flörke, M., Schneider, C. & McDonald, R.I. (2018). Water competition between cities and agriculture driven by climate change and urban growth. Nature Sustainability, 1, 51.


Vogl, A.L., Goldstein, J.H., Daily, G.C., Vira, B., Bremer, L., McDonald, R.I., Shemie, D., Tellman, B. & Cassin, J. (2017). Mainstreaming investments in watershed services to enhance water security: Barriers and opportunities. Environmental Science & Policy, 75, 19–27.


McDonald, R.I. (2016). Ecologic -- The Watershed Conservation Screening Tool: A Resource for Large Water Users. Journal - American Water Works Association, 108, 18–20.

McDonald, R.I. (2016). Putting biodiversity and ecosystem services into urban planning and conservation. In: The Routledge handbook on urbanization and global environmental change (eds. Seto, K.C., Solecki, W. & Griffith, C.A.). Taylor & Francis, Okon, UK.

McDonald, R.I. (2016). Urban ecology for the urban century. Ecosyst Health Sustain, 2, e01221.

McDonald, R., Kroeger, T., Boucher, T., Longzhu, W. & Salem, R. (2016). Planting healthy air: a global analysis of the role of urban trees in addressing particulate matter pollution and extreme heat. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA.

McDonald, R.I., Weber, K.F., Padowski, J., Boucher, T. & Shemie, D. (2016). Estimating watershed degradation over the last century and its impact on water-treatment costs for the world’s large cities. PNAS, 201605354.

Trainor, A.M., McDonald, R.I. & Fargione, J. (2016). Energy sprawl is the largest driver of land use change in United States. PLOS ONE, 11, e0162269.


McDonald, R.I. (2015). Conservation for cities: how to plan & build natural infrastructure. Island Press.

McDonald, R.I. (2015). The effectiveness of conservation interventions to overcome the urban–environmental paradox. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1355, 1–14.

McDonald, R.I., Guneralp, B., Zipperer, W. & Marcotullio, P. (2015). The future of global urbanization and the environment. Solutions, 6, 60–69.

Reddy, S.M.W., McDonald, R.I., Maas, A.S., Rogers, A., Girvetz, E.H., Molnar, J., Finley, T., Leathers, G. & DiMuro, J.L. (2015). Industrialized watersheds have elevated risk and limited opportunities to mitigate risk through water trading. Water Resources and Industry, 11, 27–45.

Reddy, S.M.W., McDonald, R.I., S. Maas, A., Rogers, A., Girvetz, E.H., North, J., Molnar, J., Finley, T., Leathers, G. & L. DiMuro, J. (2015). Finding solutions to water scarcity: incorporating ecosystem service values into business planning at The Dow Chemical Company’s Freeport, TX facility. Ecosystem Services, 12, 94–107.


McDonald, R.I. & Shemie, D. (2014). Urban water blueprint: mapping conservation solutions to the global water challenge. The Nature Conservancy, Washington, D.C.

McDonald, R.I., Weber, K., Padowski, J., Flörke, M., Schneider, C., Green, P.A., Gleeson, T., Eckman, S., Lehner, B., Balk, D., Boucher, T., Grill, G. & Montgomery, M. (2014). Water on an urban planet: urbanization and the reach of urban water infrastructure. Global Environmental Change, 27, 96–105.

Tallis, H. & Lubchenco, J., R.I. McDonald, and 237 more co-authors. (2014). Working together: a call for inclusive conservation. Nature, 515, 27–28.


Elmqvist, T., Fragkias, M., Goodness, J., Guneralp, B., Marcotullio, P.J., McDonald, R.I., Parnell, S., Schewenius, M., Sendstad, M., Seto, K.C. & Wilkinson, C. (eds.). (2013). Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem service: challenges and opportunities. Springer Netherlands.

Elmqvist, T., Fragkias, M., Goodness, J., Güneralp, B., Marcotullio, P.J., McDonald, R.I., et al. (2013). Stewardship of the biosphere in the urban era. In: Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: challenges and opportunities (eds. Elmqvist, T., et al.). Springer Netherlands, pp. 719–746.

Güneralp, B., McDonald, R.I., Fragkias, M., Goodness, J., Marcotullio, P.J. & Seto, K.C. (2013). Urbanization forecasts, effects on land use, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. In: Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: challenges and opportunities (eds. Elmqvist, T., et al.). Springer Netherlands, pp. 437–452.

McDonald, R.I. (2013). Implications of urbanization for conservation and biodiversity protection. In: Encyclopedia of biodiversity (ed. Levin, S.). Academic Press, Waltham, pp. 231–244.

McDonald, R.I. & Girvetz, E.H. (2013). Two challenges for U.S. irrigation due to climate change: increasing irrigated area in wet states and increasing irrigation rates in dry states. PLoS ONE, 8, e65589.

McDonald, R.I., Marcotullio, P.J. & Güneralp, B. (2013). Urbanization and global trends in bodiversity and ecosystem services. In: Urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services: challenges and opportunities (eds. Elmqvist, T., et al.). Springer Netherlands, pp. 31–52.


Christensen, J., McDonald, R. & Denning, C. (2012). Ecological urbanism for the 21st Century. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Girvetz, E.H., McDonald, R., Heiner, M., Kiesecker, J., Davaa, G., Pague, C., Durnin, M. & Oidov, E. (2012). Eastern Mongolian grassland steppe. In: Climate and conservation (eds. Hilty, J.A., Chester, C.C. & Cross, M.S.). Island Press/Center for Resource Economics, pp. 92–103.

McDonald, R.I., Olden, J.D., Opperman, J.J., Miller, W.M., Fargione, J., Revenga, C., Higgins, J.V. & Powell, J. (2012). Energy, water and fish: biodiversity impacts of energy-sector water demand in the United States depend on efficiency and policy measures. PLoS ONE, 7, e50219.

Vaux, H., Balk, D., Cook, E., Gleick, P., Lau, W., Levy, M., Malone, E., McDonald, R.I., Shindell, D., Thompson, L., Wescoat, J., Williams, M., Matthew, R., Walser, M., Helsabeck, L., Majmundar, M. & Freeland, S. (2012). Himalayan glaciers: climate change, water resources, and water security. National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.


McDonald, R. (2011). The coming global urbanization: what it means for freshwater provision. Journal of the American Water Works Association, 103, 20–21.

McDonald, R.I. & Boucher, T.M. (2011). Global development and the future of the protected area strategy. Biological Conservation, 144, 383–392.

McDonald, R.I., Douglas, I., Revenga, C., Hale, R., Grimm, N., Grönwall, J. & Fekete, B. (2011). Global urban growth and the geography of water availability, quality, and delivery. AMBIO, 40, 437–446.

McDonald, R.I., Green, P., Balk, D., Fekete, B.M., Revenga, C., Todd, M. & Montgomery, M. (2011). Urban growth, climate change, and freshwater availability. PNAS, 108, 6312–6317. (Media coverage: Agence France Presse, EFE, Xinhua, El Pais, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Scientific American)

McDonald, R. & Marcotullio, P. (2011). Global effects of urbanization on ecosystem services. In: Urban ecology (eds. Breuste, J.H., Elmqvist, T., Guntenspergen, G., James, P. & McIntyre, N.E.). Oxford University Press, pp. 193–205.


Denning, C.A., McDonald, R.I. & Christensen, J. (2010). Did land protection in Silicon Valley reduce the housing stock? Biological Conservation, 143, 1087–1093.

McDonald, R.I., Forman, R.T.T. & Kareiva, P. (2010). Open space loss and land inequality in United States’ cities, 1990–2000. PLoS ONE, 5, e9509.


McDonald, R. (2009). P. F. Downton: Ecopolis: architecture and cities for a changing climate. Landscape Ecology, 24, 849–850.

McDonald, R.I. (2009). Ecosystem service demand and supply along the urban-to-rural gradient. Journal of Conservation Planning, 5, 1–14.

McDonald, R.I. (2009). The promise and pitfalls of systematic conservation planning. PNAS, 106, 15101–15102.

McDonald, R.I., Fargione, J., Kiesecker, J., Miller, W.M. & Powell, J. (2009). Energy sprawl or energy efficiency: climate policy impacts on natural habitat for the United States of America. PLoS ONE, 4, e6802. (Media coverage: New York Times, NPR, Bloomberg News. The term was picked up in the Congressional debate on climate change, and was the subject of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.)

McDonald, R.I., Forman, R.T.T., Kareiva, P., Neugarten, R., Salzer, D. & Fisher, J. (2009). Urban effects, distance, and protected areas in an urbanizing world. Landscape and Urban Planning, 93, 63–75.


McDonald, R.I. (2008). Global urbanization: can ecologists identify a sustainable way forward? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6, 99–104.

Mcdonald, R.I., Kareiva, P. & Forman, R.T.T. (2008). The implications of current and future urbanization for global protected areas and biodiversity conservation. Biological Conservation, 141, 1695–1703.

McDonald, R.I., Motzkin, G. & Foster, D.R. (2008). Assessing the influence of historical factors, contemporary processes, and environmental conditions on the distribution of invasive species. The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, 135, 260–271.

McDonald, R.I., Motzkin, G. & Foster, D.R. (2008). The effect of logging on vegetation composition in Western Massachusetts. Forest Ecology and Management, 255, 4021–4031.

Minor, E.S., McDonald, R.I., Treml, E.A. & Urban, D.L. (2008). Uncertainty in spatially explicit population models. Biological Conservation, 141, 956–970.


Forman, R.T.T. & McDonald, R.I. (2007). A massive increase in roadside woody vegetation: goals, pros, and cons. In: Road Ecology Center. Presented at the International Conference on Ecology and Transportation, pp. 229–38.

Kareiva, P., Watts, S., McDonald, R. & Boucher, T. (2007). Domesticated nature: shaping landscapes and ecosystems for human welfare. Science, 316, 1866–1869.

McDonald, R. (2007). E. Freyfogle, The land we share: private property and the common good. Landscape Ecology, 22, 1107–1108.

McDonald, R. (2007). E. Freyfogle, Why conservation is failing and how it can regain ground. Landscape Ecology, 23, 373–374.

McDonald, R.I. (2007). A world of the city, by the city, for the city. In: Taking sides: clashing views on global issues (eds. Harf, J.E. & Lombardi, M.O.). McGraw-Hill, New York.

McDonald, R.I., Halpin, P.N. & Urban, D.L. (2007). Monitoring succession from space: a case study from the North Carolina Piedmont. Applied Vegetation Science, 10, 193–203.

McDonald, R.I., Yuan-Farrell, C., Fievet, C., Moeller, M., Kareiva, P., Foster, D., Gragson, T., Kinzig, A., Kuby, L. & Redman, C. (2007). Estimating the effect of protected lands on the development and conservation of their surroundings. Conservation Biology, 21, 1526–1536.

McKnight, M.W., White, P.S., McDonald, R.I., Lamoreux, J.F., Sechrest, W., Ridgely, R.S. & Stuart, S.N. (2007). Putting beta-diversity on the map: broad-scale congruence and coincidence in the extremes. PLOS Biology, 5, e272.

Soininen, J., McDonald, R. & Hillebrand, H. (2007). The distance decay of similarity in ecological communities. Ecography, 30, 3–12.


McDonald, R. (2006). Sustainable development as freedom. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 13, 445–447.

McDonald, R.I. (2006). Rates of environmental problem generation: thoughts on a new research direction. Environmentalist, 26, 221–225.

McDonald, R.I., Motzkin, G., Bank, M.S., Kittredge, D.B., Burk, J. & Foster, D.R. (2006). Forest harvesting and land-use conversion over two decades in Massachusetts. Forest Ecology and Management, Perspectives on Site Productivity of Loblolly Pine Plantations in the Southern United States, 227, 31–41.

McDonald, R.I. & Urban, D.L. (2006). Edge effects on species composition and exotic species abundance in the North Carolina Piedmont. Biological Invasions, 8, 1049–1060.

McDonald, R.I. & Urban, D.L. (2006). Spatially varying rules of landscape change: lessons from a case study. Landscape and Urban Planning, 74, 7–20.

Urban, D.L., McDonald, R.I., Minor, E.S. & Treml, E.A. (2006). Causes and consequences of land use change in the North Carolina Piedmont: the scope of uncertainty. In: Scaling and uncertainty analysis in ecology (eds. Wu, J., Jones, K.B., Li, H. & Loucks, O.L.). Springer Netherlands, pp. 239–257.


Mansfield, C., Pattanayak, S.K., McDow, W., McDonald, R. & Halpin, P. (2005). Shades of green: measuring the value of urban forests in the housing market. Journal of Forest Economics, 11, 177–199.

McDonald, R., McKnight, M., Weiss, D., Selig, E., O’Connor, M., Violin, C. & Moody, A. (2005). Species compositional similarity and ecoregions: do ecoregion boundaries represent zones of high species turnover? Biological Conservation, 126, 24–40.

Taverna, K., Urban, D.L. & McDonald, R.I. (2005). Modeling landscape vegetation pattern in response to historic land-use: a hypothesis-driven approach for the North Carolina Piedmont, USA. Landscape Ecology, 20, 689–702.


McDonald, R.I. & Urban, D.L. (2004). Forest edges and tree growth rates in the North Carolina Piedmont. Ecology, 85, 2258–2266.


McDonald, R. I., Peet, R. k. & Urban, D. l. (2003). Spatial pattern of Quercus regeneration limitation and Acer rubrum invasion in a Piedmont forest. Journal of Vegetation Science, 14, 441–450.


McDonald, R.I., Peet, R.K. & Urban, D.L. (2002). Environmental correlates of oak decline and red maple increase in the North Carolina Piedmont. Castanea, 67, 84–95.