A spatially explicit hierarchical approach to modeling complex ecological systems: Theory and applications

Jianguo Wu, John L. David

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

405 Scopus citations


Ecological systems are generally considered among the most complex because they are characterized by a large number of diverse components, nonlinear interactions, scale multiplicity, and spatial heterogeneity. Hierarchy theory, as well as empirical evidence, suggests that complexity often takes the form of modularity in structure and functionality. Therefore, a hierarchical perspective can be essential to understanding complex ecological systems. But, how can such hierarchical approach help us with modeling spatially heterogeneous, nonlinear dynamic systems like landscapes, be they natural or human-dominated? In this paper, we present a spatially explicit hierarchical modeling approach to studying the patterns and processes of heterogeneous landscapes. We first discuss the theoretical basis for the modeling approach - the hierarchical patch dynamics (HPD) paradigm and the scaling ladder strategy, and then describe the general structure of a hierarchical urban landscape model (HPDM-PHX) which is developed using this modeling approach. In addition, we introduce a hierarchical patch dynamics modeling platform (HPD-MP), a software package that is designed to facilitate the development of spatial hierarchical models. We then illustrate the utility of HPD-MP through two examples: a hierarchical cellular automata model of land use change and a spatial multi-species population dynamics model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-26
Number of pages20
JournalEcological Modelling
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 15 2002


  • Complex systems modeling
  • Hierarchical modeling
  • Hierarchical patch dynamics
  • Scaling
  • Urban landscape ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Ecological Modeling


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