Urban Resilience

Frontier / by Maywa Montenegro /

Merging complex systems science and ecology, resilience scientists have broken new ground on understanding—and preserving—natural ecosystems. Now, as more and more people move into urban hubs, they are bringing this novel science to the city.

The tension between efficiency and redundancy is “a big, complex issue for society to struggle with,” he says. “On one hand you have demands to build a very efficient society, particularly when it comes to using taxpayers’ money in public administration. On the other hand, we must learn not to drive efficiency to the extent that we lose the backup capacity.”

Social equity and access to resources, Elmqvist believes, will also emerge as hugely important components of resilience. Though human behavior is new territory for resilience experts, numerous social scientists have documented the erosion of civic engagement, and even violence, in areas marked by high levels of social stratification. Riots, for instance, broke out in Paris in 2005 after a couple of North African youth, running from the police, hopped a fence and were electrocuted by a transformer. Immigration has long been a powder keg across Europe, and with rising fears over international terrorism, those tensions have arguably grown even stronger. Such incidences, of course, aren’t isolated to Europe—Los Angeles has seen its own share of racially motivated riots, and the megacity of Mumbai perennially convulses with conflicts sparked by religion and class discrimination. Social dissonance becomes almost the norm when certain groups are denied education, voting rights, jobs, and other basic civil liberties.

These ideas may seem intuitive, but many cities are in fact moving in the opposite direction: From Phoenix to Dakar, metropolitan regions are increasingly being built around housing developments that cater to specific price ranges, creating pockets of extreme homogeneity and income inequality across the metropolitan area.

“If you have huge inequity, you will not have information being shared,” says Elmqvist. In a more equitable society, conflicts will still be there, but people will be more prepared to share information, he says. “It’s a matter of social trust.”

Ecology in the City

When a mysterious ailment known as Colony Collapse Disorder decimated honeybee populations across the US in 2007, threatening a $14 billion fruit and nut industry, it became painfully apparent just how valuable the pollination services of this single winged species are. Similarly, the large-scale destruction of tropical rain forests has called attention to their invaluable role as living carbon sinks.

Urban resilience calls attention to the ecosystem services within cities themselves, to the medley of blue and green spaces, both natural and man-made, that can buffer a city against change. Things like urban parks, green roofs, community gardens, and coastal wetlands perform numerous functions, from cooling the city’s microclimate to purifying its rainwater to serving as built-in flood control.

In New Orleans, for example, more than 60 percent of wetlands have been lost in the last 60 years, due partly to oil and natural gas exploration and partly to the levies that were built to keep the Mississippi from flooding the city. Ironically, the loss of these wetlands contributed very directly to the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina. Researchers have since calculated that restoring 1 kilometer of wetland would reduce the wave height by one meter, and now efforts are underway to begin rebuilding the southern Louisiana coastline.

Douglas Meffert, an environmental engineer at Tulane University and leader of the Urban Network’s New Orleans research team, says that coastal restoration has emerged as a top priority both at the city and national levels. “The fact that our wetlands are still eroding, and climate change is more threatening is a critical concern,” says Meffert, “We need to acknowledge that we will have to live with flooding, and an abundance of water. That is going to be key—how we live with water on a day to day basis.”

As important as these environmental boons are the social benefits—the various aesthetic, educational, recreational, psychological, and health advantages—that urban nature confers.

In New York City, for example, MillionTreesNYC is an initiative to plant one million new trees across the city’s five boroughs over the next decade. This urban forest will have a cooling, shading effect, will reduce air pollution, and will sequester megatons of carbon—issues, according to Elmqvist, that have recently become high on the urban agenda and will likely become higher in the future. The added greenery could also have surprisingly large health effects: A recent study found that tripling the number of street trees could reduce asthma among children by 25 percent. “If you add all the social and ecological values together, you come up to astronomical figures,” says Elmqvist.

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