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.

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The frontier of resilience research involves defining more precisely what those astronomical values are, and giving decision-makers access to this data. Towards this end, the Urban Network is in the process of building a Social-Ecological Atlas, which will give urban planners tools to measure and map ecosystem services in the urban landscape.

According to Elmqvist, the Atlas incorporates Global Information System (GIS) functions, so users can use Google maps to upload and analyze data on various social and ecological variables. The Stockholm research team, for instance, is currently using the Atlas to map biodiversity distribution across the city, as well as creating a “sociotrope”—a map of the social value of green spaces in the Swedish capital. High social values means that various groups frequently derive benefits from using a site, whether by exercising, bird-watching, or simply relaxing away from the bustle of the city streets.

Using this tool, the researchers can see how the biological and social values compare. Do places with high biodiversity and high social values overlap? If not, then the sites could be vulnerable, says Elmqvist. If the areas are unknown, and used by very few, people might not object to their destruction. The perfect counterexample is New York City’s prized—and hugely popular—Central Park. “No one in their right mind would propose a plan to construct buildings in Central Park,” says Elmqvist. “ That idea would be killed immediately.”

Who Governs the World?

No city today could survive on its own resources. This goes for energy, water, food, information, and various other inputs that fuel urban activity. But it also holds true for governance, as evidenced by the network of cities that is becoming increasingly prominent in the global policy arena.
As urban areas grow in size and complexity, they are catalyzing a shift in power: Increasingly, it is cities—financial centers, hubs of innovation and human capital—that are driving the agenda. This has happened in the US, for example, as cities that took the lead in instituting climate policies after the Bush Administration showed no initiative in doing so. At last year’s annual conference of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—the world’s principle legally binding international treaty to protect biodiversity—more than 50 cities said that they wanted to be a part of implementing its agenda.

From a systems standpoint, what cities are doing is creating a network—which in itself could strengthen resilience. Knowledge generated in one place could be used in another, and experiences and best practices could be shared. But this power shift raises an interesting governance question, as every organization in place today when it comes to global governance—the CBD, the United Nations, the Law of the Sea—is based on the nation state. Now on the sidelines, a very powerful network of cities is growing, sharing information technology, and driving an ambitious sustainability agenda.

Cities could be more nimble and more effective in areas where others have failed. But the key will be creating a global governance system that can incorporate them, creating the critical links to regional and worldwide scales. “It’s very complex,” says Elmqvist, “But you need to have these ‘cross-scale’ interactions.” For example, a community in rural Holland might develop in textbook resilience fashion—building redundancy, monitoring diversity, evaluating ecosystem services—but unless it is linked both nationally and globally, it will be very vulnerable. This idyllic community could be completely wiped out, for instance, by an EU decision to cut support for organic agriculture.

The complex systems view, says Elmqvist, is that you will need a diversity of citizens and groups collaborating to design solutions that fit on a local level. But you will also need to forge connections higher up in the hierarchy. With this vision in mind, the Stockholm Resilience Center has recently partnered with UNESCO to launch URBIS, a international network that focuses on linking innovative urban science to policy-making at local, regional, and global levels.

“We are going into a very interesting new era when it comes to global governance,” says Elmqvist. “We will have nation states, but we will also have very powerful cities raising their voices about the future and the nature of sustainable development.”

The Road Ahead

This May, some 70 million people will descend on Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo, whose theme is “Better city, Better life.” The 12-city Urban Network and URBIS will both be participating, says Elmqvist, organizing several workshops and symposia on the importance of the resilience perspective on urban development. “It’s a fantastic place to try to communicate other perspectives on urban development,” he says. “We look forward to sharing these ideas and the results of what we are doing at the 12 sites.”

The Urban Network will also push to complete its Social-Ecological Atlas—for publication as a book in 2010, and more importantly as a web portal for urban scientists and policymakers. Ultimately, the Atlas will incorporate data from all 12 cities, focusing on freshwater services, carbon sequestration, and cultural values across the dozen. This will enable users for the first time to compare cities of different size and wealth—compare Bangalore and New York and Istanbul, for example—to see how varying social contexts, varying customs and norms, affect urban ecosystems and vice-versa.

Cross-city analysis might reveal standouts among urban systems: Shanghai, for example, had just 900 hectares of green space in 1975. By 2005 it had 27,000. So despite the city’s tremendous growth, its proportion of urban nature is actually increasing.

Questions of green space and optimal urban density are just the beginning. Can the world’s mega-cities keep growing? Are other patterns of urban growth preferable? Urbanization is inevitable, but can it be directed so that cities can be harnessed as generators of innovation, and core contributors to future sustainability? As scientists make headway on these macro-issues, can they develop tools to help decision-makers build for social, economic, and ecological resilience?

These are tall orders and extremely complex questions. So complex, in fact, that many doubt the ability of resilience science to get beyond the theory stage. It’s a common criticism levied against systems scientists in general: they are so wrapped up in their “emergent behaviors,” “thresholds,” and “response diversities”—so smitten with the notion of unifying principles—that they gloss over inherent variation. And what look like great underlying patterns—a coral reef looks like a city, and a financial network looks like an ecosystem—are actually riddled with exceptions, irreducible to any sort of blueprint.

Elmqvist is familiar with these charges. “Those critics are right,” he says. “But what I think the resilience area is contributing is not that blueprint. It is contributing guidelines and rules of thumb.”

At the outset of 2010, volatility is the watchword of the day. Some things are certain: economies will grow, greenhouse gases will accumulate, more people will be born than will die across the planet. But how exactly consumption, climate, population, and other factors will interact is anyone’s guess. In that context, when risk and uncertainty are inevitable, providing the capacity to absorb change—building for resilience—is the only rational response.

Originally published February 16, 2010

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