A Social-Ecological Research Lens on Urban Resilience

Guest author: Stephan Barthel (University of Gävle, Stockholm University and Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Social-Ecological Research has approached the city as a living ecosystem, an approach that really begun with the urban scholars of the early 1900s. But new developments in this line of research started during the 1990s to study various social-ecological relations in a web of life reaching far beyond the built environment of any city. Such research argues that it is in such social-ecological relations where the resilience of cities ultimately rests, for example in a food system consisting of the chain of activities connecting food producing ecosystems, processing, distribution, consump­tion, and waste management, as well as all the associated regulatory institutions and activities. Contrary to popular belief, it is in such social-ecological research traditions, where the most prolific authors on urban resilience are found.

Jane Jacobs critiqued modernist city planning in the now classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). She proposed that a city must be understood as a system of organized complexity, in other words, as a designed ecosystem—or as a cyborg—–and that any intervention in the urban fabric with a lack of such understanding is bound to result in unexpected surprises. This approach really begun with the urban scholars of the Chicago School that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, which was inspired by thinking in systems ecology of that time, but where the city was viewed more as an ants nest, where humans interacted with the ‘artifice’ in a sort of socio-technological ecosystem (Barthel 2016). This line of thought did not for long, however, adequately address complex human-nature systems relations of urban resilience.

It is safe to argue that most urban populations, at least in the Global North, are more distant from their life support systems now. Urbanization is now in a second wave of space–time compression driven by the Internet, jet travel, and the global economy. The accelerating pace at which urban life proceeds and the decreasing importance of geographic barriers and distances are qualitatively different in terms of their intensity and scope compared to the 1960s. Space–time compression is an outcome of a surplus of fossil fuel energy of diminishing returns, which enables cities to sequester natural resources and ecosystem services from the farthest reaches of the planet (see Deutsch et al. or Seto). What would happened to the resilience of a city if it where divorced from such global trade flows?

Novel thinking with roots in modern systems ecology emerged in the 1990s with the concepts of ecological footprints, extended versions of urban metabolism, and urban ecosystem services. This line offers an important new perspective, since it assumes that humans are integrative parts of a complex web of life in the Biosphere even as they live in modern cities. The world’s ecosystems are gradually being eroded by urbanization, with a subsequent loss of both ecosystem services and urban resilience, not only due to rapid conversion of land per se, but also due to tele-connected consumption behaviors, which ultimately will be shaped by environmental attitudes among city people. When Jacobs wrote her influential book 1961, the plethora of benefits that ecosystems in metropolitan landscapes provided for human well-being in cities were simply not known (see McPhearson or Haase). While Jacobs’ thinking is based on ecosystem logic, she did not see the benefits humans obtain by sensory interaction with other species and with diverse ecosystems, such as their role in shaping learning and meaning-making, nor for the development of attitudes, health or cognitive performance. For instance Giusti et al., showed that pre-school children that experience nature environments in their daily routines develop significantly stronger environmental attitudes and better ecological knowledge that those that do not. This literature argues that cities must offer civic stewardship possibilities for people to engage with ecosystems inside and outside of cities and must improve the routines that enable for people to psychologically connect with nature. Scholars of this kind of thinking came to argue for the missing role that local and regional ecosystem services, such as metropolitan produced food or water retention by peri-urban wetlands, hold as sources for building resilience in cities towards unusual external disturbances, such as hurricanes, armed conflicts or spikes in global food prizes. Such social-ecological thinking has proven to be influential in the wider literature on urban resilience.

As important as the deviation in an ecosystem based understanding of the city in the 1990s have been, it is now time to again re-unite the two dominant lines of thought for a more holistic understanding about urban resilience: the socio-technological line of thought with the social-ecological line. This is deemed necessary to meet our grand challenge to transform urbanization to stay within planetary boundaries. In separation they are actually producing piecemeal design and planning solutions. Now as we must innovate our thinking to find solutions for a low-carbon economy while dealing with social segregation, we must simultaneously not erode sources in the human habitat for social, mental and physiological health and for cognitive resilience building.

Biography: Stephan Barthel is Senior Lecturer at the University of Gävle and Team Leader of the Urban Social-Ecological Systems group at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.

Further references:

Barthel, S. Social-Ecological Urbanism and the Life of Baltic Cities. In The Nature of Cities

 Barthel, S. Parker, J. Ernstson, H. (2015). Food and Green Space in Cities: A Resilience Lens on Gardens and Urban Environmental Movements. Urban Studies 52(7), 1321-1338.

 Barthel, S. and Isendahl, C. (2013). Urban Gardens, Agricultures and Waters: Sources of Resilience for Long-Term Food Security in Cities. Ecological Economics 86, 224-234.