Monday, April 25, 2011

Interest in Urban Resilience: A Burgeoning Frontier

Resilience is becoming an increasingly important concept in contemporary ecological science.  Since the introduction of the resilience cycle, an open ended, ecological concept has guided the understanding of this important process (  Resilience has been a major stimulus for research in socio-ecological systems.  It has been useful in understanding fisheries, and landscapes in which people manage both economic and subsistence resources, for example.  However, most research and thinking about resilience have focused on systems outside of urban areas.

How the resilience concept can be applied in urban areas is a new theoretical and empirical frontier.  This frontier was a major focus within the 2011 Resilience Conference, held from March 11-16 in Tempe, Arizona.  The conference was entitled “Resilience, Innovation, and Sustainability: Navigating the Complexities of Global Change.  This conference brought together several hundred researchers, educators, and policy experts to explore the status and future of resilience research and application.  The conference program, videos and slides from plenary presentations, and some abstracts appear at

The Stockholm Resilience Center sponsored a one day workshop prior to the meeting, at which BES was well represented.  Along with researchers from the Resilience Center, the workshop included members of the Central Arizona Phoenix (CAP) LTER, and many representatives of the newly minted Urban Long-Term Ecological Research (ULTRA)-Exploratory projects.  In this workshop the question was how does the concept of resilience as it applies to urban areas relate to the perceived need for adaptive transformation of urban areas, as socio-ecological systems, in response to global changes.

Important concepts and variables, which will prove useful to BES as we put into operation the research themes of BES III, were raised and discussed at the workshop.  The organizers of the workshop, led by Thomas Elmqvist of the Stockholm Resilience Center, Urban Theme, proposed several key topics for evaluation, quoted here (with slight change in footnote numbering):

“Social-ecological resilience: the amount of disturbance a social-ecological system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attraction, and the degree to which the system can build and increase its capacity for learning, adaptation and transformation. Important variables:  (i) enabling high rates of innovations, (ii) maintaining diversity (both social and ecological), (iii) maintaining modularity, (iv) restoring lost ecological functions, (v) tightening feedback loops, (vi) building social capital and address equity, and (vii) building overlap in governance (cf.[i]).

“Social-ecological transformations: long-term, non-linear fundamental change in the ecological, economic, social and infrastructural domains of a social-ecological system. Important variables: (i) access and response to information at different scales, (ii) learn continually, (iii) participate in knowledge networks, (iv) use and restore ecosystems in innovative ways  to reduce vulnerability, (v) engage multiple stakeholders, to benefit from embedded arenas for innovation, (vi) retain and, preferably, increase institutional flexibility (cf.[ii]).”

A further opportunity to interact and share ideas with others concerned with urban resilience was a Panel presentation and discussion, held during the 2011 Resilience Conference proper.  This panel, entitled “Urban transitions – on urban resilience and human-dominated ecosystems,” included presentations by Steward T.A. Pickett – “On Urban Resilience and Transformations – lessons from urban research in North America,” and Henrik Ernstson – “On Urban Resilience and Transformations – lessons from urban research in Europe.”  Pickett’s talk placed the guiding transformation of BES III, that from the sanitary to the sustainable city, in the context of other actual and potential transformations.  The framing document for the panel, authored by Thomas Elmqvist, contrasted resilience in cities with resilience of cities, entailing a contrast of within urban areas to a concern with resilience across broader systems of cities.  In addition, a recurrent issue that arose in discussing improved resilience of cities was the problem that maladaptive infrastructure or governance structures may be “locked in.”  

Morgan Grove, along with several coauthors including Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, represented BES in the Panel on “An ‘All Lands, All Owners’ Approach: Urban Sustainability, Governance Theory, and Poly-Centric Networks.”  He spoke on the topic of “Causes and consequences of urban stewardship footprints over time: a socio-spatial approach.”  

These activities are just one indication of the excitement of applying resilience to urban systems.  The BES III research theme – from sanitary to sustainable city – is firmly placed on this new frontier of understanding and applying the concept of resilience.  Resilience serves as a crucial set of mechanisms by which sustainability can be achieved, and brings the values motivating sustainability into the realm of testable and measurable variables.

[i] Walker B and Salt D. 2006. Resilience Thinking. Island Press.
Ernstson H, S van der Leeuw, CL Redman, DJ Meffert, G Davis, C Alfsen, and T Elmqvist. 2010. Urban Transitions: On Urban Resilience and Human-Dominated Ecosystems. AMBIO Published On-line (DOI: 10.1007/s13280-010-0081-9) 

[ii] Loorbach, D. 2007. Transition Management: New Mode of Governance for Sustainable Development. International Books, Utrecht.

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