Friday, December 9, 2011

The Year of Adaptive Processes

The new theme for research in BES emphasizes adaptive processes as a key to understanding and working with urban sustainability.  Because of its importance, the intellectual theme for BES this year will be socio-ecological adaptive processes.

From Sanitary to Sustainable: The Guiding Idea
To review a bit, BES III takes the transformation from the sanitary to the sustainable city as a major ongoing environmental shift that has the potential to affect all aspects of the city-suburban-exurban system of Baltimore.  Sustainability is a socially agreed upon set of goals that accounts for environmental, social, and economic health of the total urban ecosystem.  It necessarily incorporates social values.  

The Science Supporting Sustainability
But what scientific information is needed to advance sustainability, and to evaluate the degree of success in achieving sustainability?  The concept of resilience, which is both a powerful metaphor of change and adjustment is the next link in the intellectual path to understanding and working with sustainability.  Resilience, as mentioned earlier in this Web Log ( is the ability of a system to experience internal and external shocks and still adjust and persist in a dynamic form.  Resilience can have socially desirable and socially undesirable outcomes, and that is judged against the three-pronged sustainability goals chosen.  The system of automobile based transport in metropolitan America is resilient, but in some ways, an environmentally unfortunate one.  Wetlands are a resilient aspect of coastal systems affected by hurricanes and storm surges.  Resilience per se is neither good nor bad.  Sustainability, when the goals are well chosen, may admittedly involve trade offs, but at least those trade offs must not neglect off hand such things as social equity and ecological function.

Making Resilience Work
Figure 1: The Adaptive Cycle
Resilience is on the one hand, a metaphorical conception, and on the other a very general theoretical framework cast in the form of the “adaptive cycle” (Figure 1).  How does such a general concept get translated into something that can be measured and tracked?  The answer is to use adaptive processes to fill in the details of how systems develop, how they react to stresses and disturbances, and how they periodically reorganize.

Resilience Depends on Adaptation
What are adaptive processes?  They are the structures, fluxes, and interactions that allow systems to adjust to sudden or gradual changes.  Social and biogeophysical features can contribute to the adaptive capacity of urban systems.  The literature suggests a number of general kinds of adaptive processes (Figure 2).  It is these features which BES needs to concentrate on in the coming year.  How do our ongoing, long-term measurements support the scheme of adaptive processes?  What kinds of trends can be determined and can they be interpreted in terms of the resilience cycle and socially described sustainability goals?  What new measurements or analyses might be required?  Are there clear parallels between various social and biophysical adaptive processes?

Figure 2. The determinants of adaptive capacity, shown as adaptive processes in social and biophysical realms.  Of course the processes in the two realms interact.

Toward Improved Understanding of Adaptive Processes
Over the coming year, discussion of adaptive processes should suffuse all our activities and research discussions.  Then, during our annual meeting in October, we may be in a better position to evaluate the state of adaptive processes, and to understand how they affect the transition from the sanitary to the sustainable city.  Addressing this issue will undoubtedly take a long time.  It’s a good time to start.