A large-scale study of ten cities across the US and Latin America assess how green infrastructure can help increase urban resilience to extreme events like drought, flooding and heatwaves.
Urbanisation is a growing trend all over the world. At the same time, we are all experiencing extreme events like flooding, droughts, hurricanes and heatwaves. “Urbanization and climate change are on a collision course, and infrastructure is their battlefield,” says Nancy Grimm, Arizona State University.
Her message comes through, especially loud and clear, because of the earthquake that struck Oaxaca in September of this year. It’s hard to spot any substantial damage to infrastructure in the beautifully maintained old city centre that is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, Mexican colleagues have described the efforts to rebuild homes not far from where the PECS conference is taking place.
Several researchers are working on a project called URExSRN that aims to transform the infrastructure of ten cities in the US and Latin America. The aim is that these cities are resilient centres of growth, development, and creativity for generations to come, even in the face of natural disasters. The researchers are using a framework that incorporates a social, ecological and technological systems approach to co-ordinate the planning and management of cities so that they are better prepared for whatever the future might have in store, for both city and citizens.
It’s called SETS and Elizabeth Cook from The New School in New York City explains that ecosystem services are co-produced by the ecology in our cities, together with the social and technological infrastructure. Let’s think about shade as a service, or benefit in cities. Trees help to regulate heat and provide shade. People such as park managers look after trees. Tall buildings block out the sun and provide shade, but this same service might also reduce the amount of photosynthesis, and thus carbon intake, if the trees are cast into shadow all the time.
Nature-based solutions, like green infrastructure, vary widely in the ten cities that are part of this study. Timon McPhearson, based at the Urban Systems Lab at The New School in NYC and works as a research fellow at Stockholm Resilience Centre, compared the desert cities of Phoenix, Arizona and Hermosillo in northern Mexico. Both have a small proportion of green space, which could exacerbate an already arid climate and put them at risk of more heatwaves.
In some cities, green spaces tend to be more common in wealthy areas. The question of who has access to parks, gardens, and other urban green spaces raises the issue of equity and perspective. Hallie Eakin, Arizona State University, highlights some work in Mexico City which makes clear that who you are and what your perspective is shapes your mental model. Mexico City was built on a lake, and is vulnerable to multiple challenges that the city’s water planners have to juggle. Researchers have used agent based modelling to create different scenarios to help visualise vulnerabilities in the system so that water managers can make decisions based on what is equitable.
Sometimes it takes a different approach to find the sweet spot where ecological, social and technological meet in harmony. Participatory processes encourage people from different walks of life to co-create a vision of positive urban futures. It’s not always that simple. David Iwaniec, from Arizona State University and Georgia State University, describes how one participant said they would never dare enter this kind of visioning or imagining with their colleagues – possibly because of fears of going against government policy.
Nevertheless, the potential for finding solutions that tick all the boxes, social, ecological and technological, is there. In the island city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, food systems became more resilient when depots moved from flood-prone areas.
Just as we were all lulled into a safe and cosy space, thinking that we could imagine ourselves into a bright and resilient future, the last speaker in the session, Marta Berbés-Blásquez, made us sit up and smell the chili. “We are still not radical enough in our thinking,” she says. Cities are not self-sufficient islands but are connected and dependent on ecosystem services of the social, ecological and technological kind that are imported from elsewhere. The future is uncertain and unpredictable and we all have to push beyond the limits of our current thinking to dream into reality desirable cities where each and every one of us want to live.
I was a documentary director at the BBC making science, history and arts programmes for over a decade before moving to the Stockholm Resilience Centre where I work for SwedBio and GRAID. Now, I use film and photography as a way of delving into knowledge and insights that other research methods might have a harder time reaching. The visuals feed into research because they unearth new perspectives and questions that are valuable for sustainability and resilience thinking. Hopefully, the films and photos also communicate complex science and tell stories that engage people’s heads and hearts.
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II CONFERENCE OF THE PROGRAMME ON ECOSYSTEM CHANGE AND SOCIETY