Icon Story highlights

  • Urbanisation is a growing global trend, as are climate-driven extreme events like droughts, floods and heatwaves
  • Green infrastructure can help increase urban resilience to these extreme events
  • Green spaces tend to be more common in wealthy areas, differential access to parks, gardens, and other urban green infrastructure raises the issue of equity
  • Incorporating social, ecological and technological systems to co-ordinate planning and management of cities prepares them to better tackle whatever the future might have in store
  • Participatory processes encourage people from different walks of life to co-create a vision of positive urban futures

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,” Nancy Grimm, Arizona State University

The 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 second conference of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) is taking place.

In the book Urban Planet, one of whose editors -Professor Thomas Elmqvist- works on SwedBio’s focal area of cities and biodiversity, presents a transformation of the infrastructure of cities so that they are resilient centres of growth, development and creativity for generations to come, even in the face of natural disasters.

Another urban research project called UREx SRN focuses on the infrastructure of ten cities in the US and Latin America, ranging from Baltimore, Maryland to Valdivia, Chile. 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.

Another approach called “social-ecological-technical systems” (SETS), highlights how 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 in our cities 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 if the trees are cast into shadow all the time.” Elizabeth Cook, New York City New School

Nature-based solutions like green infrastructure vary widely in the ten cities that are part of the study. Timon McPhearson, also from the Urban Systems Lab at The New School in NYC, compared the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona with Hermosillo in northern Mexico. Both have a smaller proportion of green spaces 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, Marta Berbés-Blásquez, made us sit up and smell the chili. “We are still not radical enough in our thinking,” she said.

“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.” Marta Berbés-Blásquez


For further info:

McPhearson, Timon, S.T.A. Pickett, N. Grimm, J. Niemelä, M. Alberti, T. Elmqvist, C. Weber, D. Haase, J. Breuste, and S. Qureshi.  2016. “Advancing Urban Ecology Toward a Science of Cities.” BioScience 66(3):198-212, doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw002.

McPhearson, Timon, Dagmar Haase, Nadja Kabisch, Åsa Gren. 2016. “Advancing understanding of the complex nature of urban systems.” Ecological Indicators 70: 566–573, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2016.03.054

Depietri, Yaella and Timon McPhearson. 2017. “Integrating the grey, green, and blue in cities: Nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation and risk reduction” (pp91-109) in Kabisch, N., Korn, H., Stadler, J., Bonn, A. (Eds), “Nature-based Solutions to Climate Change in Urban Areas: Linkages Between Science, Policy, and Practice”, Springer.

This article originates from a blogpost covering the PECS II conference session “Urban sustainability transformations in the context of climate-driven extreme events in the US and Latin America”

Written by Viveca Mellegård