14 March 2010

Urban resilience

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Merging complex systems science and ecology, resilience scientists have broken new ground on understanding—and preserving—natural ecosystems. Now, as more and more people move into urban hubs, they are bringing this novel science to the city.

“Resilience theory, first introduced by Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling in 1973, begins with two radical premises. The first is that humans and nature are strongly coupled and co-evolving, and should therefore be conceived of as one “social-ecological” system. The second is that the long-held assumption that systems respond to change in a linear, predictable fashion is simply wrong. According to resilience thinking, systems are in constant flux; they are highly unpredictable and self-organizing, with feedbacks across time and space. In the jargon of theorists, they are complex adaptive systems, exhibiting the hallmarks of complexity.”

A key feature of complex adaptive systems is that they can settle into a number of different equilibria. […] Historically, we’ve tended to view the transition between such states as gradual. But there is increasing evidence that systems often don’t respond to change that way. […]

Resilience science focuses on these sorts of tipping points. […] How much shock can a system absorb before it transforms into something fundamentally different? That, in a nutshell, is the essence of resilience.”

I really enjoyed the discussion on the importance of redundancy and social equity in resilient systems:

“Society strives for efficiency by trying to eliminate apparent redundancies, but things that seemed redundant in a stable climate turn out to be valuable when conditions change. […]

When it comes to human populations, ecologists are hesitant to stretch metaphors too far—a biodiverse ecosystem is not the same as a diverse population. [But] it’s important that you have institutions and functions in society that also overlap. If one member of the group is lost, there will be another that can maintain the function, so the function of the system as a whole is maintained. […]

Social equity and access to resources will also emerge as hugely important components of resilience. Though human behavior is new territory for resilience experts, numerous social scientists have documented the erosion of civic engagement, and even violence, in areas marked by high levels of social stratification.”

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More information:
Stockholm Resilience Centre
The Urban Network
Resilience 2011

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