Opinion: How can cities build resilience while avoid eroding it somewhere else?

01 February 2012 | Article

The world is increasingly urban, interconnected and shifting, writes Thomas Elmqvist. The world’s 20 fastest growing urban regions are in countries like China, India and Nigeria, not Europe or North America. By 2050, almost three billion more people will live in cities and the world will have undergone the largest and fastest period of urban expansion in all of human history.

Over the last decades there has been increasing recognition that human domination and the rapid development of global urbanism is reshaping the ecology of the entire planet. This rapid urbanization represents major challenges but also opportunities to ensure basic human welfare and a viable global environment.

The opportunity lies in that urban landscapes are the very places where knowledge, innovation, human and financial resources for finding solutions to global environmental problems are likely to be found.

Recent studies indicate that urban biodiversity contributes to multiple ecosystem services that are of great importance for people’s well-being. These include reductions in local air pollution and noise; reductions in the urban ‘heat island’ effect, direct health benefits, and key environments for enhanced public ecological knowledge and awareness of local to global sustainability challenges.

Understanding how urban ecosystems work, how they change, and what limits their performance, can also add to the understanding of ecosystem change, governance and resilience in general in an ever more human-dominated world.

Urban ecosystems, such as urban ‘green and blue spaces’ may have a crucial role in building the necessary capacity to cope with environmental changes. In many cities, like New York, New Orleans, Berlin, Singapore and Cape Town, investments in tree planting, ‘green roofs’ and ecological restoration projects are now growing rapidly as part of a low-carbon strategy to increase this capacity to adapt.

We at the Urban Theme at Stockholm Resilience Center of Stockholm University have built an extensive network of research groups in cities around the world, and led a number of interdisciplinary projects. This includes the pan-European project Urban Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (URBES) focused on quantifying and valuing urban ecosystem services and exploring ways in which they could be incorporated into urban planning and policy in a European context.

Our studies have generated important insights into what role informal institutions and civic management play in supporting ecosystem services in urban areas. Such management is non-governmental in character and depends on private and civic interest groups.

We have taken a novel approach of studying ecosystem management under common property rights systems in urban settings and contributed to the concept of ‘ecological land-use complementation’—the idea that land uses in urban green areas could interact to support biodiversity when clustered together in different combinations. These approaches analyse the resilience building of urban landscapes and could be viewed as building capacity to deal with ecosystem loss in the face of increased urbanization. They also examine how cities could build resilience without eroding it elsewhere.

Thomas Elmqvist leads the theme ‘Urban social-ecological systems and globalization’ at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. This aims to build knowledge around the management, planning, generation/distribution and design of ecosystem services and biodiversity in metropolitan landscapes. The URBES project is being implemented in cooperation with IUCN.