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City as Meta-Community: On Climate Change, Resilience and the Role of Public Art


Aerial view of Boston. Photo by John Schade

This essay originally appeared in Meandering Methodologies, Deviant Disciplines edited by Shanai Matteson and published by Public Art Saint Paul in 2016.

Urban development is progressing at a breathtaking pace. More than half the human population now live in cities, the result of an accelerating demographic trend with profound meaning for our social, economic, and political future. The numbers are staggering. By 2050, the global urban population will increase by 2 billion people. In China alone 40 cities already claim populations over 1 million and 350 million more people are expected to migrate to urban centers from the countryside by 2025. A new skyscraper will be completed somewhere in China every 5 days for years to come. Shanghai is a symbol of this transformation. The skyline in Shanghai’s Pudong district did not exist in 1990, now it is a modern marvel, and will soon boast the second tallest building in the world when the Shanghai Tower is completed later this year. 24 million people live in Shanghai, and the population is predicted to rise to >50 million by 2050.

Shanghai is also symbolic of the challenges presented by our transformation of the Earth’s climate. The city is ~15 feet above sea level. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level will rise ~20 feet. Some climate change models project that this will happen by 2100. What will the city of Shanghai look like then?

Sea level rise is just one of a long list of changes we face as the planet warms. Many of these changes are already here, and are creating significant challenges for communities all over the world. The western US is locked in a drought that has the Governor of California imposing water restrictions for the first time ever. The Polar Vortex used to be an obscure phenomenon only an atmospheric scientist could wax lyrical about, now it has become a part of our popular culture, credited with the freezing of Atlanta and mild winters in Fairbanks. This past winter, we saw record high temperatures in Alaska and record snowfall in Texas. The ten hottest years have all been since 1998, with 2014 leading the way as the hottest year on record. Severe storms appear to be increasing and can devastate large cities that stand in their way. Just ask New Orleans or Joplin or Tuscaloosa. These are extreme examples, yes, but they serve as harbingers of what may come, indeed what climate modelers have been predicting will happen, if we do not take action to slow global warming.

The rise of mega-cities like Shanghai, coupled with the increase in extreme weather as the climate changes, have led to calls for the development of Cities of Resilience1, a new paradigm for urban development that has been institutionalized by new initiatives from The Rockefeller Foundation, the United Nations and myriad other organizations. Resilience has replaced sustainability in some circles as the primary goal of urban design. Building resilient cities has become almost a moral imperative. To many, Cities of Resilience are bright beacons of hope on the horizon.

Resilience has a great deal of metaphorical power. To some, it evokes a sense of stability or strength. They associate resilience with an ability to ‘weather the storm’ or hold firm in the face of disruption. In the aftermath of natural disasters, survivors speak with pride of their strength and resilience and determination to rebuild. Resilient people overcome hardship and carry on with their lives. To others, resilience suggests adaptiveness and flexibility, the capacity to bend with the wind and evolve. We are encouraged to raise resilient children because they can adjust or adapt to changes or hardships more easily. A subtle contradiction lives inside of resilience which blurs its meaning and weakens its usefulness as a unifying metaphor to guide the design of cities. To put it another way, resilience can imply stasis or resistance to change, or it can imply flexibility and openness to change.

This contradiction arises from a lack of clarity in the definition of resilience, and a lack of understanding of the conceptual baggage left over from its origins in the science of ecology2. We believe that unintended consequences arise from confusion about the meaning of resilience for our perceptions of climate change and the development of policy in response to it.

The rise of resilience as a metaphor for urban design can be traced back to its use as a metaphor for the description of the rhythms and cycles of natural ecosystems captured quite elegantly in the Adaptive Cycle3,4,5, a model originally developed by Buzz Holling at the University of Florida. The central idea of the Adaptive Cycle asserts that ecosystems alternate between periods of growth and stability and periods of collapse and reorganization characterized by rapid changes in response to some outside force or disturbance. Resilience in this context is a way of assessing how well an ecosystem resists change or how quickly it returns to its original state or trajectory after disturbance. Scientists studying the Adaptive Cycle in natural ecosystems borrowed resilience as a metaphor to describe how communities of organisms and the flows and cycles of energy and materials would change in response to natural and anthropogenic disturbances. Forests that recover quickly from fire are described as highly resilient. The same goes for fish populations in streams that remain stable in the face of flooding, drought, or overfishing.

Collapse and reorganization leave destruction in their wake, but also open up opportunities for change that can result in positive transformation and reinvention. Ecosystem management strategies are often designed to maintain, even encourage, the forces that lead to the destructive periods of the Adaptive Cycle because they play an important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

What about us? What does it mean for a human society to go through the collapse and reorganization phases of the Adaptive Cycle? History provides examples that may serve as cautionary tales, like the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union or any number of revolutions or riots, and the costs can be unacceptably high no matter how much we may anticipate something better rising from the ashes. The image of collapse when applied to human societies is alarming. Change, however, is good. Effective human institutions respond to change with creativity and flexibility. Human societies develop in a tension between the two poles of resilience; the need for stable institutions, and the need for reinvention or transformation. The current emphasis placed on Cities of Resilience highlights the need for clarity in the definition of the term, and the assumptions and biases that drive how it is applied. Not all of the initiatives designed to increase resilience will lead to a civil, just, and sustainable society2.

The emergence of ‘Cities of Resilience’ as a metaphor for urban design is a natural consequence of a paradigm of the city as an ecosystem that has taken hold amongst natural and social scientists who have led the way in the development of an Urban Ecology6. The ‘city as ecosystem’ paradigm has led to great progress in understanding how human decision-making interacts with the environmental context of a city to drive flows and cycles of energy and materials. Unfortunately, many in the policy and design communities still hold onto an old idea of an ecosystem as a bounded, internally integrated unit that exhibits stability or equilibrium that most ecosystem scientists have discarded. This can result in a strong focus on maintaining stable institutions and a use of the term resilience as a justification for maintaining the status quo, even as we face long-term fundamental changes in climate at global, regional, and local scales. Resilience in the ecological community no longer implies equilibrium. In its more current form, resilience is defined in terms of dynamics and adaptability and adjustment to changing conditions. Ecosystems are more like resilient children, than rigid, inflexible, but sturdy adults. The behavior of institutions is very likely to hinge on which version of the resilience metaphor lies at their foundation, and is likely to profoundly influence policy decisions.

Both versions of the ‘city as ecosystem’ metaphor lead to a perception that external disruptions are immutable. Resilience, in fact, implies that disturbances are a given and are not subject to our control. We must resist or adapt to them, but we must accept them as part of the world we live in. This is true in the context of physical disturbances or many natural disasters, but is misapplied when it comes to disturbances with economic or social forces lying at their foundation. These forces are mutable by the actions of individuals or communities. Does the use of resilience language make this harder by equating anthropogenic forces and physical forces in terms of their immutability?

This is particularly relevant to climate change, which is largely an economic, social, and political problem now. Focusing our efforts on developing local resilient communities leads to a sense of climate change as a process that is beyond our control and reinforces the notion that the status quo must be preserved even at the cost of local communities. The idea of a resilient community as a moral imperative (or as necessary for our survival) serves paradoxically to shift our attention from the need for large scale changes in the social context within which local communities develop, at the expense of local resilience. How can we build a society that catalyzes its own instability, and therefore avoids stagnation and rigidness, but still provides the type of stability that people need to maintain their well-being? Is this the fundamental question?

This brings into sharp relief the power of language to frame social and economic life1,2. Metaphors are essential for communicating complex and powerful ideas, but become dangerous when the technical content of words or the conceptual lineage of a term is not communicated. Resilience has a lot of conceptual baggage associated with it, and has been imbued with morality, i.e. has become a path to living in harmony with the world and therefore represents a moral imperative which is self-evident. Co-opting of this term to maintain status quo and prevent the type of progressive transformation we often need is counterproductive. Using it without clear definition of the conceptual and intellectual content that it holds can lead to problems.

There is an alternative. Another metaphor has emerged from the ecological sciences that we propose may be a more effective foundation for new ideas for how human societies can balance the desire for stability with the necessity for transformation as the world around us inevitably changes. We argue that cities are not single, bounded, tightly integrated entities as embodied in the ‘City as Ecosystem’ paradigm. A more accurate vision would consider a city to be a meta-community7, defined as a set of local communities that are linked by the movement of people, materials, energy, and information.

We assert that the ‘City as Meta-community’ is a more apt metaphor, and serves as a better ecological context than a resilient community embedded in a bounded ecosystem that is responding to immutable external agents of disruption. A meta-community allows small-scale, local changes to feedback on city-wide features, but also encourages local communities to be dynamic and innovative while preserving stability at the scale of the entire city. A meta-community with a set of shared values can open up possibilities for controlling the collapse and reorganization phases of the Adaptive Cycle. The City as Meta-community comprises many small-scale entities all moving through the phases of the Adaptive Cycle with some degree of independence. This creates a dynamic and creative mix of stable safety nets and agents of chaos challenging and transforming institutions and worldviews that become stagnant and myopic.

But can we really control the destructive forces driving collapse and reorganization, even at local scales highlighted by the City as Meta-community? What are these Agents of Chaos and how can we use them appropriately to create change without the consequences of a catastrophic collapse? This brings us, at last, to the role of the public artist.

Art can shake our perspective and create chaos by altering our view of the world, expanding our ability to imagine new pathways of change, or new systems that can work for us. In a sense, art is a means for experimentation with new ways of living in the world, or new types of institutional structures. Artists create folk knowledge that can serve as a framework for creating shared vision based in myths as explanatory frameworks. A rich cultural environment that breeds innovation and creativity promotes change and recognizes the tension between local identity and the larger context of valuing differences. A vision of the City as a Meta-community, combined with a rich and dynamic society of public artists, has great potential to balance stability and change, giving us the power to create the kind of transformation necessary to maintain a civil, just, and sustainable urban society.

1Pickett STA, Cadenasso ML, Grove JM. 2004. Resilient cities: meaning, models and metaphor for integrating the ecological, socio-economic, and planning realms. Landscape and Urban Planning. 69:369–384

2MacKinnon D, Derickson KD. 2012. From resilience to resourcefulness: A critique of resilience policy and activism. Progress in Human Geography 37(2): 253-270.

3Holling CS. 2001. Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems. Ecosystems 4: 390–405.

4Gunderson LH, Holling CS., eds. 2001. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press, Washington DC.

5Allen CR, Angeler DG, Garmestani AS, Gunderson LH, Holling CS. 2014. Panarchy: Theory and Application. Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit -- Staff P ublications. Paper 127.

6Grimm NB, Grove JM, Pickett STA and Redman CL. 2000. Integrated approaches to long-term studies of urban ecological systems. Bioscience 50: 571–584.

7Leibold, M.A., M. Holyoak, N. Moquet and others. 2004. The metacommunity concept: a framework for multi-scale community ecology. Ecology Letters 7: 601-613.