, Volume 39, Issue 8, pp 531–545 | Cite as

Urban Transitions: On Urban Resilience and Human-Dominated Ecosystems

  • Henrik ErnstsonEmail author
  • Sander E. van der Leeuw
  • Charles L. Redman
  • Douglas J. Meffert
  • George Davis
  • Christine Alfsen
  • Thomas Elmqvist


Urbanization is a global multidimensional process paired with increasing uncertainty due to climate change, migration of people, and changes in the capacity to sustain ecosystem services. This article lays a foundation for discussing transitions in urban governance, which enable cities to navigate change, build capacity to withstand shocks, and use experimentation and innovation in face of uncertainty. Using the three concrete case cities—New Orleans, Cape Town, and Phoenix—the article analyzes thresholds and cross-scale interactions, and expands the scale at which urban resilience has been discussed by integrating the idea from geography that cities form part of “system of cities” (i.e., they cannot be seen as single entities). Based on this, the article argues that urban governance need to harness social networks of urban innovation to sustain ecosystem services, while nurturing discourses that situate the city as part of regional ecosystems. The article broadens the discussion on urban resilience while challenging resilience theory when addressing human-dominated ecosystems. Practical examples of harnessing urban innovation are presented, paired with an agenda for research and policy.


Urban resilience Ecosystem services Social–ecological processes Cross-scale interactions Urban innovation New Orleans Cape Town Phoenix 



This article has been developed from the collaboration at the Stockholm Resilience Centre ( and its research theme Urban Social-Ecological Systems and Globalization, which gathers 12 urban research groups across the globe. A special session organized by T. Elmqvist and H. Ernstson at the conference “Resilience 2008” in Stockholm, 14–17 April, 2008, triggered the co-authors to write this article. Especially Erik Andersson, Sverker Sörlin, Sara Borgström, and Cathy Wilkinson should be acknowledged for their valuable discussions on this topic. We also acknowledge Keith Tidball for his useful comments on an earlier draft. The first author acknowledges funding through Formas (Urban-NET) and Vetenskapsrådet (Swedish Links) to finalize the article. An earlier version was presented at The 2010 AESOP Complexity and Planning Workshop “Resilient Cities” in Stockholm, 26–27 February, 2010.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Henrik Ernstson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sander E. van der Leeuw
    • 2
  • Charles L. Redman
    • 3
  • Douglas J. Meffert
    • 4
  • George Davis
    • 5
  • Christine Alfsen
    • 6
  • Thomas Elmqvist
    • 7
  1. 1.Department of Systems Ecology and Stockholm Resilience CentreStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  2. 2.School of Human Evolution and Social ChangeArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  3. 3.School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  4. 4.Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental ResearchTulane UniversityLouisianaUSA
  5. 5.Urban Conservation Programme,South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)ClaremontSouth Africa
  6. 6.Columbia University/UNESCO Joint Program on Biosphere and Society (CUBES) and Urban Biosphere Network (URBIS)UNESCONew YorkUSA
  7. 7.Department of Systems Ecology and Stockholm Resilience CentreStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden

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