, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 649–664 | Cite as

New Directions for Understanding the Spatial Resilience of Social–Ecological Systems

  • Graeme S. CummingEmail author
  • Tiffany H. Morrison
  • Terence P. Hughes
20th Anniversary Paper


The concept of spatial resilience has brought a new focus on the influence of multi-scale processes on the dynamics of ecosystems. Initial ideas about spatial resilience focused on coral reefs and emphasized escalating anthropogenic disturbances across the broader seascape. This perspective resonated with a new awareness of global drivers of change, such as growth in international trade and shifts in climate, and the need to respond by scaling up governance and management. We review recent trends and emerging ideas in spatial resilience, using coral reefs and dependent communities as exemplars of multi-scale social–ecological systems. Despite recent advances, management and governance of ecosystems remain spatially fragmented and constrained to small scales. Temporally, many interventions still miss or ignore warning signals and struggle to cope with history, politics, long-term cumulative pressures, feedbacks, and sudden surprises. Significant recent progress has been made in understanding the relevance of spatial and temporal scale, heterogeneity, networks, the importance of place, and multi-scale governance. Emerging themes include better integration of ecology and conservation with social and economic science, and incorporating temporal dynamics in spatial analyses. A better understanding of the multi-scale spatial and temporal processes that drive the resilience of linked social-ecosystems will help address the widespread mismatch between the scales of ongoing ecological change and effective long-term governance of land- and seascapes.


scale network heterogeneity governance social–ecological system vulnerability sustainability 



We are grateful to Steve Carpenter and Monica Turner for their invitation to contribute this article and to Jerker Lokrantz for his assistance in preparing Figure 1, Rhonda Banks of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for providing Figure 3, and Cindy Huchery for her assistance in preparing the manuscript. Comments from three anonymous reviewers helped strengthen the manuscript. This research was funded by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Graeme S. Cumming
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Tiffany H. Morrison
    • 1
  • Terence P. Hughes
    • 1
  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.Percy FitzPatrick InstituteUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa

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