From feedbacks to coproduction: toward an integrated conceptual framework for urban ecosystems

Abstract

Research in urban ecology depends on frameworks that meaningfully integrate our understanding of biophysical and social change. Although the coupled nature of urban ecosystems is widely accepted, the core mechanisms we use to integrate the social and biophysical aspects of urban ecosystems – their social-ecological feedbacks – are poorly understood. This paper considers how feedbacks are used to conceptualize social-ecological change, noting their utility and their limitations. In so doing, we suggest that coproduction provides a meaningful alternative to feedbacks, one that captures not only the structure-function relationships usually assumed in studies of biophysical landscape change, but also the structure-agency relationships that facilitate our most comprehensive understanding of social change. By addressing both the stepwise forms of transformation that a feedback approach captures and the simultaneous forms of transformation captured by a coproduction approach, a more comprehensive assessment of the ways that social and ecological change take place is afforded. We contend that thinking in terms of coproduction is essential for moving beyond the interdisciplinary approach that usually guides urban ecology models, toward a more integrated, trans-disciplinary approach.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A distinction between the term urban and city is drawn by many scholars, and in this paper, to signal Lefebvre’s (1970) assertion, that, by tracing the capitalist flows that bind the spatial configurations we tend to refer to as “city” and “countryside,” we are poised to recognize a completely urban world. That is to say, the consequential flows between cities and their surrounding territories – be they of materials, information, people, power relations, and so on – establish forms of interconnection that are most meaningfully regarded as constituting the urban form. Thus, urban systems include cities but are never confined to them, or defined by their boundaries. In the social sciences, geographers have been particularly prolific in generating such urban mappings (e.g., Harvey 1973) and have recently advanced highly influential propositions such as Brenner’s (2014) suggestion of planetary urbanism. This idea takes issue with definitions of the urban and urbanization that use the city and its demographic contours as a primary basis for analysis. Instead, planetary urbanism emphasizes the almost infinite connectivity between concentrated city zones and their hinterlands. See also the formulation of “ecologies of urbanism” in Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan 2017 and Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan 2013.

  2. 2.

    By “Model template,” we mean to refer to a representation of the components, flows, or interactions that can exist within a system. A model template is used to develop models of specific systems, places, or circumstances. A single template, then, can beget many potential models.

  3. 3.

    In Rademacher 2015, the author notes that, “whether described as “agency for nature,” as “multispecies ethnography” (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010; Ogden et al. 2013), or through a host of other terms, sensitivity to the sometimes profound role of nonhuman nature in structuring (Abrams 1982)---albeit with tremendous dynamism and unpredictability---the human individual and collective capacity for agentive action has compelled new analyses of power relations, new historiographies, and a particularly complex idea of the human agent. Multispecies ethnographies, together with the field of science and technology studies and its use of actor-network theory (Callon 1986; Latour 1988, 1993a, 1993b; Latour and Woolgar 1986), flourish among a host of scholarly movements and “posthumanities” (Wolfe 2009). But the work of assembling robust ethnographic and clearly historicized portraits of urban socionatural transformation, and of reaching beyond the laboratory and other conventional domains in which we analytically locate urban scientific knowledge production and ideas of urban nature, is notably scarce in these otherwise vibrant fields” (Rademacher 2015:143).

  4. 4.

    Redman et al. 2004, whose figure that appears in this paper (Fig. 6), calls in part for a co-production approach. Although they do not use the term itself, they call for “integration” in social-ecological systems that resonates with our use of coproduction in this paper.

  5. 5.

    In the biophysical sciences, we note the generative work of researchers associated with the two urban sites among the US National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecosystem Research (LTER) initiatives. These urban ecology research centers have long forged new ground in scientific theory and research on urban ecosystems and have made significant contributions to the research tools available to scientists, social researchers, and design practitioners. An exemplary recent volume that captures the interdisciplinary accomplishments of this work, and its innovative models of urban ecosystems, is Pickett, Cadenasso, and McGrath’s (2013) Resilience in Ecology and Urban Design: Linking Theory and Practice for Sustainable Cities, but the wealth of particular and integrative studies produced in the Phoenix and Baltimore LTER’s, as well as other ecosystem-science grounded urban ecology research consortia in North America and beyond, is vast indeed. For our purposes, it is critical to notice longstanding efforts among ecosystem scientists to capture social dynamics in their conceptual and research models, and to join studies of urban biophysical processes and change with sophisticated studies of social context and processes.

  6. 6.

    It is important here to emphasize that systems may operate at multiple levels. At whatever level, systems are integrated and interactive entities. Material systems are parts of nested hierarchies. A model template will identify specific mechanisms and causes (the interactions, actions, influences, and constraints that result in a state change or a change of systems).

  7. 7.

    Since 1980, the United States National Science Foundation has supported long term ecosystem research at several sites in North America (http://www.lternet.edu/). Two of these are expressly urban sites: the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (http://www.lternet.edu/sites/bes) and Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecosystem Study (http://caplter.asu.edu/). Both urban LTER sites maintain extensive online libraries of data and analyses.

  8. 8.

    Important to note that an “agent” in this rendering can be abiotic, or even a policy: anything that effects a change.

  9. 9.

    This example, elaborated in Huang, Zhou, and Cadenasso (2011), is based on data from Baltimore, a city where certain census block groups are hotter due, in part, to less extensive tree cover. This condition results in more sun-exposed surfaces, and these surfaces absorb heat during the day and reradiate it at night. We note that these are also census block groups that may be considered particularly socially vulnerable in other important ways, including relative income, high rates of poverty, lower levels of education, higher numbers of elderly residents, and higher residential percentages of ethnic minorities.

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Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful to the NYUrban Greening Lab for support of the Urban Ecology Collaborative Workshop, NYU Berlin, July 2014. MLC and STAP acknowledge funding support from the NSF Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program under Grant No. DEB-1637661.

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Rademacher, A., Cadenasso, M.L. & Pickett, S.T.A. From feedbacks to coproduction: toward an integrated conceptual framework for urban ecosystems. Urban Ecosyst 22, 65–76 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-018-0751-0

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Keywords

  • Coproduction
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Framework
  • Transdisciplinary
  • Urban ecology
  • Feedback