Social scientists and urbanists have long addressed the social construction of space or place (Lefebvre 1991), but this concept is less familiar in ecology. Invoking the phrase, “coproduction” of the city builds on the insight that social space isn’t just an empty stage having an independent existence (Gottdiener 1985). Instead, urban places are intentionally constructed, landscaped, used, or set aside. That is to say, all space – including natural or “green” space – comes to exist, and is reproduced, in part because of social interactions and human attributions of social meaning (Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan 2017). Competing attributions of social meaning can, and often do, emerge from negotiation, conflict, or authority as seen in the opposition to city tree planting by local Baltimore residents. The recognition that urban places are produced both by biophysical and social processes is fundamental. However, most of the literature discussing social creation of space neglects the biophysical aspects of urban places.
The literature in social sciences and humanities theorizes cities as natural-social hybrids (e.g. Braun 2005; Demeritt 1994; Haraway 1991, 1997; Latour 1993, 1999; Swyngedouw 1996, 2006; Zimmerer 2000). However, the operational practice of understanding the actual social-natural change patterns remains to be worked out. Furthermore, this desired operationalization can benefit from fuller incorporation of the growing biophysical understanding of cities to complement the already well developed social theory of nature-culture integration.
Urban design and planning have a parallel tradition of noting the social construction of place (McHarg 1969; Spirn 1984, 2012; Palazzo and Steiner 2011; Steiner et al. 2016). McHarg’s classic Design With Nature (1969) emphasized that design and planning decisions must account for distributions of cultural, historical, and natural resources across a landscape. Spirn (1984) took this idea into established urban places, and combined it with concerns for social equity and power differentials. She did this in order to understand the environmental threats, hazards, and opportunities that are both the outcomes of past design decisions and the targets for desired improvements for all persons in an urban area. It is a short step from these practices to the insight that urban areas are hybrid places, and that they are therefore coproduced by the things that McHarg and Spirn identify as key tools and approaches for urban design. The phrase, “blended or dissolved natural-social milieu,” is another design-oriented way to express the multifaceted emergence of urban systems (Barnett 2013:6), and Steiner et al. (2016) clearly link the idea of urban places as hybrids with sustainability goals and planning. Cronon (1991) environmental and economic history of Chicago is another compelling case of coproduction of a city. He used the term “second nature” to signal the hybrid nature of this urban place in its regional context.
Within urban ecology itself, the hybrid nature of cities has been clearly identified as a foundation for the science (Grimm et al. 2000). The last two decades of urban ecology research involving both social and biophysical scientists have emphasized that human settlements are hybrid systems (Cadenasso et al. 2006; Pickett et al. 2011; Zhou et al. 2017). Cities, suburbs, towns, and exurbs consist of altered land surfaces, buildings, extensive infrastructures, and modified substrates and landforms; all of these influence flows of water, materials, and air. But cities can also retain native soils and vegetation in places, or host remnant or newly established populations of plants, animals, and microbes. Processes like physiological acclimation, behavioral adjustment, and evolution of organisms continue or accelerate in urban places (Johnson and Munshi-South 2017). This increasingly widely recognized hybridity (Boone and Fragkias 2012; Grimm et al. 2016) means that urban settlements are necessarily coproduced by the intimate interactions of biophysical and social structures, processes, and actions (Rademacher et al. 2019). Coproduction of place refers to the ongoing process by which the substance of the urban place itself is created by biophysical and social features and their interactions.
One example of how coproduction of place can shape a researcher’s approach to urban environmental change is illustrated in Lachmund's (2013) study of the origin and significance of Berlin’s public green spaces. His work investigates how Berlin’s “natural” spaces were a distinctly hybrid or coproduction of science, politics, and nature. Science and politics were engaged in a bidirectional, and sometimes contentious relationship that in the decades since World War II, enabled researchers, conservationists, and politicians to set aside, and in some ways cultivate, those green sites.
A second example is how urban land classification can be improved by taking a hybrid approach. Rather than assuming that urban and nature are necessarily distinct and non-overlapping places, the pioneering HERCULES land cover classification, the first of many that were to follow, was built on the assumption that cities are hybrids. This classification is patch based and integrates the relative cover of buildings, surfaces, and vegetation in each patch (Cadenasso et al. 2007). Therefore, it explicitly recognizes that the urban system is coproduced (Marshall et al. 2020).
Disturbance in urban systems provides our final example of coproduction of place. Disturbance events that affect urban systems take many forms (Grimm et al. 2017). Coastal flooding, inundation of streets and low spots after torrential rains, and fire, tornado, hurricane, or landslides are some of the many kinds of events that can physically disrupt the urban fabric, interrupt urban system functions, and threaten human life and wellbeing. A mounting body of evidence, some from social science and some from ecology, has shown that “natural disturbance” or catastrophe in urban places is as much the result of human decisions, actions, and legacies as they are the result of the motive power of wind and water, or the consumptive power of fire (Grimm et al. 2017). It is becoming commonplace to say that disasters occur “by design” (Mileti 2008), meaning for example that mortality from heat waves emerges not only from excessive temperature and humidity over long periods, but also from lapses in civil processes such as warning, access to cooling centers, or socially differentiated disadvantage (Changnon et al. 1996; Duneier 2004; Kleinenberg 2015), as well as individual people’s medical vulnerabilities. Recent analyses of disturbance as a recurring and formative process in cities has shown that human-built structures and human actions combine with the force of events generated by weather and earth movements (Grimm et al. 2017). It is impossible to analyze disturbance in urban systems and not join human and biophysical drivers and agency. Disturbance as a process in urban systems is coproduced by the intersection of social-ecological-system components with some usually externally triggered event.
The fundamental idea that urban systems of all sorts are social-natural hybrids, coproduced by closely intertwined biophysical and social processes, is a clear insight from several decades of progress in integrated urban ecological research (Cadenasso and Pickett 2019). This insight must be linked with the understanding of urban ecological knowledge as a coproduct as well.