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Urban Transitions: On Urban Resilience and Human-Dominated Ecosystems


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.

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  1. First author acknowledges early discussions with Erik Andersson, SLU, Sweden, on the scales of urban resilience. See also his article, Andersson (2006).

  2. In discussing Cape Town with its previous institutionalized apartheid system, we recognize that racial categories are social constructs that serve certain interests of domination. However, through practices of domination, racial categories nonetheless become real as they constrain or facilitate individuals’ access to society’s resources.

  3. It needs to be acknowledged that average per capita numbers conceals high inequities. For instance, people classified during apartheid as whites consumed more water than the majority, e.g., through being owners of wineries and being better connected to water infrastructure.

  4. Arbesman et al. (2009) mention two other possible explanations to urban innovation: that cities simply have more highly educated people, and more transient people that bring new ideas. However, the social networks of cities—especially the great number of long-distance (weak) ties—constitute a fundamental difference between urban and non-urban systems.

  5. We note how this also partly resonates with ideas from the early 1900’s as articulated by for instance the american intellectual and regional planning theorist Luis Mumford (1895–1990) (Luccarelli 1996).


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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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Ernstson, H., van der Leeuw, S.E., Redman, C.L. et al. Urban Transitions: On Urban Resilience and Human-Dominated Ecosystems. AMBIO 39, 531–545 (2010).

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