Can metro regions learn anything from the resiliency of ecosystems in adapting to change?

USA stock photo, AZ wildfires

With the recent Arizona fires in the news, it reminded me of a paper that BRR member Todd Swanstron wrote in 2008 laying out the concept of “resiliency” in metro regions. While forest fires and metropolitan adaptability might seem wholly unrelated, they’re actually more closely connected than you might expect.

A forest is a complex and intricately balanced ecosystem. It thrives best when it has a diversity of plants and animals, whose pas de deux is both symbiotic and essential to the system’s survival. When one species starts to dominate–and thus throws off the preferred state of equilibrium–the ecosystem responds. As the dominant species begins to expand, its food source is gradually depleted, blocking further expansion, and the ecosystems returns to equilibrium.

Similarly, if outside forces alter the system, it responds and adapts and creates a new equilibrium. It doesn’t just return to the status quo. It instead reinvents itself with a new symbiosis that is more likely to support healthy functioning. The key to its resiliency is its biodiversity.

Ecosystems also go through phases of “creative destruction.” Long periods of stasis are punctuated by short bursts of change and innovation. As Swanstrom puts it in his paper, “Regional Resilience: A Critical Examination of the Ecological Framework“:

The conservation phase, which corresponds to a mature forest or economy, is the time when the system reaches its highest potential and connectedness. In the face of a challenge or stress, the system enters a phase of release in which connections break down and hierarchical control wanes.  The loosening of central controls sets the stage for experiments to flourish. Successful experiments then become the basis of a reorganization of the system.

Eventually, that new system enters another long conservation period, and the process repeats. In the case of the Arizona fires, a spark ignites the kindling accumulating on the forest floor in a mature forest. The maturity itself signals a growing dominance of one species of trees (the conservation phase), which in turn prevents competitors. The fire sweeps through the forest, opening up a space for greater diversity of new trees.

Ecosystems maintain their resilience by going through these cycles. If they get stuck at the conservation stage, often from human intervention such as fire suppression (or in the case of metros, political or business self-interest), they become vulnerable.

Likewise with metro areas. When metro areas are hit by a natural disaster, like the floods in Minot, North Dakota, reported over the weekend, or a man-made disaster, such as the attacks of 9/11, how quickly the area can respond and rebuild (its resiliency) depends on, among other things, its own form of biodiversity. An economy, for example, that limits itself to one dominant industry is susceptible to being seriously hobbled if that industry takes a beating. Or if the system gets stuck in the conservation phase because of hidebound social networks, it will miss the opportunity to innovate, as Network member Kate Foster found in Youngstown and Allentown, PA.

Allentown more readily adapted to the demise of manufacturing because the structure of civic networks encouraged cooperation across social, political, and economic divisions. In Youngstown, in contrast, the social networks were ingrown and tied to “sunset” industries.

The key to the resiliency in this case–cooperation across social, political, and economic divisions–is also a defining factor of metro areas, as well as a main reason that the ecological model doesn’t fit perfectly in the case of metro resiliency.

Metro areas have two important differences, argues Swanstrom, that distinguish them from ecosystems: people and politics. The laws that govern human affairs are not natural laws. They are manmade. A forest cannot prevent fires. Humans can. Resilience in metro areas is thus also shaped by laws, policies, and very human institutions. It is a dance with many more partners.

The key for resilient regions, Swanstrom argues, is to recognize the interlinked relationships in the metro ecosystem and the fact that some of the interactions can be engineered from above, by government, and from below by the civic sector of nonprofits and foundations, and by the market.  It takes everyone to tango, in other words.

As Swanstrom says,

Each of the three sectors is needed to maximize resilience. The private sector maximizes the resilience of individuals, the civic sector of communities, and the public sector of the society as a whole. Without a balance between the three sectors, controlled ultimately by a central authority, society will either become rigid or innovation at one level will undermine resilience at other levels. In short, resilience does not require merging human systems with nature in one integrated system, but requires maintaining spheres of resilience with carefully guarded borders.

People tend to point to government as the unwieldy impediment to innovation and the market as the source of nimble change and the necessary creative destruction.  But Swanstrom sees it differently. Metro regions need both, along with a vibrant civic sector, if they are to respond to a forest fire effectively.

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