The 2ndSymposium of Socio-economic Urbanism was held on June 18th at Skaniasalen, Chalmers University of Technology. The sessions were well attended by more than 80 academics and researchers, but also practitioners from the private and public sector, urban designers, landscape designers, biologists, ecologists and others.
Meta Berghauser Pont, associate professor in Urban design and planning (Chalmers) and the organiser of the symposium, introduced the special theme of the day; that is, the balancing act between dense and green urban development, one of the greatest challenges of contemporary urbanism.
The international speakers coming both from urban design and planning and from ecology and environmental medicine, solidified Socio-ecologic urbanism as a present scientific field and as a new paradigm for the future development of our cities globally; one that challenges the mainstream approaches of Smart growth and Compact cities and brings forward a new alternative.
At the same time, they all elaborated on the idea that if we are to tackle the acute urbanization challenges in a sustainable manner, we need to advance our interdisciplinary knowledge; to be more precise in our descriptions of contemporary urban phenomena, to search for quantitative and measurable evidence for the environmental impact of the different urban development strategies, and to aspire for creative design solutions integrating blue and green infrastructure to urban design.
Meta Berghauser Pont(Chalmers), in her opening speech, as well as the ecologist Åsa Gren(The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics) exposed the lack of scientific foundations and precision for concepts and ideas that are occupying the mainstream debate. The first addressed the lack of rigorous definitions and precise descriptions of urban density, which hinder the formulation of sophisticated urban densification strategies. The second presented the inadequate, partial or even contradictory scientific results concerning the environmental benefits of “Smart Growth”. Both speakers based their findings on concrete evidence from systematic scientific literature reviews.
Following up, Mare Löhmus (Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet), from the field of Environmental medicine, also systematically searched the scientific literature for tangible evidence to claim that exposure to urban greenery is beneficial for human health; at the same time highlighting the lack of universally accepted and precise definitions of urban greenness, as well as the lack of rigorous and comparable methods for assessing environmental impacts.
Karl Samuelsson, doctoral student in Geospatial information science (Gävle University) gave an interesting twist to the discussion by introducing the important experiential dimension of urban space. Through an online survey he gathered geotagged positive and negative experiences of people in the city of Stockholm. He developed experiential typologies of urban space, such as urban desert, secluded urbanity, family friendly, restorative and hyper-connected negative, andmapped them highlighting some clear spatial conditions related to these types.
Following up on the theme of producing more precise, yet more sophisticated descriptions of urban space, Meta Berghauser Pont in her second presentation as well as Lars Marcus, professor in Urban Design and planning (Chalmers), both argued for the great potential, for research and practice, of integrating descriptions of urban morphology and landscape ecology towards a spatial-social-ecological description of the city; introducing a new field of “socio-ecological morphology”.
Giovanni Fusco, CNRS senior research fellow (Université Côte D’Azur), agreed with the need to develop integrated descriptions and analytical models of urban form and green spaces. He went a step further to introduce the concept of morphological resilience that, if coupled with ecological resilience, can support a sustainable future for our cities. He argued for typologies of urban fabrics that are adaptive and can withstand the evolution of the economic, social, cultural and environmental context in which they stand without becoming obsolete; evidence of which we find throughout the history of urban morphology.
The afternoon session concluded with Arjan van Timmeren, Professor of Environmental Technology and Design (TU Delft) and director of the AMS Institute, who presented a series of realised projects, which apply the concept of Socio-ecologic urbanism in innovative designs. He argued for the need to produce complex solutions that merge the ecologic and the cultural and go beyond the urban/rural distinction to provide hybrid spaces and frame socio-ecological reciprocities. He also highlighted the fact that in order for this socio-ecologic merging to be successful in practice, there needs to be an active community engagement and awareness of the urban and environmental challenges at stake, not only globally, but also closer to home.
The highlight of the symposium was the keynote speech of Marina Alberti, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and Director of the Urban Ecology Research Laboratory, a research team that studies cities as hybrid ecosystems. Marina Alberti started her talk by providing proof that cities and nature can no longer be treated as separate habitats of this planet. Cities are affecting the evolution of nature in a profound way; urbanisation and urban mechanisms have been proven to cause microevolutionary genetic changes to other species. Animals and plants are genetically adapting to survive in their changing habitats; lizards are growing longer legs and spiders are growing bigger to be able to move in the urban environment, fish have adopted to cope with poisonous water and so on. Air and water pollution, buildings and infrastructures that fragment species’ habitats, warmer temperatures, and artificial light, are some of the urban pressures posed upon species, causing changes in their habitable traits and, in turn, eco-evolutionary feedback. What is more, some studies have shown that patterns of urbanisation effect the resilience of certain ecosystem functions. Some ecosystem functions, for example, collapse faster in disperse urban patterns than in compact. However, these changes differ along the urban gradient, also depending on the function at hand, demonstrating the fact that there is not an optimum solution. A more sophisticated approach is needed to work with the complexity of urban and ecosystem functions.
In the light of these pressing evidence, Marina Alberti argued for a new planning paradigm that takes into account natural evolution and change, that addresses the evolutionary implications of urban development, considers the complexity of socio-ecological functions through time and can provide adaptive and resilient urban ecosystems. What are the evolutionary implications of growing trees on a building for plants and pollinators? This seemingly simple question requires the convergence of urban design and planning with urban ecology, evolutionary biology and ecosystem services. According to Marina Alberti, future planning should follow that route, if we are to plan resilient, adaptive urban systems which can promote evolutionary potentials. Heterogeneity and system flexibility; modularity, meaning system connectivity that allows for autonomous functionality; cross-scale interaction and functional redundancy; early warning that allows systems to fail safely and self-organisation; these are main principles of adaptive systems, which can be used to create resilient urban systems as adaptive eco-evolutionary networks.
The symposium concluded with the panel discussion, moderated by Stephan Barthel (Gävle University and Stockholm Resilience Centre), in which the question of how socio-ecologic urbanism can be applied in practice, but also how in general the ecological perspective can be better integrated in urban design was debated, highlighting the challenges and lock-ins, but also the potentials. Discussants, and members of the audience, called for action, arguing that ecosystem services should be included in urban planning policies, including building acts and master planning as a necessary and integral part of urban development; something which is not currently the case. And although it was commonly accepted that at this point there is no urban development strategy that has enough scientific support to be put forward as the optimum, scientific evidence can at least show us which are the strategies to avoid and help us make educated choices about the optimal ways forward.