Social-Ecological System Change, Vulnerability, and the Future of a Tropical City

Ongoing/Completed/Pending: 

Completed

Abstract: 

Large cities have a disproportionate influence on environmental conditions from local to global scales because to support large human populations and high living standards, they must import enormous quantities of energy, food, and materials. Cities are also the foci of human interactions and innovations concerning cultural diversity, economic inequality, institution building, and policy formation. Recent projections indicate that human populations will become more urban in distribution, with people becoming more concentrated in cities. Understanding the conditions that affect urban sustainability is important for city planning and operations and also important to the sustainability of other landscapes, such as hinterlands and rural areas, on which the city depends. Urbanites need to be in a position to identify and mitigate any emerging vulnerabilities that might threaten the persistence of their cities. An ideal place to study these conditions is the San Juan metropolitan area in northeastern Puerto Rico. As the capital of Puerto Rico and home of 68 percent of the island's population, San Juan has one of the largest economies in the Caribbean and is often seen as a model for the development of other Caribbean or Latin American economies. Pervasive urban development and susceptibility to potential perturbations of the global oil market and climate change, however, are exacerbating ongoing social and environmental risks associated with urban development, including the reduction of forest cover, biodiversity changes, diminishing stream quality, increasing risks to floods, exposure to pollution, decreased access to local natural resources, and droughts. San Juan stakeholders are taking measures to prevent further degradation through social organizing and stewardship activities, such as restoring streams, building city gardens, contesting illegal construction projects, and forming underground economies, in a bottom-up response to the socioeconomic conditions that generate risks. Despite these trends, the influence of these interactions and responses in reducing vulnerabilities and moving San Juan to sustainability is uncertain. This research project will analyze the interactions among the biophysical, economic, and social sources of vulnerability for San Juan and evaluate to what degree they influence the city's potential for sustainability. The investigators will develop an intellectual framework based on urban social-ecological systems theory; develop an integrated system of sampling, data collection, and experimentation; synthesize and model changes in the San Juan social ecological system based on probable future biophysical realities as well as the desires/actions of stakeholders and policy goals; implement a stakeholder participation support structure that builds the capacity and tools for engagement in research and decision-making; and educate and empower students and citizens through their effective participation in both research and city governance. The methods to be used in this study include field observations, interviews and survey with stakeholders and public in general, statistical tools, geographical information systems, environmental monitoring, systems modeling and simulation, and participatory research methods. This research project will have significant implications for urban sustainability theory in general and urban social-ecological systems theory and methodology specifically. The theoretical framework will combine social science vulnerability theory; physical laws like conservation of mass and thermodynamics and their relation to development and economic activity; and the ecological focus that explains the biodiversity of the city and the functioning of ecosystems to its inhabitants. In addition to the rigorous synthesis and modeling of cities' long-term sustainability, this project will enhance interdisciplinary methods through transformative collaboration between social and biophysical scientists, and development of a vocabulary among the disciplines to achieve an effective synthesis. The proposed activities of this project will affect the way San Juan inhabitants relate and plan the future of their urban environment, and they will provide new information to help manage tropical cities more effectively. The project also will develop new approaches for the integration of social and biophysical studies of urban areas in general. The project will educate and train the next generation of scientists, especially women and minorities, using the integration of social and ecological sciences in an urban setting representative of cities that will face substantial socio-ecological challenges during this century. This award was funded as an Urban Long-Term Research Area Exploratory (ULTRA-Ex) award as the result of a special competition jointly supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Project Type: 

Media Year: 

March, 2016

Host: 

DES

Program: 

Funding Information_Detailed: 

Funding Type: 

Funding Agency: 

National Science Foundation Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA) Exploratory

Quantity Awarded: 

300 000.00

Period Awarded: 

2010 to 2014

Year: 

Year: 

2010 to 2011

Year: 

2011 to 2012

Year: 

2012 to 2013

Year: 

2013 to 2014

People-Roles: 

Investigator: 

Ariel Lugo

Investigator Project Role - DES: 

Principal Investigator

Investigator: 

Tisha Munoz Erickson

Investigator Project Role - DES: 

Co-Principal Investigator

Investigator: 

Luis E Santiago Acevedo

Investigator Project Role - DES: 

Co-Principal Investigator

Investigator: 

Elvia Meléndez Ackerman

Investigator Project Role - DES: 

Co-Principal Investigator

Investigator: 

Jose Seguinot Barbosa

Investigator Project Role - DES: 

Co-Principal Investigator