Six novel interdisciplinary resilience principles emerging from interdisciplinary exchange around post-COVID-19 centres and peripheries

Peer-reviewed paper by Meredith Root-Bernstein, François Chiron, Jianguo Liu, Lara Mani, Harini Nagendra, Catharine Ward Thompson
Published on 14 December 2021


Urban centres and peripheries shape the texture and quality of everyday life, our ability to coexist with and benefit from nature, the risks we face, and our resiliency (UN 2019). Here we report on lessons we draw as organizers of and presenters at an interdisciplinary, international, and (necessarily) virtual symposium, ‘Centres and Peripheries: Reconfiguring Post-COVID-19 Landscapes’, which took place on 5 February 2021, and was funded by the UK Embassy to France in the context of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP 26). The symposium examined the dynamics emerging between urban and rural, centre and periphery, at global, regional, and landscape scales. Within an international comparative context, the symposium identified solutions and approaches beyond a narrow focus on the ‘smart green city’ to bring new focus on the systems and social, ecological, and physical infrastructures of human habitation.

Our focus on configurations of landscapes of urban centres and peripheries was designed to draw in many different perspectives. By urban centres we mean dense, built habitats, metropolitan areas, and places defined as cities. That said, these cities may differ in many ways: Cape Town (SA) and Eindhoven (NL)are both cities, but differ in geographic extent, human population density, architectural styles, infrastructural characteristics, and size and distribution of green (parks, woods) and blue (waterways) spaces within the city. By peripheries we refer to areas beyond urban centres, outside city limits, in the gradients between urban and rural. The periphery of the city may be where we think of the natural world as ‘starting’.

A ‘centres and peripheries’ framing situates urban green and smart development within broader social and environmental contexts. Social scientists may think of these concepts in relation to Marxist theories of extraction and accumulation and the creation of marginality through political projects (e.g. Braudel 1973; Tsing 1994). Historians may think of the origins of urbanization, the historical dependencies of cities on countryside (e.g. Scott 2017), and how this relationship has evolved over time. Ecologists and wildlife biologists may think of core and buffer zones, source and sink habitats, corridors and fragments (e.g. Villemey et al. 2015). In the context of climate change, global pandemics, degradation, threats to biodiversity, socioeconomic inequalities, and other global challenges, we ask how centres and peripheries will be created, perpetuated, and contested going forward.

We often think of urban sites and infrastructures as opposite to nature, in their substance, organization, functioning, and purpose. Yet we can also think of urban spaces as a kind of habitat: one of the ‘anthromes’ or anthropogenic biomes (Ellis and Ramankutty 2008). While the anthrome concept as originally developed by Ellis and Ramankutty (2008) suggests that cities are unnatural biomes artificialized by high human density and land-use change, it is also possible to conceptualize urban habitats in terms of coevolutionary opportunity and biodiversity. Many species that tolerate and establish in cities also show considerable phenotypic plasticity, as well as genetic adaptations to living in urban contexts (Miranda 2017; Esperon-Rodriguez et al. 2020; Ilyas et al. 2021). Moreover, the NESCent working group et al. (2015) consider the indoor space in cities as a biome in itself – the indoor biome – and conceive of it as a novel habitat that has emerged, changed, and diversified across the evolutionary history of humans, leading to coadaptations by many other species, including microbes, fungi, plants, and animals.

Whether we conceptualize the urban habitat and its relationship to rural and natural areas as one of degradation threat or coevolutionary opportunity, as natural or unnatural, we recognize an increasing interest from many sectors of society – ecologists and conservationists, but also architects and urban planners, psychologists and social workers, artists and philosophers – in accommodating a greater diversity and abundance of other species in cities, through blue and green infrastructures, smart green cities, nature-based solutions, and similar concepts (e.g. Pickett, McGrath, and Cadenasso 2013; Ghofrani, Sposito, and Faggian 2017; Artmann et al. 2019; Frantzeskaki 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic has made many people question the costs and benefits of urban life and may represent a leverage point to rebuild smarter and greener.

However, the increasing interest in making space for biodiversity in cities, facilitating urban ecosystem processes, and generating new social relations with the urban habitat raises the question of what the city represents, and to whom. For some species, cities represent a concentration of resources, e.g. for urbanophilic species like crows and foxes (e.g. Palacio 2020). For some species, cities are a suitable home, a productive habitat, or a population source (e.g. Björklund, Ruiz, and Senar 2010; Muratet, Muratet, and Pellaton 2017). Cities may act as, and even be designed as, stepping stones or corridors, sites of passage rather than sites for living (e.g. Lynch 2019). Cities may be zones of innovation, in terms of not only development plasticity and adaptation, but also learning and innovation, for example where birds learn to open milk bottles or crack nuts by leaving them in the path of cars at traffic lights (Reader and Laland 2003). Cities can be sites of nature observation, management and control, for example in gardens and parks, or when citizens become monitors of urban biodiversity (Mason and Arathi 2019). For other species, cities are sites of exclusion, where they cannot find suitable habitat or resources they need to live (e.g. Minor and Urban 2010). Finally, cities can also be population sinks, danger zones, and polluted wastelands (e.g. Treshow 1980; Soulsbury and White 2015). From a socio-economic perspective, cities are also sites of human inclusion and exclusion, opportunity and accomodation, although the way that different socio-economic groups and different species all experience spaces in cities differs. If urban centres are a multitude of contrasting things to humans and other species, then rural and nature peripheries, which are themselves heterogeneous, cannot represent a single kind of contrast to cities. As different species and social groups move into and across these spaces, do they hold the city together, or divide it along new lines?

Resilience emerged as an underlying theme and goal linking many of the talks. Although we did not explicitly ask our invited presenters to address resilience, the tensions between centres and peripheries were expressed as concern about holding the structures of cities together through making the urban habitat more permeable, connected, dynamic, and adaptive. In the views that emerged from the symposium, cities will avoid collapse not by compartmentalizing and defining themselves more clearly in contrast to nature or the rural, but by blending into other biomes, maintaining and recognizing their depency on networks and socio-ecological systems across geographical spaces at multiple scales.

Here we present our analytical synthesis of talks and discussion from the symposium, in the form of underlying principles for working towards urban resilience, which provide guidance for policy, design, and management. The entire event has been recorded with French–English subtitles and is available to watch at talks referred to in the text below can be looked up at that address. Here we present a manifesto of six resiliency principles: (1) cities need to work with peripheries to be resilient; (2) look outside the system to spillover systems; (3) grassroots resilience is as important as infrastructural and systemic resilience; (4) be careful to be smart about ‘smart green cities’; (5) design for the unpredictable nature of nature; and (6) consider rewriting our narratives about spaces, cities, and landscapes. We expand on these below.

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