Socio-Ecological Systems and Urban Environmental Transitions: Comparison between experiences of the Asia Pacific and the developed world

January 15, 2009 // 2:00pm3:30pm

On Thursday, January 15, the Comparative Urban Studies Project hosted an event to discuss "Socio-Ecological Systems and Urban Environmental Transitions: Comparisons between experiences of the Asia Pacific and the developed world." Peter J. Marcotullio, Distinguished Lecturer in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of New York and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the United Nations University's Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS), presented his research on urban socio-ecological systems and environmental transitions in the Asia Pacific Region. Robert McDonald, Vanguard Scientist at the The Nature Conservancy responded to the presentation.

In his presentation, Peter J. Marcotullio outlined the relationship between increasing wealth and environmental conditions in cities using Gordon McGranahan's environmental transition theory (UET) which suggests that as cities increase in wealth they undergo a series of environmental burdens that shift in type, temporal scale, and geographic scale. Marcotullio proposed two lenses with which to examine the development process: a comparison of historical experiences and of socio-ecological systems. The (UET) theory is a powerful tool for understanding the changes in environmental burdens associated with different levels of development; it is a major advance over the environmental Kuznet's curve because the UET addresses scale of impact and accommodates different relationships between economic development and environmental conditions. However, cautioned Marcotullio, the UET theory has two major limitations: 1) it does not distinguish among changes in the transition experience over time; and, 2) it shifts attention from one type of burden to another over time, space and wealth, assuming that all different types of burdens follow similar trends at similar scales.

Globalization has time-space effects: activities are speeding up; efficiency is increasing; and cities are becoming more complex and diverse over time. The experiences of the developed world and rapidly developing urban environments are very different. Marcotullio discussed the interaction between social systems and the biophysical system, describing the linkages between the two as socio-ecological systems (SES) or coupled human and natural systems (CHANS). Any change or activity in one part of the system is "dependent upon and interacts with elements and processes in the other."

Marcotullio next compared the experiences of the developed world and the developing Asia Pacific region. He argued that: 1) urban SESs in the Asia Pacific are unique because the speed of change is more rapid; 2) socio-ecological changes are being experienced sooner in the development process; 3) previously experienced sequential socio-ecological relationships associated with impact-responses are now experienced simultaneously; 4) local ecological impacts are greater than previously experienced; and, 5) global ecological impacts are less intensive per capita, but potentially larger in absolute size. Urban SESs are changing more rapidly than ever before due to unprecedented national economic and urban growth rates, as well as to increased energy supply growth rates. Changes in the development process are being experienced sooner because technologies are diffusing at lower levels of income while major development patterns (e.g. urbanization), ecological degradation (such as transportation Co2 emissions), and diets are also changing at lower levels of income. Development patterns that once were experienced sequentially in the developed world are now being experienced simultaneously in the developing world. Developing countries are dealing with issues of water quality, transportation emissions, and climate change all at once, while the developed world experienced these issues over time.
Marcotullio discussed the implications of the UET theoryfor local and global sustainability in the Asia Pacific region, reflecting on appropriate government policy responses. While the UET theory is a powerful tool, it needs to be modified to include socio-ecological linkages and differences in development experiences. The UET theory is a more effective tool for analyzing historical experiences than current trends in development. Local environmental health and ecological changes in rapidly developing cities demand more attention to achieve Asia Pacific sustainability. The cumulative impacts of local ecosystem changes may be as important, if not more so,, than global impacts. As for policy implications, Marcotullio believes that the changing dynamics within SESs require different responses. For example, Western policies advocating compact cities and concentrated decentralization need to be adjusted when applied to rapidly developing Asian economies. Marcotullio cited integrated policy solutions that have emerged from developing nations and cities, such as bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, congestion pricing and urban agriculture. More research is needed to understand the complex interactions that affect urban SESs, Marcotullio concluded.

Robert McDonald challenged the efficacy of focusing on GDP and economic development in the analysis of urban environmental transitions. He also questioned the usefulness of comparing the transitions of developed and developing urban environments, pointing to the divergent experiences of the US and developing countries in the use of ozone depleting chemicals as an example. There are lessons to be learned from experiences of the West, however we must be aware of the differences in the urban environmental transitions in the developed and developing worlds.

McDonald discussed the scientific implications of the research presented, noting the lack of global quantitative data documenting biospheric instability and vulnerability. Cities occupy 2-4% of the earth's land surface, yet they affect about 8% of species. McDonald argued that the indirect effects of urbanization, namely the drive for consumption, affect almost every facet of the environment. The reigning question posed by ecologists today is whether urbanization is good or bad. While urbanization entails rural to urban migration (which results in a relief of pressure on rural environments), it creates unique challenges in the urban sphere. Policies must be based on the reality of accelerated urban environmental transitions in order to promote sustainable development, summed McDonald.

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