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Integrating Human and Natural Systems to Understand Climate Change Impacts on Cities

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Session Description: 

Most of the U. S. population lives in urbanized areas, and most of the projected growth in the world's population will be concentrated in cities. Since responses to global climate change issues will come from people, it is critical to understand what climate change is likely to mean for the places in which they live. The fact is, however, that cities are engineered regions, not natural ones, and assessing impacts of climate change requires a kind of integration of human and natural systems understandings that has not yet been accomplished. This urgently important research frontier would get a major injection of ideas and energy from a multidisciplinary AGCI session that illuminates the issues and lays out a research strategy.

In the past several years, the need for such understandings has been highlighted by the first U.S. National Assessment of Possible Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, in which requests from regional teams for information and insights about urban vulnerability and impact issues have not been met by support equivalent to that available for, say, the water or forestry sector. For the longer term, one of the clear priorities for the U.S. climate change impact assessment enterprise is to improve impact assessment capabilities for urban areas.

One recent response by the research community to this kind of need has been to try to extend the concept of Long Term Ecological Research stations (LTERs) to urban areas. For example, NSF is supporting two urban LTER projects, although they are principally concerned with changes in urban natural ecologies; and five of the LTER sites have taken steps to encourage social science research integrated with studies of ecosystem change. In addition, discussions are under way about the possible desirability of establishing human-ecological equivalents of LTERs. This level of current interest in advancing integrated human-natural system research is a further reason why the proposed AGCI session would be timely.

A particular challenge for human/natural system integration in urban areas is that these focal points of human activities are so dependent on linkages with other areas. By their very nature, urban areas are linked with regions beyond their borders by the need to import food, water, and materials and to export solid and liquid wastes, products, information, and other expressions of commerce, industry, and trade. The connecting fabric takes the form of transportation and communication systems. The challenge, therefore, is not only to reach an integrative understanding of human and natural systems within an urban area but also to integrate linkages between those systems and cognate systems elsewhere.

The objectives of the proposed AGCI session are to: (1) identify potentials and strategies to link concepts, models, and databases related to human and natural systems in urban areas; (2) identify and prioritize linkages between (a) such integrative understandings and (b) improving the state of the art for assessing impacts of climate variability and change on urban areas; (3) recommend actions to realize these potentials; and (4) publicize the results of the session in both the scholarly and policymaking communities.

The session will be organized around papers by leading experts on human and natural systems modeling, urban and urban-environmental studies, and integrative system modeling; small group discussions combining human and natural systems experts to explore integration issues and potentials, interacting with other professionals involved in climate change impact assessment; plenary discussions of those efforts; breakout sessions to outline research agendas; and a plenary wrap-up.

This proposal assumes a time frame of eight days of formal sessions plus two weekend days. Sub-topics are expected to include the following, with the time period organized so that professionals mainly interested in human/environmental system integration but not climate change impacts can focus on the first week, while professionals mainly interested in climate change impacts but not integrative system modeling can focus on the second week:

• The knowledge base about urban human and environmental systems: setting the stage by summarizing the present state of knowledge of different pieces of the puzzle and beginning to address challenges of integration (4 days)

I. An overview of understandings of human, natural, and engineered environmental systems in urban areas by experts in each

II. Scientific and policy challenges in linking understandings of human and natural systems in urban areas, based largely on small-group breakout sessions combining experts from different fields, along with plenary session discussion

• Implications of climate variability and change for urban areas: relating possible system stresses due to extreme climate events and more gradual changes, including threats to external linkages, to the need for improved understandings of integrated systems (2 days)

III. Implications for human systems in urban areas, such as health, jobs, and public services

IV. Implications for the urban natural environment, such as heat island effects and storm impacts

V. Implications for urban environmental and health systems, such as environmental quality, water systems, and green spaces

VI. Toward an integrated perspective

• Where we go from here: moving toward concrete results of the session in terms of agendas for research support and other conclusions and recommendations (2 days)

VII. Identifying the major gaps in the knowledge base

VIII. Conclusions, recommendations, and further steps

Urban studies, urban environmental studies, urban geography, urban planning, civil engineering, human system modeling, natural system modeling, integrative systems studies, GIS/GIA, public administration/policy (including practitioners)

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Ecosystems
  • Human Contributions & Responses
  • Land-Use/Land-Cover Change
  • Water Cycle