Ronald C. Baird,
Human populations are undergoing unprecedented changes in size and spatial distribution. In less than two decades, the world’s urban population is expected to exceed 5.1 billion people. At current trends, a majority of Americans will live in a coastal or Great Lakes county. Given the momentum of demographic trends, dramatic increases in coastal urbanization over the next 40 years are inevitable. The environmental consequences of urbanization taken collectively represent one of the most urgent challenges for humankind in this century. The magnitude and time lines involved are under- appreciated by professionals and the public at large. Our institutions of governance often exhibit inadequate response times to insure solutions to rapidly developing problems; they must develop new approaches to coastal management that consider both the inevitability of urbanization and the urgency of addressing the special environmental challenges high human density represents. Novel governance structures plus research protocols that advance our understanding of human dominated coastal ecosystems and urban environments are essential. Many urban challenges do not scale at slope one with population size. For instance, the number of miles Americans drive is now four times population growth and land development is at 2.5 times or more. Consumption and innovation scale at a power of 1.1-1.3 population size. Such complexity, when coupled with the momentum of urbanization, requires understanding, anticipation and advance planning. Getting ahead of the management curve of urban problems through greater efficiencies, predictive capabilities, knowledge creation and, above all, response times is the primary challenge.
Students of the human condition have long recognized the propensity of our species to aggregate in large numbers at fixed geographic localities, a trend that has led to the emergence of cities and the process we call urbanization. This sociological phenomenon has been a key evolutionary innovation for the human species in an ecological sense. Cities and their attendant institutions have been the primary engines of the knowledge creation that is largely responsible for human demographic success. Wealth creation, technology, governance, the arts, science, and many other attributes of modern civilization have their origin in the emergence of cities (Hall, 1998; Florida, 2004).
During the 20th century, the world’s urban population increased more than tenfold (McGranahan and Satterthwaite, 2003); rapid population increases are expected to continue well into this century. Moreover, human spatial distributions have been heavily biased toward coastal locales (Beach, 2002). While the rise of cities has helped the growing human species thrive, this inexorable global trend toward urbanization has reached a point where the negative impacts on the sustainability of the human species are evident (Beach, 2002; UNEP, 2006).
The National Research Council (NRC, 1999) has stated that providing cities with adequate water, sanitation and clean air may be one of the more daunting and under appreciated challenges of the first half of the 21st century. The environmental consequences of urbanization taken collectively also represent one of the most urgent challenges for humankind in this new century. The momentum of urbanization will result in unprecedented demands for ecosystem services. To make the successful transition to sustainability will, in the end, require the application of politically acceptable, cost-effective management interventions sufficient to maintain ecosystem services at appropriate levels. One of the underappreciated challenges to the environmental sustainability equation is management of interventions in the time domain. The purpose of this discussion is to explore aspects of the dynamics of management interventions by our institutions of governance in relation to coastal urbanization and its consequences for ecosystems and society.
Urbanization in Space and Time
The term urban used here refers simply to areas having the characteristics of cities, not to defined political boundaries. These include areas referred to as suburban and exurban. That such areas have been rapidly increasing has been widely recognized, as have the sociological and demographic trends arising from urban transformation (Ash et al, 2008). What have been less appreciated are the magnitude, geographic scale and especially the time lines involved. These values are unprecedented in human history and have enormous implications for the environment. A few examples are included to provide a sense of that enormity.
Cities are home to half the world’s 6.6 billion people. By 2030, nearly 5 billion people will live in cities (Ash et al, 2008). In just two generations — in about 42 years — the percent of the human population living in urban environments is expected to increase by 60 percent. That translates to about 80 percent of the predicted global human population (McGranahan and Satterthwaite, 2003; UNEP, 2006). If predictions bear out, the 3 billion plus people living in cities will increase by 4 million in considerably less time than the average U.S. lifespan.
Cities have exhibited similarly explosive growth in number and size. For instance, China has seen a sevenfold increase in its urban population and a fourfold increase in the number of cities in the last 50 years (Liu and Diamond, 2005). The emergence of so-called mega cities (8+ million) is yet another critical aspect of urbanization in time and space. Since 1973 there has been a fivefold increase in the number of cities with populations over 10 million (Marshall, 2005). Eighty percent of these mega cities are coastal (Marshall, 2005).
In the U.S., 14 of our 20 largest cities are on the coast, and the nation’s top coastal metro areas are on track to add 32 million people in the next 20 years (McGrath, 2000). Twenty-three of the 25 most densely populated counties in the U.S. are coastal (Crossett et al, 2004). Nine of the 10 largest population gains for the U.S. predicted by 2015 will occur in coastal counties. By 2015, the population of largely urbanized Southern California is expected to rise to 24 million, roughly the population of the whole state in 1981 (Beach, 2002). Fifty-four percent of the current U.S. population is found in coastal counties, a figure expected to remain constant for the next 20 years (Culliton, 1998). The percentage of the U.S. population living in urban areas has also stabilized, at about 80 percent (Grimm et al, 2008a). At the current estimated rate of population increase of about 3.3 million people per year, almost 1.8 million people will be added to U.S. coastal cities per year.
The unprecedented growth in urbanization is described here primarily in terms of human population. While rates of urbanization differ among areas, and particularly between developed and developing nations (UNEP 2006; Montgomery, 2008), two inescapable patterns emerge that have major environmental consequences. The first is that much of this future growth, especially in the U.S., will occur in coastal or Great Lakes watersheds. Secondly, the world’s urban coastal population will undergo substantial further growth over just a few decades. As the recent literature makes abundantly clear, increased population growth presents severe challenges for our coastal cities. The rate at which people are added to urbanized areas may be thought of as the demographic momentum of the urbanization process.
Scaling and Ecosystem Context
The challenge of urbanization from an ecosystem perspective is in the necessary transition to sustainability. In ecosystem terms that means indefinitely preserving ecosystem services at acceptable levels. The point of focus here is on the management challenges of reconciling coastal urbanization with ecosystem function. While our understanding of the environmental effects of coastal urbanization remains incomplete, the collective effects are highly complex, significant and occur at many geographic scales (Grimm et al, 2008a; McDonald, 2008). Most coastal cities are located on major estuaries or watersheds that have been subject to prolonged disturbance by humans (Heinz, 2004).
There is extensive literature on the environmental impacts of coastal urbanization (Beach, 2002; USGS, 2002; MEA, 2007), an enumeration of which is beyond the scope of this paper. Recent work on quantitative models of social organization and dynamics in cities has advanced our understanding of growth trajectories in cities and relationships to population size (Batty, 2003; Bettencourt et al, 2007). Many diverse properties of cities are shown to be power laws of population with scaling exponents that fall into distinct universality classes (Bettencourt et al, 2007). It is the value of the scaling exponents that reflects the transition of various properties under study. For instance, infrastructure elements (e.g. roads, utilities) scale at exponent 0.8 of population size, while social indicators such as wealth creation and innovation scale at exponents greater than one (1.1-1.3).
Growth driven by the demands of efficiency such as infrastructure that scale at exponents less than one means that as population increases the less the per capita availability of such services. Innovation on the other hand through wealth creation and social dynamics appears to grow ever more quickly with population increase. Cities driven by high population momentum in order to avoid stagnation or collapse as populations consume the finite resources available, must innovate at such a rate so as to continually re-engineer the per capita consumption dynamics.
When we look at actual data, a number of alarming patterns emerge. The per capita consumption of resources that exceed population growth in urban areas is many and varied. Most impact coastal ecosystems, albeit in not well-understood ways. By way of example annual vehicle miles, coastal land development, impervious surfaces and urban runoff, all scale at increasing multiples of population size (Beach, 2002; Schuler, 2003). Urbanization in addition to developed land creates demands for such things as energy and food resources that impact non-contiguous regions. For instance, the use of fertilizers has grown exponentially with urbanization (NRC, 2000), as has urban generated weather effects (Hosansky and Gordan, 2000) and atmospheric deposition (Hicks et al, 2000).
The spatial dimensions of cities also seem to follow well-defined scaling laws and recent studies provide new insights on spatial dimensions and sustainability issues (Batty, 2008). The emergence of megapolitan areas in the U.S. for instance, represents corridors for further growth. These are areas that include both large cities and smaller yet contiguous urbanized areas. As such, they define regional systems of urbanization, which entail regional ecosystem responses and present unique management challenges. Of the 19 U.S. such areas now identified, 14 are either on the coast or Great Lakes or in coastal watersheds. The marine megapolitan regions have expected growth rates in the 20-60 percent range for the interval 2000-2030 (Grimm et al, 2008b). Such studies can provide an operational framework for predicting large-scale urbanization patterns.
To put cities in an ecosystem context, the functionality of ecosystems and their ability to provide services critical to human well being are finite. Ecosystems have limited dimensions and production functions. Human management interventions to maintain or enhance those functions are fueled by both innovation in the form of technology, investment, knowledge creation and social dynamics (e.g. institutions of governance, policy, political will) and by infrastructural dimensions that both create and reduce stress on ecosystem functionality.
Urbanized environments should be considered major functioning elements of coastal ecosystems and require specialized understanding as a system in their own right. The conceptual basis for studying urban systems as ecosystems is relatively new as is increasing appreciation of the interplay of natural systems with human systems (McMichael et al, 2003).
Institutional Performance and Management Lag
The notion of institutional performance in relation to coastal management is the degree to which our institutions of governance can enhance or maintain sustainability of ecosystems in states adequate for human well being (Baird, 2005). By institutions, I mean the collective infrastructure of government, legal, social, educational and resource generating entities that collectively determine a nation’s response dynamics to environmental threats including policy and societal response. The rate of knowledge flow and technological innovation are integral elements in the response dynamic equation.
It is evident that existing mechanisms regulating human activity in coastal cities while variously effective have been inadequate and adverse environmental impacts continue at significant rates (Adler, 2002; USCOP, 2004). This is especially true globally (Ash et al, 2008; Diaz and Rosenberg, 2008). Thus, there has historically been a considerable lag between environmental impact and societal response. In a sustainability sense, then, institutional performance lags the population curve thus the continuation of adverse impacts. Conceptually the time between impact onset and adequate management response can be thought of as the management lag curve. In highly dynamic coastal ecosystems with high demographic momentum, adequate and timely responses are critical given current levels of environmental stress.
The reasons for large lag times are many and varied. Current bureaucracies and inertia in governance systems equate to slow response times compounded by complex jurisdictional and legal systems (Pendall et al, 2002). Management interventions are generally directed toward known and widely acknowledged problems. It takes time to recognize environmental problems and develop solutions. Ecosystem restoration or maintenance is costly and requires considerable urban infrastructure and investment of public funds. A typical wastewater treatment plan or environmentally related urban infrastructure project takes years from inception to implementation. A recent Massachusetts Port Authority Bond Prospectus for Boston Harbor renovations is a half inch thick and indicates implementation lags from planning to completion of 5 years or more (MPA, 2008). It is also indicative of the complex financing and investment systems involved. In the case of ecosystem restoration, there are the issues of monitoring and assessment of success. That determination can now take years.
Ecosystem management requires trade offs and value laden judgments. Under conditions of scarce resources, priorities must be set for intervention investments, policy and institutional changes. A 2004 Gallup Poll indicates that concerns about the environment ranked eighth among most pressing concerns of Americans (Harper, 2004). There is the problem of stakeholder engagement. In developing countries where demographic momentum and pace of urbanization is high, issues involving inadequate resources and performance by institutions of governance result in large lag-times between the onset of environmental impacts and implementation of sustainability related management interventions. The ecosystem consequences for human well being can be severe. What is clear from this brief review is there is an inherent lag time in response to environmental problems in coastal cities that arises from human social organization and dynamics.
Closing the Management Gap
Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan (2004) make the point that one must confront reality, understand the big picture then think about the nitty-gritty of what to do about it. Reality from this brief litany is straight forward and much of the supporting data well known. It is in the confrontation of reality in a rapidly changing world that leads to a better appreciation of its implications. That reality is that the projected intensity of urbanization of coastal areas at immense scales is inevitable and will occur in less than a human lifetime. That demographic momentum must be dealt with in an ecological context and sustainable framework. An associated reality is that today we are a long way from sustainability environmentally. Current management interventions have been inadequate (EPA, 2002; MEA, 2007) yet massive changes are on the immediate horizon. Turning from reality to what we need to do about it, clearly science, technology and innovation have critical roles to play. There is now a growing literature on organizational issues as well as science and technology for sustainability (McDonald, 2008; Holdren, 2008; NRC, 2008). Mindset, institutional performance and management gap dynamics have received less attention.
Mindset: One of the primary problems with coastal urbanization is that human institutions of governance and cultural proclivities have never had to evolve under such time lines. At current patterns of population growth in the U.S., today’s college graduate will see the country add 100 million people by age fifty, half of whom will live in urbanized coastal watersheds. We are dealing with what Jeffrey Sachs refers to as hardwiring in our heads (Lumenello, 2008). The reality is not whether society and institutions of governance can evolve rapidly enough but that they must. Also, it is not enough to know what to do. The focus must shift to how to do it and getting it done. That is an action agenda with a focus on what works and implementing it. While getting it done is simple in concept we are dealing with knowledge gaps, uncertainty and highly complex social and human infrastructure at many levels from global, regional to local. All of these scales are critical to success.
Finally we need to consider a worldview articulated by Peter Kareiva and colleagues termed “domesticated nature” (Kareiva et al, 2007). That is, humans have already altered nature on vast scales with demonstrable impacts both positive and negative on associated ecosystems. Our goal is to manage human activity so as to maximize the net benefits to mankind. It means recognizing that cities and humans are integral elements of ecological systems. It also means that continuous management interventions are required at many scales commensurate with demographic momentum so that essential ecosystem services are continually maintained or restored to acceptable levels.
Institutional performance is a conceptualized measure of the adequacy of societal response to environmental challenges (Baird, 1996). Performance is determined by a complex set of interactions among the numerous entities that collectively determine society’s response trajectory. This includes governance/legal systems, jurisdictions, research institutions, educational systems and public sector. While enumeration of that complexity is beyond the scope of this paper, there are a number of issues of organization and dynamics relevant to this discussion.
Concerning organizational issues, we are all too aware of inertia and time delays inherent in institutional bureaucracies at all levels. If response times are to be substantially reduced there need be greater integration, communication, coordination and focus on reducing response times. That means changing ways of doing business and the way institutions are structured so as to more efficiently address sustainability issues. To do that well means understanding the causative organizational factors creating management lag, what corrective actions are possible and what changes have been successful. Such issues are increasingly being recognized ranging from regional approaches to governance (USCOP, 2004) to advancing sustainability science whereby integrated knowledge systems are created to both reduce response times and enhance successful interventions (Clark and Dickson, 2003). Recent proposals have for instance called for organizational changes at the federal level to better align our public infrastructure to address sustainability issues (Schaefer et al, 2008; Lumenello, 2008). In the legal arena the concept of the precautionary principle whereby it is allowed for management agencies to take precautionary measures when science cannot yet fully establish cause and effect but can provide reasonable evidence of harm is an excellent example of institutional evolution to reduce management lag (Bowling, 2008).
Gap Dynamics: Ultimately closing the management gap depends on the collective action of many individuals acting simultaneously on many levels – global, national, regional and local. We must all understand that rapid and effective management responses to urbanization are paramount and prolonged investment of time and resources are required. Population momentum leaves us no choice and that fact must be dealt with. Adopting what Jeffrey Sachs refers to as a sustainable logic approach to urbanization problems helps put our focus on urgency and time lines for developing practical solutions and adequate scientific understanding to support effective policy (Lumenello, 2008).
Several issues of particular importance to us as individuals bear on reducing management gaps. First, one must understand that it is societal response to environmental issues, not knowledge or institutions per se that determines management success. Communication and the creation of learning networks at all levels can enhance response times (Heinz, 2004). Reducing the time from knowledge creation to effective application is a must. Sustaining and restoring ecosystems is costly and without significant and timely long-term investment in sustainability, (public and private) response times increase.
With regard to implementation, the question to be asked is what needs fixing and why. To do that well requires knowing current baseline conditions and what constitutes an acceptable ecosystem state, a value-laden decision. That means determining indicators of ecosystem conditions and creating an infrastructure for monitoring and observation. Inadequacies in these dimensions increase lag times. Responses can be significantly reduced by getting out in front of the population curve. That means good predictive models, forecasts and decision support tools. It also means accepting uncertainties and having the capacity and fortitude to act, evaluate and adapt. To do that well requires understanding what works, what does not work, and why. For instance NGO’S such as the Coastal States Organization and Public Technology, Inc acting through state, city and county organizations have helped create focus on urban sustainability issues.
We as professionals must develop a greater appreciation of the inevitability of urban development, its implications and the urgency of the time lines involved. Unless we significantly increase the rate of societal responses to sustainability issues, we run the very real risk of irreplaceable loss of critical ecosystem services.
A better understanding of the organization of our institutions of governance and causative factors that impact response time and institutional performance from national to local is paramount. Better methods of both quantifying and enhancing performance are in order. Simply put society as a whole will have to be better organized for performance to adequately address the environmental challenges of coastal urbanization.
While I have provided a number of general guidelines for reducing management lag, successful transition to sustainability will depend on the collective action of every individual each with their own knowledge base, socio-economic connections and abilities to promote change. Getting things done in human societies is highly dependent on leadership at all levels. Our challenge as individuals is to lead and develop new leadership. Given what is before us, well conceived actions are essential. We need to get it done and done mostly right the first time.
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 University of North Carolina Wilmington, Center for Marine Science, 5600 Marvin K. Moss Lane, Wilmington, NC 28409, U.S.A.
 Partially supported by grants from North Carolina and Hawaii Sea Grant Programs