A new study by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers and collaborators highlights a sharp contrast between urban and suburban ways of thinking about coastal ecosystems.
The study authors used statistical and cognitive science techniques to analyze data from a survey of 1,400 residents across the US East Coast. Their results, published in the journal npj urban sustainability, showed that interviewed residents of urban centers often had a simpler and less realistic understanding of coastal ecosystems than residents of suburban areas. The research also revealed a lower propensity for pro-environmental policies among urban populations. The study provides evidence of a problem the authors call urbanized knowledge syndrome, which can adversely affect natural ecosystems and affect community resilience to natural disasters.
“We posit that urbanization affects not only the ecological dimension of the system, but also the social dimension of the system, which in turn can lead people to disengage from positive environmental behavior. It’s kind of a snowball effect,” said Payam Aminpour, NIST Postdoctoral Research Fellow and lead author of the study.
As part of NIST’s Community Resilience Program, Aminpour and his colleagues were particularly interested in gaining a better understanding of what drives decisions about resilience and adaptation measures in urban areas. As a result of a survey developed and disseminated by study co-authors at Northeastern University, they were able to take a significant step in the right direction.
The survey targeted metropolitan coastal counties in eight states, each with coastlines with varying densities of roads, levees, ditches and other “gray” infrastructure. According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ six-tier urban-rural classification scheme, the majority of residents surveyed lived in the three most urban tiers, ranging from city centers to suburbs.
The list of questions was designed to extract information about respondents’ demographics, their understanding of ecosystems, and whether or not they participated in a list of environmentally friendly activities, including voting for political candidates based on environmental preferences, filing complaints with government agencies; and participating in conservation groups and other actions.
Aminpour and colleagues at NIST used a technique called fuzzy cognitive mapping to create visual representations of each respondent’s perception of the environment based on the survey data. The maps showed the nature of the perceived relationships between different environmental elements, such as B. how recreation areas affect swamps and vice versa.
When the authors of the study looked for patterns in the mass of maps, two different types emerged.
In some respondents’ maps, relationships tend to be one-way and exhibit a mindset or mental model called linear thinking. In a linear thought process, a person might think of sea walls as coastal defenses that prevent erosion for free. Another example of linear thinking might be the perception that overfishing is only a problem for the fish.
Other residents’ maps showed more complex, interdependent relationships, suggesting that these respondents viewed the environment as a system. With this mindset, known as systems thinking, one might realize that levees, while adding structural integrity to a shoreline, could change the way water flows along the shoreline and potentially accelerate erosion. With this mindset, a person may also recognize that overfishing could lead to greater restrictions on fishing activities in the future by reducing fish stocks.
The latter of the two models tends to help people consider nuanced aspects of human-nature interactions, such as B. the dynamic of give and take between different elements.
Next, the team sought to identify factors that could correlate with and possibly explain what drives people toward both models.
“We examined the association of these two different clusters of mental models with many different aspects, including education, age, political affiliation, home ownership,” Aminpour said. “We found that among these factors, urbanization and the percentage of coastlines armored with gray infrastructure were strongly positively associated with residents’ mental models, which exhibited more linear thinking.”
Conversely, their analysis showed that suburban dwellers living amid a lower density of man-made structures are more systems-thinking than city dwellers, Aminpour said.
An important behavioral difference between the two was self-reporting of behaviors that favored the environment. Linear thinking, a trait largely manifested by city dwellers, was closely associated with less environmentally friendly actions.
Further analysis included comparisons between all possible pairs of maps within the linear and systems thinking clusters to understand the diversity of models in each, Aminpour said. Greater diversity of thought has previously been linked to greater adaptability and resilience in communities, but once again the team uncovered further evidence of the urbanized knowledge syndrome. The group with linear thinking and more urbanization showed a high level of uniformity, while the group with systems thinking was much more diverse.
Although these results strongly link environmental factors to mindsets and behaviors within coastal communities, there is more to learn before firm conclusions can be drawn.
“We can’t say yet which will come first. Do you think in systems and prefer to live in areas with more natural ecosystems, or does living in less urbanized areas push you to develop systems thinking? We need more rigorous experiments to find out,” Aminpour said.
Answering these questions is of the utmost importance, according to the researchers. If urbanization does drive behavior, then urban development and gray infrastructure could fuel a self-serving feedback loop that could harm ecosystems and community resilience.
Gathering more data and concrete answers could strengthen the case for more facilities and structures that engage with nature, also known as green infrastructure. And it would feed into NIST’s ongoing efforts to understand the value that different types of infrastructure bring to communities.
This approach could potentially reverse the circle and lead to more systems thinking and sustainability.
“We have evidence that there is more happening in infrastructure. It can propagate through aspects of communities such as the diversity of thinking about the environment,” said Jennifer Helgeson, a NIST research economist and co-author of the study. “Hopefully that’s the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn.”
Articles: P Aminpour, SA Gray, MW Beck, KL Furman, I Tsakiri, RK Gittman, JH Grabowski, J Helgeson, L Josephs, M Ruth, and SB Scyphers. Urbanized Knowledge Syndrome: Erosion of diversity and systems thinking in urban dwellers’ mental models. npj Urban Sustainability. Published online May 4, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s42949-022-00054-0