A socioecological network for a tropical city
Traditional urban research involves tree inventories, census activities, water quality sampling, or socioeconomic studies, all conducted by separate scientists on separate locations and with separate questions. Forest Service researchers at the agency's International Institute of Tropical Research in San Juan, Puerto Rico, asked themselves whether it might be better to create a new coalition of scientists with all kinds of specialties that together could study a city In answer to their question, more than 60 scientists, students, and collaborators designed a network of research sites and data gathering procedures to study the city socioecologically. The participating scientists all worked in San Juan, but most of them had never met each other or worked together before the project began. Before embarking on the project, they first had to learn each others' technical languages because often the same word has different meanings in the social and natural sciences; then, they jointly developed a model of the city. The resulting social-ecological sampling grid for the Rio Piedras River Watershed and San Juan emerged after conducting workshops, field trips, community consultations, and literature reviews. A watershed approach was taken to satisfy quantitative and modeling approaches dealing with energy and mass balances of city functioning. The city was stratified by natural (geology, topography, etc.) and socioeconomic (e.g., income level, land cover, population density, etc.) criteria. The researchers randomly selected circles, 1-kilometer in diameter, to assure complete coverage of the watershed and experimental replication. Inside these circles, natural scientists could sample biodiversity and social scientists could study people, households, and neighborhoods, as long as they worked together. Field crews included representatives with social and natural science backgrounds and questionnaires for interviewing people were developed and administered by the crews. The city model the scientists developed is a heuristic, or experience-based, model that depicts both the natural and anthropogenic forces, components, and fluxes of the city. It will evolve into a variety of computer models where future scenarios of city sustainability are displayed.
Normally, a natural scientist does not include history in a model of energy flux, and a social scientist will not include energy limitations in models of city function; but, together they can uncover social and natural constraints that keep a city from functioning as well as it can. The study's objective is to empower communities as they work with city managers, and to provide critical information to city managers about all aspects of the city for which they have responsibility. They do not create a city plan, but they provide knowledge and insight to improve the city planning process. Knowledge about cities is often fragmented and usually ignores its environmental aspects. This study is working to close those knowledge gaps. International Institute of Tropical Forestry Director Ariel Lugo said his first attempt to marry up social and natural sciences was in 1972 and he concluded it was impossible to achieve. With this socio-ecological approach, I have seen the light again and that is why I think just establishing ULTRA is a highlight. We are unleashing a new powerful force that will transform the way we do science and view the human-nature dichotomy.
Forest Service Partners