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Landscape Change, Citizen Geosophy and Sustainable Urban Systems

Published onDec 24, 2019
Landscape Change, Citizen Geosophy and Sustainable Urban Systems

Over the last decade, scholars have been making a compelling argument to incorporate humanities and social sciences into the discussion about global environmental change and sustainability. In part, the argument rests on observations that careful analysis of contributors to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports rely predominantly on scientists with contributions from economists and demographers.[1] In addition, the basic outlines for sustainability science have presented it as a science.[2] Yet, a core component of sustainability, as a long-term social goal, embraces the notions of equity and social justice.[3] Efforts directed toward a goal of a full and robust sustainability that strives toward social equity demands inclusion of the more nuanced and non-systematic approaches of the humanities that enable researchers and planners to see and plan for complex social and cultural processes.

This report introduces methods and research questions that should be incorporated into the long-term convergence research agenda for rural-urban sustainability in the Mississippi River Watershed (MRW).[4] It will open by contrasting two seemingly divergent views on urban sustainability as a preface to exposing a fundamental common ground, which also sheds light on the value of including humanities and social science research in this effort. The second section compares different approaches to human-environment relationships to critique the notion of human systems and to spotlight the critical need to consider place- and time-based contingencies in social and cultural processes and how these processes complicate modeling long-term human activity. The final topic involves the relationship between singular adaptations and longer-term transitions, and the importance of recognizing that not all adaptations will align with sustainable goals. Following this discussion, I will offer some participatory methods that can insert the humanities and social sciences into the thinking about long-term research goals through the analysis of landscape change and the type of questions and answers that this approach can add to the discussion.

Preliminary Issues

Sustainable Urban Cities

There are divergent opinions about the prospect of cities becoming bastions of sustainability. Geographer William Meyer’s recent book presents an extensive argument for the environmental advantages of cities as he critiques what he calls “commonsense antiurbanism.”[5] He traces entrenched positions that cities are antithetical to environmental quality and sustainability. Meyer summarizes the antiurban argument which claims that cities are hotspots of ecological disruption, ravenous consumers of natural resources, major sources of pollution, concentrators of risk from natural hazards for people and property, foci for technological hazards, and repositories of risk to infectious diseases. In a careful examination of each of these weaknesses, he documents counter arguments that present the urban “advantage.” He concludes that “urbanness rarely appears to be linked to poor outcomes.” Instead he argues, they “lessen pressure on ecological systems by confining it in space, they slow populations growth, and they make the consumption of natural resources more sparing and more efficient.”[6]

Furthermore, public health programs and hazards mitigation efforts are more efficiently put in place where population are concentrated. He does not ignore the larger urban regions and fully recognizes that cities are unable to survive without access to hinterlands that provide natural resources and repositories for waste. By concentrating populations in limited areas, cities can protect exurban and rural areas from undue sprawl. Ultimately, he observes that there are advantages to cities and urban life, alongside numerous problems—which, he concludes the advantages outweigh.

John Day and Charles Hall offer a different perspective. They make the assertion that the very notion of sustainable cities is a myth. In contrast to Meyer’s read of prevailing urban literature, the physical science authors see a prevailing view that cities offer a more sustainable model than rural areas and argue that this ignores their energy and resource demands and their waste generation. Ultimately their argument rests on the notion that cities are not self-sufficient—not sustainable. They acknowledge that there are advantages to be found in urban regions—encompassing cities and their rural territories. And they conclude that some urban regions will fare better in the future than others—given their particular climates, demographics, and resource bases.[7]

Of importance here is that both acknowledge the interdependence of urban and rural areas and the overlapping ecological footprint of these distinctive territories. While they may seem to be at odds, both analyses reinforce the concept that urban systems, to be sustainable, need to work towards solutions that encompass urban and rural areas—which serve and depend on one another.

Human-Environment Relationships

One of the challenges in approaching cities as systems is the underlying assumptions that human populations and biophysical complexes both function as systems. The approach that embraces coupled human-environment systems is a decided improvement over earlier ecological studies that detached the environment from human activity.[8][9] Pioneering ecological studies were important, and recent efforts that insist on the integration of human and environmental processes further improve our understanding about the role of people in global ecological systems. Yet, an important distinction needs to be recognized. Labeling human activity as systematic denies many of the irregularities, the place-based and temporally contingent elements of social activity. Cause and effect relationships are not always easily detected within human activity, nor are they reliably predicted. This situation muddles our ability to model human futures. While natural processes might follow relatively reliable trajectories based on well-studied relationships, human behavior is not so easily forecast. This is one reason there has long been a major field of study we call history and not its counterpart—future studies.

Beyond the human-environment system approach, critical scholars hold that we need to approach this fundamental set of relationships as a hybrid, inseparable relationship that is socially produced—what they call socio-nature.[10] Historians and other humanities scholars offer a slightly different conceptualization—nature-society relationships.[11] They emphasize the importance of historical and geographic contingency. Long-term development of human society is subject to far too many variables to confidently predict future outcomes even where environmental conditions can be forecast with some degree of certainty. As a result, historians emphasize the role of human agency and decision. It is within the realm of nature-society relations that issues of values, equity, and justice reside. These concerns are part of the foundation of a sustainable future. To be inclusive, sustainability studies need to fully embrace social science and humanities.

The viewpoint of those academic fields that specialize in long-term human activity runs counter to the notion of society as a system that can be modeled. In a convergent research agenda that seeks to mobilize knowledge towards achieving a sustainable future, the dis-congruity between the sciences and humanities must be addressed for effective long-term planning.

Adaptation and Transition

A final discussion in this preliminary section deals with the concepts of adaptation and transition. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences called for a sustainable transition. The idea was to foster a transition that would “meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population, to sustain the life support systems of the planet, and to substantially reduce hunger and poverty.”[12] Getting there would involve countless local adaptations which are core components to many discussions about resilient and sustainable societies. Differing from natural systems, human societies can make deliberate adaptations to steer out of threatening or unsustainable environmental conditions.[13] Migration to better-watered areas is an adaptation a pastoral society might make during drought. Movement inland has been an adaptation utilized by coastal societies facing storms or sinking lands. Adoption of new agricultural crops or techniques might feed a burgeoning population. Such singular adaptations do not all align toward a positive future and some may unleash unanticipated, adverse outcomes. Nonetheless, over the long term, multiple adaptations can produce a transition that both reflects and contributes to fundamental and long-term social change. The demographic transition included different phases of agricultural, technological, and social/cultural change that produced population growth in some areas, followed by secondary adaptations that checked population growth. This process took place over multiple generations, with no deliberate social guidance, at different paces in different locations, and thoroughly altered many elements of society. Social attitudes and beliefs played a significant role in this multi-faceted, non-linear process. Similarly, previous energy transitions involved numerous interrelated, but independently undertaken adaptations. Most importantly, the adaptations were not coordinated, although in retrospect we can trace an overarching pattern to the process. Such a process constitutes an adaptive transition.[14]

A transition towards sustainability likely would follow a similar trajectory, albeit with a shared goal. It would demand multiple, locally based, culturally attuned adaptations that could be used to move local societies toward the broader goal. Achieving such a remarkable transition hinges on research that is based in local nature-society understanding as well as human-environment systems. Although the MRW is, for the most part, in one country, it includes numerous cultural regions that need consideration. Research-based policy should rely on participatory methods to get beneath the layer of remotely sensed biophysical data and demographic and economic trends, and get at the social/cultural values that underlie human decision making and adaptive activity.

If adaptation is locally based, a vital first step in nurturing awareness of environmental change and effective adaptations is fostering local efforts to recognize and document change and identify past adaptive successes. Participatory methods that enable local populations to document past landscape change is one way, akin to citizen science, that can broaden local interest and understanding of challenges created by current land uses and environmental management practices. This is the stuff of co-production of knowledge (at least as I understand it).

Citizen Geosophy: Co-Production of Awareness in Landscape Change and Adaptations

The Sustainable Urban Systems Subcommittee report emphasizes the importance of co-production of knowledge. This approach calls for “deep integration across disciplines”[15]—which should span the range from sciences to humanities and social sciences (perhaps deploying Holm and Winiwarter’s term “human sciences;”.[1] The NSF subcommittee also explicitly calls for participatory research to engage diverse stakeholders.[15] This position implicitly acknowledges the value of both local, lay expertise and professional, technical expertise. Citizen science is a vibrant arena where the public assists in the collection of scientific data. There is opportunity for the extension of this type of lay involvement in research that will provide a vital conduit for the co-production of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.

A number of decades ago the geographer John Wright coined the term “geosophy” in reference to all manner of geographic knowledge.[16] He sought to recognize the lay knowledge of farmers and fisherfolk, not just professionally trained geographers. The solicitation and inclusion of citizen geosophy offers an approach to permit co-production of knowledge, bridge the scales of knowledge that will afford better knowledge of urban-rural systems while also fostering the education of local populations to the elements of change and the processes that affect sustainability.

Two replicable tools that can be used for this process will engage local groups, both school children and history/geography/genealogy/photography buffs, in tried and tested participatory methods that can yield insights and at the same time rely on local expertise that technical experts from afar might not possess.[17] Repeat photography/cartography and video transects can expose landscape change that reflects processes of human intervention in natural systems and changing conditions that extend beyond the reach of satellite imagery.

Repeat Imagery

A powerful tool for tracing landscape change is the use of repeat photographic images. This method has been used to examine changes in national parks (Yosemite) and along the US-Mexico border.[18][19] Such studies have prioritized the biophysical environment but included consideration of human management of the environment. Other users of this technique have focused on human landscapes and the historical transition of rural and urban settings shaped by human actions.[20][21] Collections of photos that permit long-term comparative landscape change exist in most locales. Drawing on local libraries/archives and talent pools, it is possible to assemble sets of historic photographs that captured previous views of urban, fringe, and rural landscapes. Re-photographing those scenes can enable local teams to document change at a fine-grained detail.

Comparison of sequential historical topographic maps and aerial photographs provide another method to do the same and extend the record of change to the 19th century. Scholars used these tools beginning in the 1950s to document the pace of Louisiana’s coastal land loss.[22] Many air photo collections are now available online and the public can search for sequential images to trace change at a different, yes still, local scale back to the 1930s. Likewise, historical maps are also available online and readily accessible.

Comparing maps and satellite imagery provide still another means to trace landscape change. Hemmerling has showcased how historic topographic maps, when compared to recent satellite images, indicate damages to Louisiana’s coastal marsh.[23] Similar evidence of wetland drainage, reservoir construction, surface mining, agricultural practices, and urban sprawl can be documented this way.

Video Transects

A second tool that does not have the long-term repositories available, but offers a particularly valuable means for citizen geosophy is the filming of video transects. Dashboard mounted cameras can capture roadside landscapes that expose the transition from high-density urban cores to commercial strips to suburban residential to low-density fringe to rural agricultural lands. For decades, scholars have been mapping land-use change along major routes, but this activity has remained in the domain of technical experts. Driving through the landscape and filming the transition can alert citizen geographers to the changing intensity of land uses, the areas of dynamic change, and even relatively short-term change when done over time (2–6 month intervals). Short-interval (1 image per second) time-lapse photography captures a nearly complete record of the landscape while enabling viewers to cover considerable distances in far less time than the actual drive. This technique allows rapid review and analysis.

Transects permit the citizen geographers to visualize a scale of change that expands beyond either the locality shown in a photo or a wider area than captured in single topographic maps or aerial photographs. By immersing the viewer in the landscape, the video transect simulates the drive, from a familiar perspective, and allows s/he to note landscape changes along the routeway.[24] Once placed in the context of rural-urban systems, viewers can begin to recognize the change and process that is typically ignored in the course of normal errands along the same route. Local experts can also identify areas that have changed in their lifetimes and point out zones of land-use alteration that can impact sustainability.

Integrating Expertise from Multiple Localities

To advance the knowledge assembled from multiple groups of local experts into a regional/basin scale resource, I propose a series of workshops designed to allow comparative analysis of similar projects. Also, an online exhibition or atlas of the local results can share the insights from localities and place them in a larger, integrated basin-scale context. By revealing multiple, yet similar aspects of urban/rural change, these comparative workshops and exhibits will expose adaptations—whether sustainable or not.

Comparative Workshops

The comparative method has advantages for expanding the geographic scale of comprehension of landscape change. Communities from small river basins can present their repeat photograph projects and video transects. These exercises can enlarge the scale incrementally and retain local familiarity. In addition, the transects likely will overlap and thus knit together the perspectives from neighboring communities.

Online Exhibitions/Atlases

In 1989, the Illinois State Museum assembled and toured a waterborne exhibit on the environmental history of the Illinois River. It presented an interpretation of human impacts to the river basin and management efforts from pre-history to the present. In particular, it told the story of Chicago’s use of the river as a sewage sluice and how that impacted rural fishermen and farmers and downstream cities. It was very much an account of rural-urban relations. This traveling exhibit offers a model for the analyzing the diverse levers of change and the underlying human agency in pulling those levers. An online version that begins with the multiple smaller basins (Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, etc.) and then expands to the larger basin could provide a more comprehensive presentation of the urban-rural milieu and the complex interactions and adaptations within the MRW.

Exposing Sustainability Options

The potential of sustainability rests on scientific knowledge of environmental processes and tools to effectively manage environmental systems. It also depends on historically contingent and place-based human attitudes, beliefs, and values that permeate cultural, social, economic, and political systems and how they may impact the use of science to manage environmental change. To steer multiple societies towards a global goal of sustainability demands more than comprehension of natural systems. It will require compelling arguments and viable policies that are inclusive and respectful of local cultures and societies. Participatory research can build local awareness in landscape change, confidence in the broader goals, and also strengthens support for the process. Long-term retrospective analyses of nature-society relations can reveal prior sustainable activities, and actions that eroded them, and situate them in the larger context of river basin sustainability.

Possible Research Questions

Can we identify and examine past sustainable adaptations as analogs to future?

  • Have there been options to urban growth in the past?

  • Have there been options to irreversible environmental harm?

  • How can landscape change analysis account for time- and place-specific events in basin-wide generalizations?

  • How can scholars fully utilize local nature-society knowledge to inform science?

  • How can participatory methods contribute towards an equitable and just transition?

  • How can we deploy visualization of past change to expose “levers of future change”?

  • Can documenting landscape change at multiple scales help reveal the role of local culture and values in environmental management decisions?

Literature Cited

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Adger, W.N. and others. 2009. Are There Social Limits to Adaptation to Climate Change. Climatic Change 93 (3): 335–54.

Arreola, Daniel. 2013. Postcards from the Rio Bravo Border: Picturing the place, placing the picture, 1900s1950s. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Arreola, Daniel D., and Nick Burkhart. 2010. Photographic postcards and visual urban landscape. Urban Geography 31 (7): 885–904.

Bahre, Conrad Joseph. 2016. A legacy of change: historic human impact on vegetation in the Arizona borderlands. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

*Boll-Bosse, Amber J., and Katherine B. Hankins. 2018. These Maps Talk for Us: Participatory Action Mapping as Civic Engagement Practice. The Professional Geographer 70 (2): 319–326.

Colten, Craig. 2019a. Adaptive Transitions: The Long-term Perspective on Humans in Changing Coastal Settings. Geographical Review 109 (3): 416–435.

Colten, Craig. 2019b. Capturing Long-Distance Landscapes: Gopro Time-Lapse Photography. Focus on Geography 62:

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Gagliano, Sherwood, H.J. Kwon, J.L. Van Beek. 1970. Deterioration and Restoration of Coastal Wetland. In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Coastal Engineering, Washington, DC. September 1970, 1767–1781.

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Meyer, Judith L., and Yolonda Youngs. 2018. "Historical Landscape Change in Yellowstone National Park: Demonstrating the Value of Intensive Field Observation and Repeat Photography." Geographical Review 108 (3): 387–409.

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Vale, Thomas R. 1987. Vegetation Change and Park Purposes in the High Elevations of Yosemite National Park, California. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77(1): 1–18.

Wright, J.K. 1947. Terrae Incognitae: The Place of Imagination in Geography. Annals of Association of American Geographers 37 (1): 1–15.

Wyckoff, William. 2011. On the Road Again: Montana’s Changing Landscape. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Craig E. Colten
Carl O. Sauer Professor
Department of Geography & Anthropology
Louisiana State University

This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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