☷Study Links Urbanization to Poor Ecological Knowledge Less Environmental Action
National Institute of Standards and Technology ( By Press Release office)
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A new study by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology ( NIST ) and collaborators highlights a sharp contrast between urban and suburban ways of thinking about coastal ecosystems . The authors of the study used statistical and cognitive science techniques to analyze data from a survey of 1 , 400 residents across the U . S . East Coast . Their results , published in the journal npj Urban Sustainability , showed that surveyed residents of urban centers often held a more simplistic , and less realistic , understanding of coastal ecosystems than residents in suburban areas . The research also uncovered a lower propensity to take pro - environmental actions among urban populations . The study provides evidence for an issue the authors refer to as urbanized knowledge syndrome , which may be detrimental to natural ecosystems and hamper community resilience to natural disasters . “We’re hypothesizing that urbanization is not only impacting the ecological dimension of the system , but also the social dimension of the system , which may , in turn , cause people to disengage from positive environmental behavior . It’s something of a snowball effect , ” said Payam Aminpour , a 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 surrounding resilience and adaptation measures in urban areas . As a result of a survey devised and distributed by study co - authors at Northeastern University , they have been able to take a significant stride in the right direction . The survey was targeted at coastal counties in metropolitan areas across eight states , each of which featured shorelines with varying densities of roads , sea walls , ditches and other “gray” infrastructure . On the National Center for Health Statistics’ six - level urban - rural classification scheme , surveyed residents largely resided in the three most urban levels , ranging from city centers to suburbs . The list of questions was designed to extract information about respondents’ demographics , understanding of ecosystems and whether or not they had partaken in a list of pro - environmental activities , including voting for political candidates based on environmental stances , voicing complaints to government agencies , contributing to conservation groups and other actions . Aminpour and colleagues at NIST used a technique called fuzzy cognitive mapping to build visual representations of each respondent’s environmental perceptions based on the survey data . The maps indicated the nature of perceived relationships between different environmental elements such as how recreational areas influence marshes and vice versa . As the authors of the study searched for patterns among the crowd of maps , two distinct types emerged . In the maps of some respondents , relationships tended to run in one direction , exhibiting a way of thinking , or mental model , called linear thinking . In a linear thought process , a person might view sea walls as shoreline fortifications that prevent erosion at no cost . Another example of linear thinking could be the perception that overfishing is only an issue for the fish . The maps of other residents displayed more complex , two - way relationships , which indicated that these respondents thought about the environment as a system . With this line of thinking , known as systems thinking , someone might recognize that although sea walls provide structural integrity to a shoreline , they alter the way that water flows along the shore and could potentially accelerate erosion . In this kind of thinking , a person may also acknowledge that , by diminishing fish stock , overfishing could trigger greater restrictions on fishing activities in the future . The latter of the two models is more likely to help people consider nuanced aspects of human - nature interactions , such as the give - and - take dynamics between different elements . Next , the team tried to identify factors that correlate with and could potentially explain what steers people toward either kind of model . “We explored the association of these two distinct clusters of mental models with many different aspects including education , age , political affiliation , homeownership , ” Aminpour said . “We found that , among those factors , urbanization and the percentage of shorelines armored with gray infrastructure had strong positive associations with the mental models of residents that showed more linear thinking . ”Conversely , their analysis showed that suburban residents living amid a lower density of artificial structures than urban dwellers were more aligned with systems thinking , Aminpour said . An important behavioral difference between the two was in the self - reporting of behaviors that favored the environment . Linear thinking , a trait largely manifested by urbanites , was linked closely to less pro - environmental action . Further analysis involved making comparisons between every possible pair of maps within the linear and systems thinking clusters to understand the diversity of models in each , Aminpour said . Greater diversity of thinking has previously been connected to greater adaptability and resilience in communities , but once more , the team uncovered more evidence for urbanized knowledge syndrome . The group displaying linear thinking and greater urbanization exhibited a large degree of uniformity , while the systems thinking group was much more diverse . Although these findings strongly tie environmental factors to lines of thinking and behavior within coastal communities , there is still more to learn before concrete conclusions can be drawn . “We can’t yet say which comes first . Do you have systems thinking so you prefer to live in areas with more natural ecosystems , or does living in less urbanized areas make you develop systems thinking We need more rigorous experiments to find out , ” Aminpour said . The researchers pose that answering these questions is of utmost importance . If urbanization does indeed drive behavior , then urban development and gray infrastructure may be fueling a self - serving feedback loop that could damage ecosystems and community resilience . Getting hold of more data and concrete answers could strengthen the case for more facilities and structures that incorporate nature , also known as green infrastructure . And it would feed into an ongoing effort at NIST to understand the value that different kinds of infrastructure bring to communities . This approach could potentially flip the loop , feeding into greater systems thinking and greater sustainability . “We have evidence that there’s something more going on with infrastructure . It may have a rippling effect through aspects of communities , like the diversity of thinking about the environment , ” said Jennifer Helgeson , a NIST research economist and study co - author . “This is hopefully the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn . ” Paper: P . Aminpour , S . A . Gray , M . W . Beck , K . L . Furman , I . Tsakiri , R . K . Gittman , J . H . Grabowski , J . Helgeson , L . Josephs , M . Ruth and S . B . Scyphers . Urbanized knowledge syndrome: erosion of diversity and systems thinking in urbanites’ mental models . npj Urban Sustainability . Published online May 4 , 2022 . DOI: 10 . 1038/s42949 - 022 - 00054 - 0 Resilience and Community resilience Media Contact Jonathan Griffin jonathan . griffin@nist . gov ( 301 ) 975 - 4117 Organizations NIST HeadquartersLaboratory ProgramsEngineering LaboratoryEngineering Laboratory OfficeApplied Economics Office Related News Businesses Run by Minorities , Women and Vets Disproportionately Affected by Pandemic , NIST , NOAA Study Finds Related Links In a Changing Climate , Resilience Research Can Help Communities ‘Make Decisions for a Better Future’ The Trials and Triumphs of a Small City’s Hurricane Recovery Could Help Other Communities Bounce Back Sign up for updates from NIST Enter Email Address Released May 4 , 2022
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