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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2013

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Editorial - Sustainability and the Urban-to-Rural Spectrum

This issue of Environment includes three articles representing different points on the urban-to-rural spectrum of sustainability studies. In their article It's Time for an Urbanization Science, William Solecki and co-authors argue that the time is long past for a more systematic analysis of urban centers. In many ways, cities represent an ideal focus of sustainability studies—especially as we witness a massive, historic flow of peoples, resources, and power into existing and new cities and megacities around the world. However, cities have always been focal points of shifting demographic tides, the introduction of new technologies, cultural evolution, the rise of specialization, political power, and market forces—where local, regional, and global currents merge and mix together in complex and sometimes revolutionary ways. As such, cities require integrative, interdisciplinary, and holistic analysis. And of course, they are becoming ever more important for sustainable development—as they both draw enormous resources from beyond their borders and create new models of potentially lower per capita impacts. Finally, cities will be essential to a sustainable future—both the redesign and retrofitting of our existing urban centers and the rare opportunity to design entirely new cities, providing higher quality of life, safety and security, prosperity, and a lighter environmental footprint for hundreds of millions of new urban dwellers. Entirely new cities are being planned and built in countries around the world, a rare moment at the beginning of the path of development to set a course toward a healthier, more secure, and prosperous future.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, David López-Carr and Jason Burgdorfer remind us that despite this massive shift of humanity to urban centers, rural communities—especially those at the margins and boundaries between old-growth forests and farmland—are still critical actors in tropical deforestation. While many prior studies have focused on how urban centers suck natural resources from rural areas to feed the city metabolism, or how globalization and consumer demand in distant industrialized countries can drive the exploitation of land, resources, and people in the developing world, this article reminds us that distant rural communities and individual subsistence farmers—who may not be directly connected to far away urban or global markets—continue to play a vital role in tropical deforestation. They argue further that frontier migrant farmers continue to be the main proximate cause of deforestation … in Latin America, exceeding the amount of intact forest conversion caused by the more popular culprits, commercial logging and capital-intensive industrial agricultural operations.” This analysis exemplifies the need to study the complexities of social and environmental change in specific places and for specific problems. Not all environmental change is driven directly by large-scale forces.

Finally, Pepito Fernandez and his co-authors provides us with an example of how these urban, rural, and global forces combine, mix and conflict within a single watershed in the Philippines, and how multiple actors, at multiple scales, are coming together to manage these interlocking systems in a more comprehensive and integrated way. As cities, rural communities, watersheds, and larger regions come to grips with a world of additional stressors—including changes in markets, politics, local climates and weather extremes, and population shifts, among many others—the need for cross-jurisdictional cooperation becomes ever more critical. These stressors have to be addressed by governance systems developed in some cases generations or centuries ago—and we rarely have the opportunity to build new governance systems and institutions from scratch. Even new institutions are superimposed on the complex systems of governance that preceded them. The challenge before us now, more than ever, is how to coordinate these different organizational and institutional interests and mandates. Thus, network governance—as emerging in this small watershed on one island in the Philippine archipelago—will be essential to solving sustainability challenges at all scales, local to global.

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