03 January 2013

Adaptive Processes

Adaptive processes are the structures, fluxes, and interactions that allow systems to adjust to sudden or gradual changes.  Social and biogeophysical features can contribute to the adaptive capacity of urban systems. 

Adaptation is familiar and fundamental in evolution.  Evolutionary adaptations constitute the mechanisms that determine how an organism performs in a specific environment (Figure 1).  In evolution, adaptation is usually considered to be driven by genetics.  The genetic makeup of an organism is responsible for the physical, behavioral, physiological, and life-cycle attributes with which it confronts the external environment.  There is sometimes flexibility in adaptive features of organisms which can be influenced by events during development or acclimation to changed conditions.  Such plasticity itself, of course, has a genetic basis. 

Figure 1. A mayfly nymph, adapted to live in streams by its streamlined body shape, and behavioral tendency to cling to surfaces.  These adaptations help prevent these juvenile phases of mayflies from being swept away by normal flows.  http://www.glerl.noaa.gov

Adaptation can also be considered to exist in other ecological or social units because there are many mechanisms by which adjustment to an environment can be accomplished.  Ecological communities are assemblages of different organisms occupying a common habitat.  Communities can adjust to environmental changes through altered species relationships or three dimensional arrangement of the members in space.  Ecosystems can adapt through shifting the rates or pathways involved in the processing of water, energy, or matter, as well as through the allocation of structure to different forms and locations.  Social groups adjust via institutional, political, behavioral norms, and in the largest sense, culture.   An example of social adaptation is the initiation of the American system of public education, ideally aimed at training a workforce and preparing youth for civic engagement in the democratic process.  Settlement houses were a social adaptation to the migration of rural and foreign-born persons to growing industrial cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Figure 2).  These institutions helped new residents adjust to an unfamiliar physical and cultural environment, and compensated for lack of resources in some cases.

Figure 2. Hull-House, Chicago, from the 1906-07 Hull-House Yearbook. This was the first settlement house in the United States.  The idea spread to many other cities, and over time, their identity as “settlement houses” declined as other constituencies besides immigrants were also served.  Today, many institutions modeled on the principles that guided the establishment of settlement houses continue to serve new, marginalized, or disempowered individuals and communities in cities and suburbs.  (Photo from the Jane Addams Papers Project)

In some of these examples the adjustment is intentional and planned.  However, in many cases, especially those involving genetic shifts, the adjustment is accomplished by the “blind” process of natural selection rather than intention of an organism or a group. 

Key adaptive processes can be identified in both the social and in the biophysical realms (Figure 3). 

Figure 3. Adaptive processes in both social and biophysical realms.  Together these features illustrate the kinds of things that contribute to the capacity of socio-ecological systems to adapt to changing conditions.  See Yohe and Tol (2002) and Walker et al. (2004) for examples of source lists. 

Why Important?
In socio-ecological systems where much of the structure and behavior is the result of intentional human control and intervention, it is important to know what features might make positive adaptation possible, and what features get in the way of desired outcomes in the system.   In designing more sustainable urban systems it is important to consider the social and biophysical options that are available.  Furthermore, how intervening in each one might affect others in both the social and biophysical realms is important.  These are the features that must be monitored, assessed, and modeled under in  changing environments or design scenarios.

For More Information:
Gunderson, L.H. and C.S. Holling, editors. 2002. Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press, Washington DC.
Folke, C., S.R. Carpenter, T. Elmqvist, L.H. Gunderson, C.S. Holling, B. Walker, J. Bengtsson, F. Berkes, J. Colding, K. Danell, M. Falkenmark, L. Gordon, R. Kasparsson, N. Kautsky, A. Kinzig, S. A. Levin, K.-G. Mahler, F. Moberg, L. Ohlsson, P. Olsson, E. Ostrom, W. Reid, J. Rockström, H. Savenije, and U. Svedin. 2002. Resilience and sustainable development: building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations. Ministry of the Environment, Stockholm.
Walker, B., C.S. Holling, S.R. Carpenter, and A. Kinzig. 2004. Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 9:Article 5.
Yohe, G. and R.S.J. Tol. 2002. indicators for social and economic coping capacity -- moving toward a working definition of adaptive capacity. Global Environmental Change 12:25-40.

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