A Healthy Metabolism Means Better Community Resilience


I just saw this article in Huffington Post about how the role of fat in nutrition has been misunderstood (at least by the public and policy makers) for the past couple decades. Fat does not make you fat and good fat is a critical part of energy production in the body. In fact, fat is the most efficient source of energy for human metabolism In other words, when you go do your crossfit or zumba workout your body will not have the best mix of resources to give you sustainable energy if you eat a cup of sugar beforehand instead of, say, an avocado. While that sugar will provide the service of energy, it also makes you less resilient—you are likely to experience a crash and then you’ll overeat to recover, which is an inefficient use of food capital .

I can tell you already know where I’m going with this. Yup, I think there is a useful parallel between the metabolism within humans and the metabolism within human settlements as a whole as it relates to resilience for either things. What natural capital  (food!, sun!) are most important for the human body to provide the critical services (energy!, whatever the heck Vitamin D provides us!) to best promote our well-being and minimize injury, disease and disorder, as well as aid recovery in the event of these unfortunate things. How does this natural infrastructure relate to built capital (muscles!, skin!) and associated services (power!, whatever skin does!) and what catalyzes or obstructs these relationships (hormones!).

Okay, so I might be overly excited about the metaphor. But seriously, doesn’t it help you think about community resilience and things we need to think about that we haven’t been? It does for me.

Now let me get all nerdy on you.

I definitely was not the first to think about applications of the metabolism metaphor. The concept of urban metabolism already has serious bona fides . The concept deals with the representation and analysis of the circulation, exchange, and transformation of materials and energy to support the well-being of human settlements and the communities within them ( Heynen et al. 2006 <– awesome book!).

Although I was not the first to think about the metabolism of cities, I have found of the concept in the context of community resilience to disasters. As far as I’m concerned Mark Pelling is the only one to have these concepts. However, he barely deals with recovery. So, in my mind, he didn’t actually deal with community resilience, since resilience requires the theoretical and methodological coupling of both loss AND recovery.

Cutting-edge epistemology going on here. Let’s establish a bit of ontology to support this new knowledge.

Communities engage in a process of provision and consumption between agents within a sphere of markets and other governance forces. Bob Costanza has done a lot to show this. As the sophistication of built infrastructure has gone up, the geographic and functional interdependencies of urban metabolisms across the globe has expanded and grown wickedly complex. A quick example of this is the common practice of just-in-time production (JIT!), which is used for metabolizing capital and getting goods to market. You can argue that this practice has made communities less resilient. This isn’t because JIT! has made, for example, transportation and telecommunication infrastructure less resilient, but because the practice has greatly extended and complicated supply chains, while making them more socially and economically critical and .

I think the concept of urban metabolism is useful because it provides theoretical insights that are not currently included in the community resilience literature. And you know I’m all about more and better theory .

One of the first things I do when I’m trying to think about and build theory is to draw pictures. (I draw a lot of pictures.)  The figure at the top of this post is one such picture I’ve been working on. I can’t say I’m satisfied with it, but that’s not stopping me from using to help explain stuff. The figure is one possible and super simple representation of metabolic relationships within human settlements. It shows the functional topology between agents (people and groups of people), other agents, and capitals and services. The functional topology of a particular human settlement is made up of specific metabolic relationships between the communities and infrastructure in that settlement.

In my thinking, these relationships are generally related to one of five things:
  1. Governance (e.g., organizing, managing, and regulating)
  2. Intervention (e.g., designing, extracting, repairing, substituting)
  3. Disruption (e.g., damaging, injuring, harming)
  4. Provision, and
  5. Consumption.

Agents interact with capitals differently than they do with services or even infrastructure as a whole. For example, a service can be restored, while a capital can be repaired. We get services from the web of provision and consumption of various combinations of capital, beneficial stuff like transport, nourishment, protection, and shelter. Relationships exist between similar objects as well. For example, some agents may serve as gatekeepers to limit other agents’ access to infrastructure, something I talk about at length in this article . Similarly, the creation of built capital can deplete natural capital, as hopefully we all know.

And of course hazard events can significantly impact urban metabolism, resulting in loss—harm to agents, disruption of services, and damage to capitals. With loss, comes recovery, which connects urban metabolism to community resilience to disasters. The potential for loss and recovery is influenced by a community’s or agent’s level of functional dependence on other animate and inanimate things. The higher or more irreplaceable that dependence is, the more sensitive the community’s resilience is to various changes to urban metabolism.

I’ll end with a quick, incomplete example that I drew another not-quite-ready-for-primetime picture for (below). It has to do with the reconstruction of lifeline infrastructure after the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake , which I talked about at more here . This case can be used to illustrate some urban metabolic relationships in the context of an earthquake disaster. The lifeline infrastructure capital was of course damaged by ground failure caused by the earthquake. To facilitate reconstruction, SCIRT (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team) was created by the central government. The organization of SCIRT is based on a unique alliance-contracting model, in which relationships between clients, contractors, management, design, and project delivery are defined and fixed (more on that here ). These relationships are metabolic; services and capitals are provided and consumed between team members to repair and replace lifeline infrastructure capital. I’ve attempted to represent some of this metabolism in the drawing using arrows to represent the functional topology of six types of infrastructure (economic, political, social, human, built, and natural) and select agents involved in SCIRT. (Remember, I define infrastructure as the combination of capitals and services.)


My metabolism needs a boost so I’m going to stop writing now. Yours probably does too.

Comments are closed.