Resilient Communities on the Edge

By Amy Coffman Phillips

b-collaborative_resilient-communities_thumbStudies have shown that America has become much more polarized in the last twenty-five years in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and particularly political world views. These divisions have been exacerbated by structural forces, such as fragmented news media, increasing disparity of socio-economic conditions, and indoctrinated societal world-views, to name a few.

Each of these barriers are complex and interrelated, but if you accept we have inadvertently created these structural barriers that serve to disconnect our communities, we should be able to identify and break down these barriers as well. Doing so would foster interconnected, resilient communities that are able to resolve disputes and weather disturbance more effectively than is possible today.

As a biomimic and architect, I look to nature for inspiration to design buildings, communities, and cities that function more like a healthy ecosystem - rich with interconnections, diversity, and mutualisms. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ecotones. Until last year, I wouldn't have even known what that term meant, but now I see them and think about the parallels between ecosystem communities and our human communities every day. So what is an ecotone and what could we learn from ecosystems in nature to inspire more diverse, interconnected, and resilient communities?

In ecology, ecotones are the edge condition, or transition, between two different ecosystems, such as a woodland to a marsh. In permaculture we call these the edge zones. In nature, these transition zones are a hotspot of biodiversity, rich with interactions between different species as they search for food, shelter, and mates. According to the Genius of the Biome report, the structure of these ecotones greatly affect their biodiversity and resilience.

ecotone or edge zone
ecotone or edge zone

Gradual transitions from one ecosystem to another, such as a woodland gradually transitioning to shrubs, grasses, and marsh, offer a variety of habitats, experiences and resources for diverse creatures to interact. Abrupt edges, such as those between a monoculture agricultural field and border trees are sharp transitions that offer less opportunity for interactions. The wider and more gradual the ecotone, the more diverse and resilient the ecosystem is to buffering disturbances.

We have ecotones in our human built environment as well. The term “other side of the tracks” and the socially stratified communities it describes is one example of where built infrastructure created a sharp transition from one community to another, lessening their ability to interact with, and fostering fear of, the “other.” Infrastructure that separates our communities fosters fragmentation and disconnection rather than cooperation and information exchange.

It is not just built infrastructure that disconnects us from one another. Increasingly, our society has become disconnected and polarized by the conceptual barriers we have constructed between ourselves. Our political affiliation and socio-economic situation, exacerbated by social media and increasing income inequality, largely determines where we live, who we interact with, and where we get our news of the rest of the world. This escalating feedback loop feeds our disconnection from others that do not share our views or economic situation, leading to the polarization of our government and our communities. And segregated uniformity is the opposite of a resilient community.

So how can we learn from nature to foster more resilient communities?

We can learn from ecotones (edge zones) in nature to foster diversity within our communities by structurally creating opportunities for diverse groups of people to interact. This can be accomplished by:

  • designing transition zones within our buildings, such as atrium and breakout spaces, to allow for collaborative sharing of ideas between different departments or organizations,
  • encouraging the development of economic and social “hot spots” on the border between diverse communities, such as parks, restaurants, grocery stores, and other social amenities, which provide needed resources while encouraging interactions and connections between diverse groups,
  • establishing information sites where resources, information, and opinions from a variety of sources are able to mix, enabling diverse communities to meet their needs in common locations, and
  • as individuals, we need to actively seek out and connect with those that do not share our views. While these conversations may not be as self-affirming, they make us richer and more connected than those communities that are monocultures of sameness.

As in nature, scale is important. A wider and more undulating transition zone edge, creates more resilient and diverse communities. By looking at ecotones, or edge zones, in nature as a model for human communities, we can begin to systematically embed diversity and resilience into our lives, communities and cities.

Learn More!

To learn more about resilient communities and join the discussion, come to the Great Lakes Bioneers Conference November 1st - 3rd.  Amy Coffman Phillips will be presenting a workshop on “Resilient Communities Inspired by Nature” on Sunday, November 3rd at 2:45pm. Join the conversation!