Many East Coast residents that researchers have studied about their understanding of coastal ecosystems have shown one line of thinking. People who exhibit linear thinking see the connections between different aspects of their environment as going in one direction, while systemic thinkers grasp the concept of two-way relationships more often.


B. Hayes / NIST

A new study by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and associates highlights the stark contrast between urban and suburban ways of thinking about coastal ecosystems.

The study’s authors used statistical and cognitive scientific techniques to analyze data from a study of 1,400 residents on the east coast of the United States. Their results published in the journal npj Urban sustainability, showed that respondents in urban centers often have a simpler and less realistic understanding of coastal ecosystems than residents in suburban areas. The study also reveals a lower propensity to take action to protect the environment among the urban population. The study provides evidence of a problem that the authors call the urban knowledge syndrome, which can be detrimental to natural ecosystems and hamper the community’s resilience to natural disasters.

“We believe that urbanization affects not only the ecological dimension of the system, but also the social dimension of the system, which in turn can lead people to abandon positive behavior in the environment. It’s kind of like a snowball effect, “said Payam Aminpur, a research fellow at NIST and lead author of the study.

As part of NIST’s Community Sustainability Program, Aminpur and its colleagues were particularly interested in gaining a better understanding of what drives decisions around sustainability and adaptation measures in urban areas. As a result of a study developed and disseminated by co-authors of the study at Northeastern University, they were able to take a significant step in the right direction.

The study focused on coastal districts in metropolitan areas in eight states, each of which included coastlines with different road densities, sea walls, ditches and other “gray” infrastructure. At six levels of the National Center for Health Statistics urban-rural classification schemethe surveyed residents largely live in the three most urban levels, ranging from urban centers to suburbs.

The list of questions was created to extract information about the demographic characteristics of the respondents, the understanding of ecosystems and whether or not they participated in a list of environmental activities, including voting for political candidates based on environmental positions, complaining to government agencies, contribution to conservation groups and other actions.

Aminpur and colleagues at NIST used a technique called fuzzy cognitive mapping to build visual representations of each respondent’s environmental perceptions based on survey data. The maps show the nature of the perceived links between different elements of the environment, such as how recreation areas affect swamps and vice versa.

As the study’s authors searched for models in the crowd of maps, two different types emerged.

In some respondents’ maps, connections tend to move in one direction, showing a way of thinking or a thought pattern called linear thinking. In a linear thought process, one can view sea walls as shoreline fortifications that prevent erosion for free. Another example of linear thinking may be the notion that overfishing is a problem only for fish.

Maps of other residents show more complex two-way relationships, which show that these respondents think of the environment as a system. With this line of thinking, known as systems thinking, one can understand that although sea walls provide structural integrity to the shoreline, they change the way water flows along the shore and can potentially accelerate erosion. In this way of thinking, one can also recognize that by reducing fish stocks, overfishing can cause 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 dynamics of giving and taking between different elements.

The team then tried to identify factors that correlated and could potentially explain what drives people to each type of model.

“We studied the association of these two separate groups of mental models with many different aspects, including education, age, political affiliation, property,” Aminpur said. “We found that among these factors, urbanization and the percentage of coasts armored with gray infrastructure have strong positive associations with the mental patterns of residents, which show more linear thinking.

Conversely, their analysis showed that suburban residents living in lower-density artificial structures than urban dwellers are more in line with systems thinking, Aminpur said.

An important behavioral difference between the two is in self-reporting of environmentally friendly behaviors. Linear thinking, a trait largely manifested by urban dwellers, was closely linked to less pro-environmental actions.

Further analysis involves making comparisons between each possible pair of maps in clusters of linear and systematic thinking to understand the diversity of patterns in each, Aminpur said. Greater diversity of thinking has previously been associated with greater adaptability and resilience in communities, but once again the team has uncovered more evidence of urban knowledge syndrome. The group showing linear thinking and greater urbanization showed a high degree of homogeneity, while the group thinking about systems was much more diverse.

Although these findings strongly link environmental factors to the lines of thinking and behavior in coastal communities, there is still much to learn before concrete conclusions can be drawn.

“We still can’t say which comes first. Do you have systematic thinking, so you prefer to live in areas with more natural ecosystems, or living in less urbanized areas makes you develop systematic thinking? We need more rigorous experiments to understand, “Aminpur said.

Researchers believe that answering these questions is crucial. If urbanization does lead to behavior, then urban development and gray infrastructure can fuel self-serving feedback that can damage ecosystems and community resilience.

Getting more data and concrete answers can strengthen the argument for more facilities and structures that include nature, also known as green infrastructure. And that would be part of NIST’s ongoing efforts to understand the value that different types of infrastructure bring to communities.

This approach could potentially reverse the cycle, fueling more systematic thinking and greater resilience.

“We have evidence that there is more to the infrastructure. This can have a ripple effect through community aspects, such as the diversity of environmental thinking, “said Jennifer Helgeson, an economist and co-author of a study at NIST. “We hope this is the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn.”

Papers: P. Aminpour, SA Gray, MW Beck, KL Furman, I. Tsakiri, RK Gittman, JH Grabowski, J. Helgeson, L. Josephs, M. Ruth and SB Scyphers. Syndrome of urban knowledge: erosion of diversity and systematic thinking in the mental models of urban residents. npj Urban sustainability. Published online on May 4, 2022. DOI: 10.1038 / s42949-022-00054-0

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