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  • Léon Arthur Beckx

Of deserts and districts I

Go figure. You want to bring a desert to bloom. How do you do that? The arid air and dry soil are hostile to new life and most of the precious moist evaporates quickly. Suppose that, with extra water and a lot of effort, you grow some green that frailly endures the elements. Can it survive without your help or even grow, or will the desert swallow it mercilessly?

City Deserts

Jane Jacobs, urban writer and activist, likened the dynamics of poor districts with the ecosystem of a desert. In daytime energy in the form of sunlight floods the desert which largely dissipates during the night. Similarly, deprived areas can’t conserve incoming energy: money leaks away through outside spending and initiative is quickly lost. Jacobs contrasts this with the ecology of a rainforest where sunlight is absorbed by vegetation and then circulates through a web of connections, supporting a diverse and abundant tapestry of life. A strong local economy is like a rainforest that circulates money to support local initiative and strengthen the social ties.

Unfortunately, the number of deserts are on the rise, both in nature and society. This is not accidental. Global urbanization results in an increasing number of consumers that use up natural resources. In the periphery of cities, urban deserts take shape in the form of slums and deprived areas that house the less privileged. Is there a way to reverse this desertification or are attempts to make these deserts bloom a waste of energy?

Poverty Traps

What makes matters complex is that we’re dealing with vicious cycles that make deserts resilient to change. The scarce resources in desert environments, for example, easily lead to overgrazing which results in a loss of vegetation and erosion that makes plant life even more difficult and scarce. In urban deserts these vicious cycles are known as poverty traps, downward spirals that reinforce poverty. These cycles are both psychological, social and environmental. Recent research shows how poor living conditions increase stress and negative feelings which amplify short-term thinking and discourage investments, such as education. This tragically increases the likelihood of future poverty. Another example is monolithic housing that attracts vandalism which makes the environment even less attractive. So how do you break these downward spirals?

Tipping Points

Where vicious cycles spiral down, virtuous cycles spiral up. Planting trees in the desert creates a virtuous cycle. Trees create a microclimate: they nourish and strengthen the soil, provide shelter for life and trap moisture under the cool canopy. Planting trees alone is far from sufficient to green a desert, you need more measures to retain water and create shade. At what point do these greening efforts take root? In short, we don’t know. It’s like trying to flip over a chair with an unknown tipping point. As long as you haven’t reached the tipping point, the chair will bounce back to its original state. Likewise the desert will engulf new green and poverty traps will cancel out positive developments. One more tree, however, and the tipping point can be reached, making the greening effort sustainable. Tipping points make change nonlinear. Far from the tipping point a lot of effort can have no effect and close to the tipping point, the smallest change can have an enormous impact. Malcolm Gladwell described this phenomenon in his book ‘The Tipping Point.´ These tipping points can only be identified and described in hindsight. They are not predictable and that is bad news for the lovers of procedures, protocols and targets.

Complex or Complicated?

It is important here to distinguish complex problems from complicated ones (see also here and here). Complicated systems are knowable, predictable and largely repeatable. Building a community center, for example, is complicated. It requires input from various experts and careful coordination. The end goal, however, is clear, and the process can be broken down into smaller pieces. Actions have a predictable effect: more manpower results in a faster completion. In contrast, complex systems, like deserts and districts, behave nonlinear, are resilient and have tipping points. Complex problems are unpredictable, have an uncertain outcome and are hard to replicate. For instance, improving neighborhood cohesion is complex. This already starts with goal itself. What is neighborhood cohesion anyway? This definition does not only depend on the specific context (small village vs. city district), but also on the wider social, political debate. The steps towards this changeable goal are also uncertain. An intervention might have effect, but can also have no or even a negative result. A neighborhood barbecue builds cohesion if all neighbors meet and mingle. However, if one group monopolizes the barbecue, it will polarize the neighborhood. An intervention in a complex system is always embedded in a broader field. In a deeply divided neighborhood a barbecue is probably ineffective. Conversely, if the social fabric in a neighborhood is already strong then the barbecue can tip the scales.

Complex environments are full of surprises and unexpected twists. Each intervention is also a diagnosis. A 'failed' neighborhood barbecue says something about the state of the system. In complex environments one has to learn how to fail successfully. This means experiment, learn and adapt. Failure is part of the process, as is a bird’s-eye view to see which patterns emerge. Sometimes something unexpected will blossom. Complex environments have complex and complicated problems: social cohesion has to grow, but a barbecue can be planned. Complicated and complex problems each require a different approach.

In the part II of ‘deserts and districts’ we dive deeper into these different approaches and find out how a desert can be brought to bloom.

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