An Observatory Framework for Metropolitan Change: Understanding Urban Social-Ecological-Technical Systems in Texas and Beyond

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Bixler, R. Patrick
Lieberknecht, Katherine
Leite, Fernanda
Felkner, Juliana
Oden, Michael
Richter, Steven
Atshan, Samer
Zilveti, Alvaro
Thomas, Rachel

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Sustainability, an Open-Access Journal from MDPI


In Texas and elsewhere, the looming realities of rapid population growth and intensifying effects of climate change mean that the things we rely on to live—water, energy, dependable infrastructure, social cohesion, and an ecosystem to support them—are exposed to unprecedented risk. Limited resources will be in ever greater demand and the environmental stress from prolonged droughts, record-breaking heat waves, and destructive floods will increase. Existing long-term trends and behaviors will not be sustainable. That is our current trajectory, but we can still change course. Significant advances in information communication technologies and big data, combined with new frameworks for thinking about urban places as social–ecological–technical systems, and an increasing movement towards transdisciplinary scholarship and practice sets the foundation and framework for a metropolitan observatory. Yet, more is required than an infrastructure for data. Making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable will require that data become actionable knowledge that change policy and practice. Research and development of urban sustainability and resilience knowledge is burgeoning, yet the uptake to policy has been slow. An integrative and holistic approach is necessary to develop e ective sustainability science that synthesizes different sources of knowledge, relevant disciplines, multi-sectoral alliances, and connections to policy-makers and the public. To address these challenges and opportunities, we developed a conceptual framework for a “metropolitan observatory” to generate standardized long-term, large-scale datasets about social, ecological, and technical dimensions of metropolitan systems. We apply this conceptual model in Texas, known as the Texas Metro Observatory, to advance strategic research and decision-making at the intersection of urbanization and climate change. The Texas Metro Observatory project is part of Planet Texas 2050, a University of Texas Austin grand challenge initiative.


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