San Juan UREx Synthesis
San Juan UREx City Team: Fernando Abruña, Juan González Moscoso, Ariel E. Lugo, Pablo Méndez-Lázaro, Tischa A. Muñoz-Erickson, Jenniffer Santos-Hernández
Research Fellows and Interns: Génesis Alvarez Rosario, Antonio De La Flor, Robert Hobbins (NSF Intern), Ashley Méndez, Jailyn Soto Quintana
Existing SETS Conditions
San Juan was dealing with many complex challenges when the UREx SRN began in 2016, including a fiscal crisis, high unemployment, and severe droughts and urban floods. Yet, except for a few plans and calls to action by multi-sectoral entities like the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council, the idea of resilience was non-existent in the public discourse. Our research team had made substantial progress in establishing the social-ecological system knowledge base for the city through efforts like the San Juan ULTRA (which the UREx helped catapult to the next level through the connection to other cities), the guiding SETS framework, and anticipatory tools like scenario co-production.
Co-Producing Futures and Anticipatory Capacities
San Juan was the first of the UREx cities to carry out the urban futures scenario workshop successfully. We held the first Scenarios Workshop on February 3, 2017 with 51 representatives from local, state, and federal agencies, non-government organizations working with communities in the city, universities, and professional designers. We co-produced six future scenarios for San Juan in the year 2080, including adaptation to Coastal, Urban, and River Flooding, Energy and Food Security, a Just and Livable City, and a Connected City.
The following products from the workshop describe the future visions co-produced for San Juan:
- A report summarizing the main goals and strategies for each scenario.
- Land use and land cover models for 3 of the scenarios.
- Visualizations and narratives for 3 of the scenarios.
- A qualitative assessment of the Resilience, Equity, and Sustainability (RESQ) of future scenarios.
- Renderings of what the city (or parts of the city) could look like in the future.
- A song inspired on the resilience scenarios by a Puerto Rican composer.
In addition to the scenarios and strategies produced, participants expressed their appreciation for the time spent thinking and imagining their city in different ways, as well as the opportunity to engage in creative discussions with practitioners and community leaders that they don’t interact with on a day-to-day basis. Other participants were inspired to explore the outcomes of different infrastructure configurations of the scenarios in more detail.
Experiencing an Extreme Event
Later that year, hurricanes Irma and María made landfall in Puerto Rico, highlighting, and in many ways revealing, the high level of vulnerability of the population and resulting in a historical catastrophe. We took this moment as an opportunity for reflection with practitioners and community leaders and held a two-day workshop titled From Disaster to Transformation: Lessons from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane María. This event brought together researchers, students, decision-makers, practitioners, civic organizations, and community leaders to reflect on the experiences of those who lived through hurricanes Irma and María, the current situation, and the opportunities and challenges to promote transformative resilience to extreme events in San Juan and Puerto Rico in general.
We continued this reflexive learning process through more participatory workshops to evaluate and refine the future scenarios we had developed before the 2017 hurricane season. During Scenario Workshop 1.5 and Workshop 2 we reviewed the six scenarios with participants from the first workshop to discuss the extent to which the scenario focus had changed after having experienced an extreme hurricane event. We found that at least at the level of overall goals and desirability, the visions remained the same but strategies needed to be refined or added based on what we learned about the vulnerabilities and sources of resilience in the San Juan social-ecological-technological system following María.
We observed a dramatic increase in the use of the term “resilience” in day to day conversations and identified political actors employing the concept as the recovery process unfolds. A similar change is observed in the UREx Governance Survey implemented before Workshop 1, and before Workshop 1.5 after hurricanes Irma and María. Before hurricanes Irma and María, participants often framed the concept of resilience as a system property, outcome (goal) and process, as well as related to notions of resistance and coping (or weathering). After hurricanes Irma and María, respondents often framed resilience in terms of ‘bouncing-back’ and ‘bouncing forward,’ both of which were the notions that gained dominance in the state’s public discourse.
Sustainability Transitions Work
Our team has become very active in recovery efforts and in contributing to the collective reflection on the fundamental changes needed in our social-ecological, technological systems (Holladay et al. 2019; Lugo 2018; Lugo 2018; Miller, Chester, and Muñoz-Erickson 2018), in our resilience and vulnerability research practices (Eakin, Muñoz-Erickson, and Lemos 2018; Méndez-Lázaro, Feagan, and Muñoz-Erickson 2018), and in our public sector emergency management systems (Santos Hernández, Méndez Heavillin, and Alvarez Rosario 2019). Members of our team met with members of the US Congress (Méndez-Lázaro 2018), developed actionable solutions for transforming our energy system (Queremos Sol, Vila Biaggi et al. 2018) and for low-income resilient home design (Abruña and Musgrave 2019), and organized an initiative through the EPA College/Underserved Communities Partnership Program named ‘Helping Affected Communities Engage in Resilience – HACER’ to support community efforts to promote resilience (Santos-Hernández, Álvarez-Rosario, Méndez-Heavilin, and Rodríguez Fernández, 2019).
Moving forward into year 5 of the project, we are embarking on several efforts to further expand the knowledge base needed to support sustainability transitions for San Juan. We are identifying themes to organize public dialogues focused on the interests of practitioners and community participants, and we are comparing the visions and strategies proposed by residents to those of public officials and civic organizations generated in the Scenario Workshops. We are also analyzing the energy cost and investment of some of the proposed scenarios and strategies, as well as supporting local initiatives like the Alianza por la Cuenca del río Piedras, an alliance of various civil society groups, to help develop strategies to transition towards an integrated watershed management vision for the main watershed of the city. We are in the process of putting together a series of working groups, or ‘mesas de trabajo’, to produce proposals, action plans, or policy briefs to guide transitions under each of the scenario themes. Finally, we are continuing to address research gaps through collaboration with other UREx, such as the urban heat monitoring campaigns with Portland State University to create detailed analyses and maps for San Juan, and characterizing the role and networks of civic groups in hurricane recovery efforts with ReImagina Puerto Rico.