Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Urbanized knowledge syndrome: Mental models of human-environment interactions lack diversity and systems thinking among urban coastal residents



Payam Aminpour Mohammadabadi, Steven Gray, Michael Beck, Kelsi Furman, Ismini Tsakiri, Rachel Gittman, Jennifer Helgeson, Jonathan Grabowski, Lauren Josephs, Matthias Ruth, Steven Syphers


Coastal ecosystems and their natural habitats support high levels of ecological biodiversity and provide resources and services that are indispensable to human wellbeing, comprising complex social-ecological systems. However, shoreline armoring, land transformation driven by societal desires, and physical and environmental homogenization across urban areas may substantially alter how humans and nature are coupled. We hypothesize that these alterations, although slow and perhaps largely imperceptible, extend to residents' knowledge of human-nature interactions, thus corresponding to homogenization of mental models and decreased degrees of systems thinking, namely "urbanized knowledge syndrome". Here we report survey panel data representing close to 1,400 coastal residents across eight states in the northeast U.S. We used a fuzzy cognitive mapping methodology to elicit "mental models" of coastal ecosystems. Our results supported our hypotheses, revealing that, in more urbanized areas, mental models of coastal ecosystems represented fewer reciprocal relationships and feedbacks between humans and natural components. Additionally, areas with more urbanization and shoreline armoring were associated with more homogenized and simpler mental models. Importantly, those with higher systems thinking were more likely to self-report adoption of pro-environmental behaviors. These results indicate a potential societal-level erosion of ecological knowledge associated with urbanization in the same way more urbanized areas are associated with diminishing ecological function. Considering that shared knowledge shapes culture, and culture influences attitudes, preferences, and behaviors, diagnosing and treating urbanized knowledge syndrome is an essential component of urban coastal sustainability.


Aminpour Mohammadabadi, P. , Gray, S. , Beck, M. , Furman, K. , Tsakiri, I. , Gittman, R. , Helgeson, J. , Grabowski, J. , Josephs, L. , Ruth, M. and Syphers, S. (2022), Urbanized knowledge syndrome: Mental models of human-environment interactions lack diversity and systems thinking among urban coastal residents, Nature, [online],, (Accessed April 21, 2024)
Created May 4, 2022, Updated November 29, 2022