A research agenda for sustainability

A new report from the “What Works Collaborative” surveys the sustainability research field, finding a growing but still diffuse and dispersed capacity.

The report, “Toward Evidence-Based Sustainable Communities,” offers a great lay of the land of ongoing research in sustainability. It surveyed 25 U.S. research centers focused on sustainability (out of 49 contacted). From the results, the report develops a research agenda going forward, drawn from the strengths and gaps in the existing organizations.

The report, thankfully, begins with a clear definition and description of “sustainability.” That word has a lot of buzz behind it, and with any frequently used term, it risks getting watered down to meaninglessness. They rely on two definitions:

1) The United Nations’ defintion: Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

2) A popular version: Development that balances the 3E’s, Environment, Equity and the Economy.

The authors also underscore the interdisciplinary nature of much of the research in the field, and the importance of metro areas in both creating and solving issues of sustainability. This statement certainly rings true to cross-disciplinary, metro-focused groups like BRR:

Figuring out how to make urban settlements more sustainable requires knowledge of how a local economy works, of how transportation systems are connected to land use and urban density, to economic activities, to housing supply, to other public infrastructure and services, etc.

In other words, as with the human body, systems (like urban areas) that affect sustainability are complex and interconnected.  When suburbs spread, more people drive, requiring more roads, paving more rural space, affecting the absorption of rain water and creating run-off, adding sediment to rivers, endangering frogs, and on down the line. How long this pattern can continue is at the heart of sustainability.

The string of impacts also reveals how interconnected metro areas are in fostering sustainability. Metro areas are not simply disconnected city centers dotting the landscape. They and their suburbs and exurbs are intricately connected. Thus, as the report notes, “a sustainable approach fundamentally relies on interdisciplinary knowledge.” It also, we might add, requires an integrated, regional response to the issues.

Unfortunately, as the report notes, these interdisciplinary efforts are perceived as the hardest to fund. Transportation and energy project are the easiest to fund.

Other findings from the report show the strong focus on transportation. Below are the areas of study ranked highest to lowest:

    • Transportation (72 projects) 34.8% of the total number;
    • Built environment and sustainability (53 projects), 25.6%;
    • Green house gas emissions, climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation (26 projects) 12.6%.
    • Urban issues (19 projects) 9.2%;
    • Electric power (15 projects) 7.2%;
    • Water (14 projects) 6.8%;
    • Miscellaneous (8 projects) 3.9%

Many of these topics share issues, and as such offer opportunities for collaboration across not only disciplines, but government bodies, urban planners, and other region-wide efforts.  ”Technology and materials,” for example, is a theme the authors identify that connects research projects in transportation, buildings and sustainability, electricity, and water. Likewise, urban issues and climate change can find room for partnerships. As the report notes, groups studying urban issues can focus on measuring the social and economic impacts of climate change on a region, or on collaborative governance in policy design, or on the relationships between water conservation and urban development.

Likewise, those working on urban social justice issues can find partners among those studying the impact of environmental issues on health, from say, former dump sites or freight emissions, or other hazards found too often in low-income neighborhoods.

The authors conclude with recommendations for moving forward, both in research areas and in “framing papers.” The latter are papers that develop a research agenda that can point the way to future policy changes.

They recommend research syntheses on the following topics:

    • Building sustainability—focusing on the effectiveness and cost effectiveness of sustainable measures on new construction.
    • Building sustainability—focusing on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of sustainability measures for the existing housing stock, or retrofitting the existing housing stock.
    • Climate change—focusing on the effectiveness of urban growth management strategies to reduce conversion of rural land for urban uses.
    • Water Supply—focusing on the effectiveness of policies and strategies to conserve water, improve water quality and supply issues.
    • Urban Ecology—focusing on what the results of empirical research on urban ecosystem services imply for urban and neighborhood development.

They recommend framing papers on the following topics:

    • Green jobs—focused on developing a research agenda on measures to create green jobs.
    • Environmental justice—focused on strategies to reduce environmental inequities.
    • Inclusive/diverse housing and neighborhoods—focused on developing a research agenda on measures to improve diversity or inclusiveness.
    • Urban heat island effect—focused on a research agenda on the effectiveness of measures to reduce the effect.

This analysis is the first phase of a larger project geared towards identifying a research agenda and developing common performance metrics to support federal sustainability initiatives.

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