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Towards a SUS-RURI Convergence Research Agenda

Published onDec 24, 2019
Towards a SUS-RURI Convergence Research Agenda
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SUS-RURI Discussion Notes

What are the Opportunities for Convergence Research at the Urban-Rural Interface?

At the end of the first day of the workshop, participants developed topics for breakout sessions to be held on the second day. The themes for discussion centered on seven topics. The first two topics addressed the definition and boundaries of sustainable urban systems as study subjects within the Mississippi River Watershed (MRW), including research questions regarding typologies of cities and definition of scales. The third topic explored economics as a driver for decisions in these contexts. The next two topics addressed the SUS convergence research process, including needs for new methods for research and data availability/structure. Large group discussions focused on the integration of people into research and lastly, the need for new approaches to transdisciplinary education at all levels from K-12 through doctoral-level education.

From the perspective of workshop organizers, major questions emerged related to factors which determine land use, how societies have developed towards the current status quo, and how to implement systemic change to reverse negative effects of current land-use patterns. Multiple significant symptoms of unsustainable land use have become apparent in the MWR, such as health disparities between rural and urban communities, flooding, urban heat island effects, pollution, nitrogen run-off, and erosion. Further discussions in subsequent breakout sessions were related to these topics as summarized in the following paragraphs.

1. Typology of Cities

Questions that were brought forward: How can cluster analysis (Big Data) be used to develop spatial typologies? How should these be specified and categorized to describe urban systems from a planning perspective (beyond current zoning requirements)? Do distinct boundaries exist between rural and urban systems, and are these necessary? When should specific communities be studied and when can systems of study be generalized?

Session participants noted that spatial typologies are typically defined by density, with mobility networks as a shared thread, but the goal to develop more sustainable urban systems in the MRW may require reconsideration of urban spaces and land-use patterns based on water systems. Currently urban systems are predominantly engineered and machine-based infrastructures, which often have negative effects on natural water systems. This discussion culminated around the idea of re-imagining urban infrastructure to include man-made and natural water systems (watersheds) and integrating surface densities (i.e., impervious surface) and other landscape features into typology characteristics. Some general topic areas applicable to the MRW were suggested:

  • Urban network analysis

  • Cluster analysis (in the era of big data)

  • Dimensionality reduction

  • Pedestrian scales/walkability

  • Characteristic selection vs. problem definition

  • Sensitivity to governance structure

    • NGOs/foundations

    • Scale/connectivity in relation to power structures

  • Data for and under extreme emergency situations, i.e. pulse events

  • Typologies to organize interactions, scientific exchange, broader impacts

  • PRISM categories (marketing categories)

  • Connectivity + integration

  • Who defines critical need and how? (thus driving typology)

  • Pockets of heterogeneity

Participants agreed that the disconnect between political boundaries and natural boundaries often leads to unsustainable development. Identifying the problem suggests that this barrier could be overcome. Participants proposed future discussions that could be based on sociological theory of the characteristics that constitute a city, and how dense urban settlements can be better reconnected to their surroundings and natural resources as ecological systems. One hypothesis for future research could be that the re-alignment of political boundaries with natural boundaries would lead to more sustainable cities.

2. Definition of Scales

The workshop used spatial scales as an organizational structure, thus one breakout group addressed further research needs to define scales across urban “systems of systems.” Watersheds are naturally nested in a fractal arrangement that facilitates multivariate analysis, thus resolution and detail need to be captured for system-level analyses. Computational limitations (e.g., time and storage) are now less important than how problems are framed for analysis.

General questions that emerged included:

  • How does granularity of analyses drive outputs?

    • What do we optimize?

    • What do we prioritize?

    • Who defines success?

    • Where/how does success begin and does it grow across scales (and in what order)?

  • What constitutes success at the micro, meso, macro, and across scales?

    • Which scale mismatch problems should be addressed?

    • Is there/can there be flow of information across different scales?

    • What is the research purpose driving the definitions of scale (cultural vs. social vs. environmental/ecological vs. economical)?

    • Can communication between those looking at different scales be improved?

  • Can a universal definition of scales be developed/applied?

    • Can multi-scalar analyses that are transversal be developed?

    • How can time scales be integrated?

    • Are there hotspots/hot moments (clustering) of change that can be addressed?

    • How can we understand the dynamics/interactions of sub-components within the system?

    • Modification of thinking about area/unit problems

  • How can research address social hierarchies and convergence of peoples across scales?

    • Can storytelling and education better the community's understanding of research?

    • What methods better incorporate local and/or indigenous knowledge?

    • Who is the audience? How is information distributed? What is the reach? How can it be measured?

    • Personal narratives: what are applicable communities/identities?

  • What is a meaningful scale or the scale with the most clarity?

    • In relation to the data?

    • In relation to the research question?

  • Can we develop and apply new and different types of scales?

    • What data scales apply and do these scales overlap?

    • Communication scales/mechanisms—face-to-face, online, global?

    • Are there also scales of experience or ‘perspective’ scales?

    • MRW = sink, sewer, stream, Mississippi River System, Gulf of Mexico?

    • Are there implicit cultural scales (e.g., Boone vs. Ames; Iowa vs. Minnesota; Midwest vs. Gulf Coast)?

    • Do scales of metabolism apply (e.g., calories -> dollars)?

  • Can we generalize and create comparative studies?

    • Can we design malleable studies to work within different frameworks?

    • How can we incorporate qualitative data to determine what is transferable between scales?

    • What are the characteristics of urban and rural footprints?

    • What are the interesting systems/scales in urban-rural interconnected systems? (Agri-urban, upstream-downstream, economic structures)

  • If disciplinary-based evidence and/or science/scientists do not support different decisions, what is their role? Can they be convinced to change?

3. Economics as a Driver for Decisions in Urban Systems

This group constructed their response as a narrative. Their key proposition is that economics is a productive lens through which to conduct convergent research around key dilemmas impacting a gradient of rural-to-urban communities within the MRW. They started with an NSF-inspired definition of “Convergent Research,” as research driven by a compelling problem and requiring deep integration across disciplines. As an example of a compelling problem, this group chose flooding in the watershed, particularly the types of chronic flooding expected due to climate variability and hydrologic modification. They imagined a preliminary mental model (based on the concept of the MRW as a complex adaptive system) where there is clear biophysical and social recognition of the upstream and downstream connections between agricultural and urban communities; united by water and a desire to generate local economic development. In such a model, individual or plot-level (micro-scale) decision-making in time and space could be aggregated to form regional and, in the case of the MRW, continental patterns and effects.

Based on recent history, this group imagined a coupled human-natural system of feedbacks where, on the “front loop” (rural to urban), farmers sought to increase commodity yields on unproductive farmland through tillage and extensive drainage systems made up of surface ditches and sub-surface tiling. This resulted in hydrologic alteration that eliminated water storage and sped rainfall into river corridors. At the same time, cities within the MRW were recasting the waterfront as a natural and cultural amenity in order to increase economic activity and were building near the river (or within the floodplain) based on risk maps that predated emerging climate regimes. Meanwhile, states in the upper reaches of the MRW (particularly the US Cornbelt region) have, and based on predictions, will continue to experience more volatile and variable weather conditions with increased high-intensity spring and fall rainfall, and more frequent 100-year and 500-year flood events.

From this, the group constructed a mental model of a study system where precipitation, current land-use patterns, and concomitant drainage expansion to protect yields will place riverside cities at an increased risk of flood damage. Because the system is directional (water flows downstream), there is little cost to headwater farmers when they increase water into the system. This group proposed this as a straightforward portrayal of a riverine agricultural system that would be generalizable to similar systems worldwide. With this conceptualization, the group saw opportunity for solution-based research that investigated the potential to close the loop by sharing risks between farmers and urban communities, financed through land repurposing payments. In such a scheme, cities could pay upstream landowners to enhance water storage capacity via cropland management and spatially strategic conservation practices, thus reducing flooding by slowing drainage.

The feasibility of related research is supported by a number of currently interconnected policy, market, and land-use outcomes that simultaneously cause the problems that need to be changed and also facilitate possible modes of change. Agricultural land use is largely dictated by existing commodity markets, supporting infrastructure, and facilitating policy. Promoted through a mixture of perceived scale economies, commodity subsidies, and crop insurance, a significant amount of chronically unproductive, flood-prone farmland is needlessly used to produce commodities. Regional estimates suggest between 3% to 15% of the US Cornbelt regularly underperforms financially due to low yields and/or high management costs. Removing this land from production and using it specifically for enhanced water storage (via controlled drainage, conservation tillage, swales, restored oxbows, retention ponds/reservoirs, restored wetlands, etc.) has the capacity to mitigate downstream flooding frequency and intensity. Repurposing unproductive crop land for higher value uses (e.g., flood mitigation) is supported by the context of land use. Economies exist at scales that match a 3%-15% land repurposing perspective, and land owners/farmers can manage their systems relative to profit as opposed to yield. Subsidies and crop insurance policy also broadly support lower loss risk at field scales. Beyond this, existing conservation funding combined with emergent ecosystem service (risk-trading) markets that link up and downstream partners/stakeholders can be configured to provide the type of sustained targeted financing necessary to incentivize this change.

To date, strategic conservation land repurposing for reasons such as water quality protection and flood mitigation have been hampered by a number of technical shortcomings that limited spatial planning capacity, and curtail targeted policy and financing. As such, a significant amount of conservation investment over the past few decades has done little to broadly improve water quality. Nevertheless, very recent advances in and low-to-no cost availability of high resolution planning data (e.g., LiDAR data), along with new sophisticated tools that analyze this data in the context of land use planning have created a completely new, and rapidly expanding socio-technological frontier relative to planning capacity at multiple scales. In short, there is a new data-driven context in which to proceed with MRW-scale approaches to land use. To populate and develop such a model of land use and market development would require deep integration by watershed planners, urban planners, economists (agricultural, natural resource, urban), hazard specialists, hydrologists, architects and landscape architects, spatial modelers and others. This approach also lends itself to stakeholder engagement, and a short list of possible collaborators would include insurance companies, certified crop advisors, mayors, landowners, seed companies, industry, and academics.

From an academic standpoint, economics has a suite of theories that are both applicable to the MRW, and widely acknowledged. Further, economics has a rich and as yet still emerging research horizon around how societies manage and use common-pool or public goods. Notable examples include Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s design thinking from her book Governing the Commons (1990) to show how, in the absence of top-down regulation, societies could equitably and sustainably manage common good resources and potential keys to understanding and anticipating human behavior within complex adaptive systems such as the one proposed in game theory, as articulated by John Von Neumann. The valuation approach provided by the conceptual model of “ecosystem services” has, in the opinion of the group, failed to gain traction as an analytic or translational tool. While the approach suggested is multi-scalar, the choice of grain of analyses highly influences results. The adoption or uptake of risk-trading schemes would provide tangible feedback from urban downstream dwellers. The development of such financial implements may very well generate profit and other benefits beyond the intended effect of controlling or reducing flood impacts. The following aspects of related research were summarized/identified by the group:

  • Risk mitigation

  • Costs vs. benefits—challenges vs. opportunities

  • Economic development along the MRW

  • Repurposing farmland in floodplains (e.g., underperforming lands)

  • Roles of insurance companies and governmental entities (certified crop advisors, mayors, landowners, seed companies, other farmers, industry, academics, advisory).

This group also articulated the following questions:

  • What are the pros and cons of monetizing ecosystem services at different scales? What are the non-finance alternatives?

  • Who benefits and who bears the cost of the externalities—who should? Who decides?

  • Can economic analyses provide a means to link social and biophysical aspects (combined sense) of SUS (with costs, benefits, and externalities included)?

4. New Methods of Research and New Forms/ Analyses of Data

The group started with the premise that new methods for research and analysis methods are needed to define and measure the rural-urban interface, including physical + spatial + social + economic + perpetual (network analysis). This should include methods for assembling, using, organizing, and visualizing data as well as methods for defining, identifying problems, and determining pressing needs. The following topics were proposed as needs in this arena:

  • Methods for developing well-functioning cross-disciplinary teams

    • Personal contact

    • Facilitating meaningful interaction (attention to the “language of the disciplines”)

  • Methods for valuing different forms of knowledge

    • Disciplinary knowledge

    • Local knowledge

  • Methods for data input and output

  • Methods for connecting tools from different disciplines

    • New ways of applying social science tools across the entire gradient

    • Community-oriented tools that can address the rural-urban interface

    • Methods to incorporate artists and designers from the beginning

  • New things that can be understood with new methods/technologies (e.g., big data) and scale-bridging

    • Approaches: top-down or bottom-up influence data and information transferability

  • Agent-based modeling to understand dynamics that can integrate with cluster analysis

Research strategies and areas for investigation in rural-urban interface science emerged. Participants saw great value in collaboration with artists through storytelling as a tool for understanding wicked problems across scales. Such understanding can connect people on a cultural/personal level and help them to work with and in communities to take action. They identified a number of “wicked problems:” Weather—Floods, tornadoes, rain, ice storms, extreme heat; Land use—urban landscape characteristics, density, sprawl, stormwater management, nutrient pollution and impaired drinking water; and Quality of life—lived experience, income level.

5. Data Availability and Structure

This breakout group focused on developing questions about data and discussed how greater availability of data could be useful for exploring urban-rural systems:

  • What is the role of open source vs. proprietary data for intellectual progress?

  • How might a database enable broad collaboration? How could large data sets be curated?

  • How do academics work with the private sector to push solutions from modeling to application?

  • How do you prepare people from different sectors for successful collaboration?

  • What are the major obstacles and how can governmental institutions remove those obstacles?

  • Is it possible to come to consensus on a systems-view to manage sustainability?

  • What are financial incentives for “research to practice” collaborations? For major grants, science-research P.I. ends up driving project, even components they are not prepared for (Ex. public engagement, K-12 education)—Could there be two-part grants that include “research in application” phase?

  • How might grant programs be structured to reward convergent partnerships?

  • How do we assign value to factors or outcomes with social value, but no clear financial value (e.g., short-term trade offs vs. long-term impacts)?

  • What is the balance between traditional science research (theoretical) and application and what is the goal of NSF? How could the funding work to support development of adequate data?

  • Which realms of application are most open, amenable, likely to lead to large-scale societal change? How could this knowledge improve project design, stakeholder/collaborator engagement, and grant writing?

  • Are there frameworks for matching research theories to application and then communicating the meaning, limitations, and potential?

  • How might deep understandings of community dynamics and shared values open opportunities for addressing problems and engaging communities without always resorting to financial incentives?

  • Temporal data—what are the relevant forms and structures for change across time?

  • What data are needed by whom and for what (public vs. private as applied to assembling, accessing, using data)? What is private data and private science?

In relation to data structure, the following research questions emerged:

  • How can multi-scale data be used to avoid localized injustice or inaction in sustainability?

  • What would be necessary and possible if water (or energy) was at the center of all decisions we made?

  • How do we help people understand, visualize, and care about water management/quality?

  • Is “one size fits all” a best practice and when does it really work?

  • Do we need to communicate science in a different way (narratives, visualizations) to be compelling and actionable and lead to outcomes?

  • What are best practices for building coalitions around issues? All stakeholders in SUS: scientists, designers, policy makers, media, public, artists to lead to action?

  • Will system-of-systems thinking enhance this opportunity (e.g., F-E-W systems of systems)?

  • What are the ontologies and typologies for SUS: Physical-spatial (land use, connections); Economic-demographic (advantages/disadvantages, persevering/apathetic, high social capital/low -> resilience sustainability)?

  • Do data-driven models lead to discovery and incorporation in better decision-making processes?

  • Can evidence-based education be used to support making difficult and imperative decisions?

6. Integration of People in Research

The integration of people into SUS research constituted one of the main discussion topics across the two workshop days and resulted in concrete suggestions for future SUS convergence research.

First, given that the integration of community stakeholders and artists who are often outside of academia into meaningful research discourse requires time and funds, participants recommended that a planning phase should be integrated into future proposal timelines. Second, social science research questions should more often be integrated with the bio-physical research question (e.g., as already practiced in the Smart and Connected Communities and INFEWS programs).

Participant discussion centered on identifying and describing convergent and community-inclusive practices that:

  • Instill trust in the research process;

  • Include community funded projects;

  • Study the convergence of institutions around a central problem;

  • Transform perspectives (e.g., of water) on multiple scales;

  • Transfer knowledge across institutions and communities;

  • Define the differences and similarities between sustainability and justice;

  • Are cognizant of who is involved;

  • Invite the participation of people who are already there;

  • Do not assume we already know the problem and solution; and

  • Make things more two-way with data sharing and transparency.

New research projects focused on the rural-urban interface should refine strategies for integrating community members in the process to identify research problems, so that research is conducted around hypotheses and research questions that local participants care about.

The following related items were discussed:

  • Start with local participants rather than bringing them in later.

  • Train academics to engage people more naturally in the process.

  • Address internal resistance among academics to share information with the public.

  • Overcome distrust and apathy from the public by finding connections and removing bias from interactions.

  • Make public engagement a priority in the process- and dedicate funds to make sure it gets done.

  • Make efforts to overcome (political, other) opposition.

  • Work with existing social structures to support change (e.g., watershed management organizations).

  • Eliminate the notion that leads people to feel they do not have any agency.

  • Use the watershed as a better framework that diminishes the dichotomy of ‘urban vs. rural.’

  • Demonstrate how foresight/storytelling can influence governance, hold decision-makers accountable.

  • Imagine and share how decisions might change if we granted bodies of water ‘personhood.’

  • Develop actionable collaborations based on participants in the workshop – with scale determined by project.

  • Develop ways to communicate complex science to diverse audiences.

  • Determine the destination: Facilitate convergence among different sectors to identify benchmarks for environmental quality.

  • Create opportunities for convergence: Identify common needs/problems that can be addressed by industry, academic, private industry, etc. at the same time.

  • Integrate local wisdom and quantitative data.

  • Move beyond political boundaries (e.g., water as a local resource, but basin more than states).

  • Identify watershed management approaches that minimize the ‘tragedy of the commons.’

  • Consider the role of population dynamics, mobility and vulnerability.

  • Identify and overcome obstacles to policy change.

  • Describe leadership in a collaborative environment: Identify research needs to effect change; Cultivate civic interest/engagement to push political change; Identify community leadership.

  • Push for institutional transformation to address the following questions:

    • What are the expectations/values? How do we align them?

    • What is the function of practice—how do people work together?

    • How can we focus globally?

  • Identify the pathways to care: For example, water provides a good opportunity to examine scales and values without merely adding a monetary value to the resource.

  • Identify elements of community engagement that are relevant across scales and those that must be uniquely designed for each community.

  • Emphasize the function of art in community education and engage artists throughout projects.

  • Imagine and elaborate the role of art in complex scientific systems.

7. Transdisciplinary Education

Participants agreed that addressing questions and challenges for SUS-RURI convergence would require new professionals emerging from new approaches to transdisciplinary education from K-12 to graduate and post-graduate stages. Restructuring undergraduate education to include preparation for cross-disciplinary collaboration could be framed around discovery with students learning transdisciplinary ways of thinking as they explore issues. The ‘cultures’ and ‘ways of knowing’ of the disciplines are still relevant and should be addressed in an inclusive framework. An open question remains as to which issues/questions might be most critical to build a foundation to move SUS-RURI research forward.

The goal of an educational program could be to replace the common discipline-based curriculum model based on the number of credit hours of study in particular areas of emphasis to a model in which students create the learning paths. This approach could be taken from K-12 using topical/project- based learning and extended to self-driven paths for graduate education. Further, the design disciplines could be used as a model for integration of project-based learning that integrates different systems of knowledge and data. Participants noted a number of related issues and concerns for transdisciplinary education:

  • Change is hard! How can a huge system be re-structured over time and retain value?

  • Can short-term, high-risk roles generate new ideas? Can it be made accessible?

  • Is it possible to plan for this kind of change? Is serendipity necessary to make it happen?

  • Is it possible for universities to move from disciplinary siloes to vibrant villages?

  • How can we make incubators that mix people and foment creativity?

  • How could conflicts be mitigated? How do “disciplines” come and go, and what can we learn from that?


This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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