Outcomes of an Urban Sustainability Research Network

From 2011 through 2017, the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported a collaborative research project on “Urban Sustainability: Research Coordination and Synthesis for a Transformative Future.”  This project was jointly organized and directed by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER and the Central Arizona Phoenix LTER.  Prof. Daniel L. Childers and I were Co-Directors of the project. 
The text here is the “plain language” public outcomes report as submitted to the Research.gov website.  We hope it gives you some sense of how BES and its partners are helping to promote the understanding and application of the popular and important idea of sustainability.  The report is divided into the two sections required by the National Science Foundation — Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.

Intellectual Merit

The Urban Sustainability Research Coordination Network (RCN) was designed to improve the understanding of urban sustainability and to better position ecologists to interact with policy makers and managers concerned with sustainability in cities, suburbs, and urban regions.  It was important to focus on urban areas because sustainability research and practice had mainly focused on natural resources, rural systems, or conservation.  Because urban systems are becoming ever more important in the United States and around the world, improving the understanding of urban sustainability is a crucial need.  Intentionally limited to working with existing data, the Urban Sustainability RCN had four main objectives: 1) to improve the availability of knowledge about the sustainability of urban systems; 2) to generate conceptual frameworks that unify the crucial disciplines needed to understand and facilitate urban sustainability; 3) to identify research needs to enhance the future understanding and application of urban sustainability; and 4) to build a diverse network of sustainability researchers and practitioners. 
This RCN began with 37 participants from the United States and 4 other countries.  The Network grew to engage 80 researchers, educators, and practitioners from 50 cities in 20 countries.  This extensive network brought together a large amount of data, broad experience with cities of different sizes and types, and the insights of various cultural and professional backgrounds.  The large size of the Network helped to spread the insights of the intellectual integration very widely around the nation and globe.  The growth of the Network also reflected the widespread interest in the topic.
The RCN convened three meetings of the entire group over the course of the grant, plus smaller thematically oriented meetings.  The themes evolved during the project based on the “all hands” meetings, and the activities of the working groups.  Ultimately, the RCN addressed these themes: 1) conceptual models for urban sustainability; 2) the influence of different formal and informal governance structures on urban sustainability; 3) the role of interdisciplinary insights and contributions of the humanities to improved urban sustainability;  4) how ecologically informed urban design can improve sustainability through attention to adaptive resilience; 5) how urban metabolism, that is, the control of nutrient and energy flow, contributes to  sustainability; and 6) the use of scenario planning as a tool to improve sustainable urban futures.  
The RCN increased understanding of the social, economic, and environmental triggers that have led cities to crisis and transition, including discriminating the different scales on which the triggers act.  This information has been especially useful to reinforcing partnerships with urban sustainability officers.  The RCN also employed the idea that urban areas are complex systems, in which triggers affect the adaptive mechanisms that lead toward or away from sustainability.   Finally, the RCN employed the interactions between water resources and energy resources to understand important trade-offs that can affect the ability of cities to transition to sustainability.

Broader Impacts

Several specific outcomes illustrate the practical success of this RCN.  One is its serving as a seed bed for the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN).  This multi-institutional program of research and application, headquartered at Arizona State University, uses several of the conceptual advances generated by our RCN as the stimulus for new data collection.   A second major project that emerged from this RCN was funded by Future Earth to investigate sustainability from the perspective of urban phosphorus dynamics.  Phosphorus is a significant limiting nutrient in ecosystems and a can be a serious pollutant of surface waters.  A third outcome is cementing interactions with the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to help develop sustainability research in the context of the rapid urbanization now underway in China and elsewhere in developing countries.  Interchanges with Network members in South Africa and in Latin America ensure that the insights and needs of very different kinds of urban change have been accounted for in our concepts and in our communication with urban design, planning, and management practitioners.  An additional important outcome of the RCN was better linking engineering and urban design perspectives with the important biological basis of sustainability in urban systems. 
The RCN trained several students and early career scientists.  A total of 20 post-doctoral associates participated as full members of the RCN.  The RCN employed Post-doctoral associate Meredith Garten for 2.5 years. She is now a faculty member at Ohio University.  Chris Sanchez, Laboratory Manager for PI Childers, assisted with logistics for the RCN after Dr. Gartin’s departure; he is now a doctoral student at Arizona State University.  Nicholas Weller, also a doctoral student with Childers, won an NSF EASPI grant to assist with field work on the urban sustainability pilot project funded by the CAS in Beijing in Summer 2016.  The interactions with many sustainability practitioners are ongoing.  So the network established by this RCN project, continues to advance the conceptual understanding and pathways for application of sustainability.


Some of the key or recent publications produced by the members and working groups of the RCN are these:


Grove, M., M.L. Cadenasso, S.T.A. Pickett, G. Machlis, and W.R. Burch, Jr (2015). The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology: Space, Scale, and Time for the Study of Cities  Yale University Press.  New Haven.  ISBN: 978-0-300-10113-3
Steiner, F. R., G. F. Thompson, and A. Carbonell, editors. (2016). Nature and cities: the ecological imperative in urban design and planning  The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.  Cambridge, MA. 

Book Chapters

Cadenasso, M.L. and S.T.A. Pickett (2018). Situating sustainability from an ecological science perspective: Ecosystem services, resilience, and environmental justice. Situating Sustainability: Sciences/Humanities/Societies, Scales and Social Justice.  Sze, Julie, Editor.  New York University Press.  New York.  ISBN: 9781479870349, in press.
McPhearson, T. and K. Wijsman (2017). Transitioning complex urban systems: The importance of urban ecology for sustainability in New York City. P 65, in Urban Sustainability Transitions  Frantzeskaki, N, V. Castan Broto, L Coenen, and D. Loorbach.  Springer.  New York.  ISBN: 978-1-315-22838-9.
Steiner, F.R. (2016). Preface/Vorwort. Energy x Change: München und Austin: regionale Zentren nachhaltiger Entwicklung/Munich and Austin regional centers of sustainable innovation  Petra Liedl.  Beuth Verlag GmbH.  Berlin.  pg 8.
Steiner, FR, and D Pieranunzi (2016). Sites v2. Ecological Urbanism Revised ed. Mohsen Mostafari and Gareth Doherty.  Lars Müller Publishers.  Zürich.  pg. 514.

Papers in Journals

Bois, P, D.L. Childers, T. Corlouer, J. Laurent, A. Massicot, C. Sanchez, and A. Wanko. (2017). Confirming a plant-mediated “biological tide” in an aridland constructed treatment wetland.  Ecosphere. 8 (3),  e01756. 
Bunn, D., B. Büscher, M.L. Cadenasso, D.L. Childers, M. McHale, S.T.A. Pickett, L. Rivers, L. Swemmer. Golden Wildebeest Days: South Africa’s Wild Life Economy from Apartheid to Neolibralism.  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, submitted.   
Childers, Daniel, M.L. Cadenasso, J.Morgan Grove, Victoria Marshall, Brian McGrath, S.T.A. Pickett (2015). An Ecology for Cities: A Transformational Nexus of Design and Ecology to Advance Climate Change Resilience and Urban Sustainability.  Sustainability. 7  3774. DOI: 10.3390/su7043774
Grimm, N.B., S.T.A. Pickett, R.L. Hale, and M.L. Cadenasso (2016). Does the Ecological Concept of Disturbance Have Utility in Urban Social-Ecological-Technological Systems?.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability. 3 (1),  e01255. DOI: 10.1002/ehs2.1255
Groffman, P.M., M.L. Cadenasso, J. Cavender-Bares, D.L. Childers, N.B. Grimm, J.M. Grove, S.E. Hobbie, L.R. Hutyra, G.D. Jenerette, T. McPhearson, D.E. Pataki, S.T.A. Pickett, R.V. Pouyat, E. Rosi-Marshall, and B.L. Ruddell (2017). Moving toward a new urban system science.  Ecosystems. 20. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-016-0053-4
Hersperger, A.M., C Ioja, F. Steiner, and C.A. Tudor. (2015). Comprehensive consideration of conflicts in the land-use planning process: a conceptual contribution.  Carpathian Journal of Earth and Environmental Sciences. 10 (4). 
McHale, Melissa R., Scott M. Beck, Steward T.A. Pickett, Daniel L. Childers, Mary L. Cadenasso, Louie Rivers III, Louise Swemmer, Liesel Ebersohn, Wayne Twine, David Bunn (). Democratization of ecosystem services – A radically revised framework for assessing nature’s benefits.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, under revision.
McHale, Melissa R., Steward TA Pickett, Olga Barbosa, David N Bunn, Mary L Cadenasso, Dan L Childers, Meredith Gartin, George Hess, David M Iwaniec, Timon McPhearson, M Nils Peterson, Alexandria K Poole, Louie Rivers III, Shade T Shutters, and Weiqi Zhou (2015). A New Global Urban Realm: Complex, Connected, Diffuse, and Diverse Socio-Ecological Systems.  Sustainability. 7  5211. DOI: 10.3390/su70566
McPhearson, Timon, S.T.A. Pickett, N. Grimm, J. Niemelä, M. Alberti, T. Elmqvist, C. Weber, J. Breuste, D. Haase, and S. Qureshi (2016). Advancing Urban Ecology Towards a Science of Cities.  BioScience.   DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw002
Metson, G.S., S.M. Powers, R. Hale, J. Sayles, G. Oberg, G.K, MacDonald, Y. Yuwayyama, N. Springer, A. Weatherley, K. Hondula, K. Jones, R.B. Chowdhury, A.H.W. Beusen, A.F. Bouwman. Socio-environmental assessment of phosphorus flows in the urban sanitation shain of diverse cities.  Regional Environmental Change, under review
Muñoz-Erickson, T.A., C. Miller, and T. Miller. (2017). How cities think: knowledge co-production for urban sustainability and resilience.  Forests. 8 (6) DOI: 10.3390/f8060203
Muñoz-Erickson, T.A., Lindsay K. Campbell, Daniel L. Childers, J. Morgan Grove, David M. Iwaniec, Steward T. A. Pickett, Michele Romolini, Erika S. Svendsen. (2016). Demystifying governance and its role in transitions in urban social-ecological systems.  Ecosphere. 7 (11),  e01564. DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.1564
Pickett, S.T.A. and Weiqi Zhou (2015). Global Urbanization as a Shifting Context for Applying Ecological Science toward the Sustainable City.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability. 1  art5. DOI: 10.1890/EHS14-0014.1
Pickett, S.T.A., M.L. Cadenasso, Emma J. Rosi-Marshall, Kenneth T. Belt, Peter M. Groffman, J. Morgan Grove, Elena G. Irwin, Sujay S. Kaushal, Shannon L. LaDeau, Charles H. Nilon, Christopher M. Swan, Paige S. Warren. (2017). Dynamic Heterogeneity: A Framework to Promote Integration and Hypothesis Generation in Urban Systems..  Urban Ecosystems. 20 (1), DOI: 10.1007/s11252-016-0574-9
Pickett, S.T.A., M.L. Cadenasso (2017). How many principles of urban ecology are there?  Landscape Ecology.   DOI: 10.1007/s10980-017-0492-0
Pickett, S.T.A., M.L. Cadenasso, Daniel Childers, Mark McDonnell, Weiqi Zhou (2016). Evolution and future of urban ecological science: Ecology in, of, and for the city.  Ecosystem Health and Sustainability.  DOI: 10.1002/ehs2.1229
Pieranunzi, D., F.R. Steiner, and S. Rieff (2017). Advancing green infrastructure and ecosystem services through SITES.  Landscape Architecture Frontiers. 5 (1), 22. DOI: 10.15302/J-LAF-20170103
Romolini, M., R.P. Bixler, and J.M. Grove. (2016). A social-ecological framework for urban strewarship network research to promote sustainable and resilient cities.  Sustainability. 8:956. DOI: 10.3390/su8090956
Sanchez, CA; Childers, DL; Turnbull, L; Upham, RF; Weller, N (2016). Aridland constructed treatment wetlands II: Plant mediation of surface hydrology enhances nitrogen removal.  Ecological Engineering. 97  658. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoleng.2016.01.002
Shutters, S.T. (2016). Interdependent Preferences and Prospects for Global Sustainability.  International Journal of Sustainability Policy and Practice. 12 (3),  DOI: 10.18848/2325-1166/CGP
Steiner, F.R. (2016). Opportunities for Urban Ecology in Community and Regional Planning.  Journal of Urban Ecology. 2 (1), DOI: 10.1093/jue/juv004
Steiner, F.R. (2016). The application of ecological knowledge requires a pursuit of wisdom.  Landscape and Urban Planning. 155:108.
Steiner, FR, AW Shearer (2016). Geodesign-Changing the World, Changing Design.  Landscape and Urban Planning. 156:1.

Zhou, Weiqi, S.T.A. Pickett, and M.L. Cadenasso (2017). Shifting concepts of urban spatial heterogeneity and their implications for sustainability.  Landscape Ecology. 32 (1),  DOI: 10.1007/s10980-016-0432-4

Steward T.A. Pickett, Director Emeritus