Homogenization of Urban America: Becoming a single shade of green?

Clark receives NSF funding for research project on ecological homogenization

 Clark University recently received major funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support “Collaborative Research:  Ecological Homogenization of Urban America,” a project expected to transform scientific understanding of the nation’s growing urban landscape – on ecological and sociological levels.

“A common notion is that suburbanization is making America homogenous, that the places where our population is moving to are pretty much the same wherever they’re built,” said Clark project director Colin Polsky, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Active Pedagogy and associate professor in the Graduate School of Geography. “This may be the first scientific program to test the notion that America is becoming more alike – not just in ecological appearance, but also in terms of people’s behaviors and attitudes.”

The NSF has allotted $2.7 million for the four-year, multi-institutional collaboration. The lead Principal investigator of the collaboration is Peter Groffman, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.  Clark University’s award portion totals nearly $200,000. Other participating institutions include: the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, MA; University of California, Irvine; Florida International University; Indiana University; University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; and Arizona State University.

“This may be the first scientific program to test the notion that America is becoming more alike – not just in ecological appearance, but also in terms of people’s behaviors and attitudes.” ~ Prof. Colin Polsky

Suburban developments around the nation’s cities are claiming land at a swift pace, but development need not occur in a way that makes habitats, water flows, vegetation types, and people’s behaviors more similar, Polsky said. “If we find that suburbanization is in fact reducing ecological and social diversity, would this be good or bad? We don’t know,” he said. “Generally speaking, diversity is helpful, but we’re not prepared to judge yet. The study begins this fall.” The focus now is on the research and data collection. “Later on we’ll relate our findings to different views of what is good or bad.”

The “Homogenization of Urban America” project will build upon several other active NSF grants held by Polsky and colleagues at Clark, the current Clark value of which exceeds $3 million. Clark faculty and graduate and undergraduate students from the HERO program have for several years been conducting two kinds of suburbanization research: social science and mapping. Working with colleagues in Baltimore, they have produced and are analyzing high-resolution (0.5 meter) maps of metropolitan land cover, combining GIS (geographic Information systems) and fieldwork. Also, a Clark team has collected and analyzed data from several mail and internet surveys, gauging attitudes and behaviors connected to homeowners’ feelings about lawns, landscaping, water and fertilizer use and more. The newly funded effort will expand on this research to include more houses and more cities. The new set of cities is: Boston, Baltimore, Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Paul/Minneapolis.

The planning phase of the “Urban America” project will begin in earnest this fall, with Clark supplying project colleagues with land-cover mapping and data and leading the management and analysis of   phone surveys from between 5,000 to 10,000 households in the six-city study areas. Through an outside company, calls will be made using a computer phone survey tool.

“This Homogenization of Urban America project uses GIS to blend social and ecological research. Much research using GIS tends to favor the environmental sciences or purely social applications,” adds Polsky, who is also director of the HERO NSF REU Site Program at Clark. “We’re in between the two, studying the social and environmental at once.”

The timing of this work is important, Polsky adds, noting that GIS applications are growing in bounds around the world, for environmental study, municipal planning, national security and defense, post-disaster recovery, refugee and immigration issues, and much more. Clark University is particularly well positioned to house this type of research, as Clark Labs is an acknowledged world leader in the development of geospatial technologies for effective and responsible decision making for environmental management, sustainable resource development and equitable resource allocation.

The “Homogenization of Urban America” project is a fine example of Clark’s hallmark Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP) initiative, forming a “pyramid” community of learners, including faculty, Master’s and Ph.D. students, and undergraduates collaborating with practitioners on real-world solutions, Polsky said.

Since its founding in 1887, Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has a history of challenging convention. As an innovative liberal arts college and research university, Clark’s world-class faculty lead a community of creative thinkers and passionate doers and offer a range of expertise, particularly in the areas of psychology, geography, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. Clark’s students, faculty and alumni embody the Clark motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.

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