Merging Global Resources to Support Urban Sustainability

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UT-led Effort to Develop Research Network Focused on Food, Energy, and Water Resources

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Environmental change, population growth, and accelerating consumption of food, energy, and water resources are creating challenges for urban sustainability worldwide, so a team of University of Tennessee researchers is collaborating to develop an international research coordination network (iRCN) with the goal of supporting sustainable urban systems. These systems, which include cities and their surrounding areas, generally have conflicting interests in terms of limited food, energy, and water resources.

With funding from a recent National Science Foundation grant, project leader Jie (Joe) Zhuang, a professor of environmental soil science in the UT Institute of Agriculture, and Tom Gill, director of the UT Smith Center for International Sustainable Agriculture, are partnering with colleagues from across the university in what is truly a broad, interdisciplinary effort to build a comprehensive global database and network of food, energy, and water (FEW)-focused research. The work should make it easier for leaders of FEW-based research to think more broadly, inspiring outreach, engagement and multinational transdisciplinary efforts to enhance local and global urban sustainability.

Zhuang and Gill’s partners include Frank Löffler, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair professor and director of UT Center for Environmental Biotechnology; Mingzhou Jin, a professor in the Tickle College of Engineering and director of UT Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE); Wendy Tate, a William J. Taylor professor in the Haslam College of Business; and Gary Sayler, emeritus distinguished professor at UT Knoxville.

In their grant proposal, the researchers acknowledge that despite dramatic differences in economic and political structure, many countries share “common FEW trajectories, a strong science and technology base, and a perceived commitment to urban environmental sustainability.” Says Zhuang, “The goal of this international research coordination network is to chart a new path forward in developing urban sustainability and coordination with limited food, energy, and water resources.”

The food, energy, and water nexus generates complicated relationships. Credit: J. Zhuang, courtesy UTIA.

The proposed iRCN is expected to merge information from research networks existing among countries of different urbanization and income levels from all around the globe, including Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Guatemala, the Netherlands, Tanzania, Uganda, Uruguay, and the U.S.

Because no single group of disciplines can generate a comprehensive understanding of the feedbacks and impacts of urban FEW manipulations and variations on the environment, Zhuang says this iRCN will help researchers link currently uncoordinated work, truly engage stakeholders, and advance a FEW-focused global agenda of sustainable urban development.

Zhuang and his colleagues also say the network established through this iRCN will serve as a template for budding FEW-urban research initiatives in Africa, Latin America, and Asia and help less urbanized countries avoid traps and negative experiences during the transition to sustainable development.

Because urban communities will need workforces capable of implementing sustainable urban development, the funding also provides for unique opportunities for international education, including new courses, an honors student research program on the UT Knoxville campus, multiple study-abroad programs for U.S. students, and an annual summer school in China, where U.S. students will interact with students from more than 20 countries. These efforts should contribute to developing a diverse, competitive, and globally engaged workforce that can effectively communicate FEW-based challenges and solutions and translate research innovations into practice across international borders.

The iRCN will also support a structured rationale for economic and environmental policy.

The three-year effort is funded with a $500,000 grant from the NSF Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems.  

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Jie (Joe) Zhuang

Tom Gill