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Diane Pataki: Urban Sustainability and Co-Implementation

Diane Pataki is a biology professor and the Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on human-environment interactions, specifically with regards to urban vegetation, landscape design, and resource use. In the following interview, Pataki describes her work in urban sustainability and development.

You emphasize the importance of working with social scientists, urban planners, landscape architects, engineers, philosophers, and local stakeholders to understand urban ecologies.

How have you built such relationships or partnerships throughout your research?

We have a few different projects around Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles studying water sustainability. We're exploring how cities can transition towards multiple aspects of sustainability, especially in the face of increasing drought and water scarcity. One project that we focus on here in Salt Lake City is a co-designed site in our university research park called the “Landscape Lab”. The space is being retrofitted to test different landscape designs that serve multiple social and ecological functions. We had an interdisciplinary team work with landscape architects and local stakeholders to design a replicated experiment that tests different stormwater green infrastructure designs.

At the same time, Landscape Lab is a social space. It's going to transform what was formerly an unused lawn into a space that people can enjoy. There will be walking paths for building occupants and visitors as well as bike trails running along the adjacent creek.

Overall, our goal is to enhance both ecological and social functions to capture stormwater in a space that right now is over-irrigated and under-utilized.

What collective leadership and transdisciplinary research skills did you use during this study, or do you use in similar projects?

We have to build networks and use different strategies to find out what types of stakeholders are interested in projects and to cooperate with communities to achieve their priorities. We do a lot of visioning — talking with local communities about their values and goals. We then come up with ideas that are ecologically and physically sound. For this project, designs had to absorb stormwater and remove pollution, for example, and also needed to achieve goals set by stakeholders based on their perspectives of nature and visions for their city.

Were there elements of your study that were co-designed—that came from the partner, not from you or your lab?

If not, are there ways in which your research is bridging disciplines as it is actually integrated into landscaping practices throughout the city?

For projects like the Landscape Lab, designs must be practical and buildable. Solutions must meet local codes, the needs of clients and real estate owners, and changing site conditions. Our plan for this particular site in Research Park has evolved over time to incorporate buildings, parking lots, and green infrastructure into the original design. We have to balance competing needs within a site and implement a design that achieves multiple goals.

Many different types of scientists and researchers are involved in these projects. For example, in addition to ecologists and engineers, we work with social scientists who study human interaction with green space— length of stay, activities performed, etc. We also interact with humanities-oriented disciplines like philosophy and the arts. We must design multi-functional landscapes that meet human needs as well as our ecological goals.

You explain that in their efforts to solve urban ecology-related issues, scientists should incorporate elements of the humanities.

Can you expand on this co-designed "art-science collaboration"?

We are hoping that spaces like the Landscape Lab will include public art. Art serves many different functions within a site and can communicate a multitude of messages to the public.

The humanities also help us to understand the subjective experience of living in cities, something we want to incorporate into our designs. We want to know what it is like to actually be in urban nature, and we can't always access that information through objective scientific methods. The humanities are much better at trying to understand the human experience. I find that understanding incredibly useful for designing spaces or envisioning plans that will meet a diverse range of needs.

You also speak to the development of “applied research”, and the academic to non-academic interface.

Can you expand upon your vision for the future of "participatory" American academic research?

Scientists have long been trained to think that there’s such a thing as “basic research” and such a thing called “applied research”, but I think increasingly those lines are quite blurred. There are many ways American institutions gauge research impacts, impacts that can be very broad and found throughout our society.

Rather than making these categories of “applied research” and “non-applied research”, we should think about the different ways to understand impact. We have more tools now to understand the academic and societal impacts of research than we did in the past.

As we get better at understanding critical societal impacts, I think participatory research or community-engaged research will become more common. Hopefully we will gain more tools to incentivize and reward people for doing that kind of research.

The Earth Leadership Program strives to create knowledge that is solution-oriented and socially robust.

How have you pushed your research beyond traditional knowledge boundaries to become more action-oriented?

I want to answer research questions that have local significance, questions that are place-based and aligned with local communities and environments. Understanding local values and their importance for broadly achieving sustainability in an equitable manner influences the types of questions I address in my research.

Over time, my research has shifted from being more “traditional” or insular- answering questions that are mostly of interest to other scientists- to instead focus on questions that are of much broader interest beyond science itself.

Where do you think the most important opportunities lie for moving towards more sustainable urban ecologies?

What aspects of the Earth Leadership Program’s tenets might play into this future?

I see a movement for researchers who want to make more meaningful contributions to their local town, city, or place where their university is located. Many universities are launching campus-wide initiatives that are very strongly connected to the local community, and we should support and encourage that trend. As we do that, I think we have an obligation to provide more training for researchers in conducting research with local communities in terms of engagement, ethics, establishing networks, cultural sensitivity, and how to listen to local partners.

The Earth Leadership Program provides that kind of training. Critically, it also provides needed legitimacy and endorsements for this type of research. Widely recognizing engaged scholarship is a more recent development in academia, and we want universities to move quickly towards incentivizing and recognizing this work. Having a long-standing and impactful program like the Earth Leadership Program to give a stamp of approval to the importance of engaged research is very helpful to researchers at many, many institutions!

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