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Measuring Urban Sustainability in Transition 


Project Description

            The Arctic is rapidly changing across the natural, built, and social environments in ways that are interacting with each other and demanding a response in order to preserve the sustainability of northern cities, where the largest proportion of the Arctic population lives (Figure 1). Natural environmental changes include thawing permafrost, increasing wildfires, more flooding, growing health concerns, warming oceans, and threatened wildlife. The accelerating energy transition away from fossil fuels will transform livelihoods in the region over the coming decades with impacts on transportation systems, tourism, and fishing fleets. These changes are putting intense stress on the existing governance systems as they seek to ensure prosperity for increasingly mobile and diverse populations. Arctic communities and their leaders need sophisticated metrics to measure changes taking place in the natural world and reliable techniques to transform that data into effective design solutions for the built environment and guidance on how social systems can develop community assets to ensure necessary adaptability for future Arctic cities. 

           This project responds to the NSF’s Navigating the New Arctic call and Big Ideas goals by co- designing and co-producing with Arctic communities across the circumpolar north a set of indicators for the natural, built, and social environments that will help shape effective policies for addressing challenges posed by a changing climate and evolving economy. The project indicators seek to measure the transitions in and around complex urban systems, and it is not possible to identify the appropriate indicators for any one of these transitions without understanding what all the transitions are likely to look like, which requires predicting how the entire system needs to change. For example, indicators for the infrastructure/built environment transitions require understanding what infrastructure needs will be produced by the changing natural environment, energy transitions, transportation needs, livelihoods, and population for both the city itself and for the regional system in which the city is embedded and serves. This effort will integrate local Indigenous and settler Arctic communities into all project components following IARPC principles. 

The central question: How can community-defined indicators help policy makers develop effective governance systems and redesign the built infrastructure to meet the challenges of a changing environment and economy?
Fig. 1 Arctic Urban Systems 

Addressing this overarching question requires a number of sub-questions that need to be answered along the way.


1) Most importantly, how can Arctic urban communities integrate natural, social and built environment data into indicators that most effectively guide policy responses?


2) What indicators work best to measure Arctic conditions?


3) What data should be collected to measure these indicators?


4) Which cities across the circumpolar north are performing better in specific areas of sustainability and why?


5) What policies and design principles are most effective in meeting the challenges of a changing climate and economy?


6) How can best practices be transferred among cities? 



         MUST lays out a research agenda for studying Arctic cities in the context of changing climate, infrastructure, and social systems. It connects the Arctic urban experience to the broader discussion of cities across the globe by applying that research to Arctic circumstances and, in turn, contributing to existing urban literature with theory and empirical evidence developed in the far north. Through the development of indicators and extensive data collection, the project seeks to create easily measured metrics that facilitate dialogue across disciplines, allowing researchers to collaborate on commonly defined problems.


       This project will help Arctic policymakers and stakeholders pursue a path to sustainability in the face of climate change and economic transitions in the Anthropocene by developing common datasets and indicators across the natural, social and built environments as well as developing possible scenarios. The research is driven by community concerns derived through interviews, focus groups, and other community feedback. By gathering data and identifying best practices, the project will support evidence-based decision making. The indicators seek to start community dialogues on addressing the issues connected to transitions. 


        The MUST project trains a future generation of researchers in convergent research techniques, providing practical skills in working across disciplines and shaping research questions around community concerns. The post-doc, graduate students and undergrads will have opportunities to conduct research in Arctic cities and meet with key stakeholders. Project communications include exhibits, community-based data-driven art projects, a documentary, and the publication of indicators and data addressing key issues of Arctic urban development. 


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          This project will build on the work of several completed projects. Most importantly, it will expand and extend the work done as part of Arctic PIRE (NSF #1545913). That effort applied the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 37120 Sustainable cities and communities — Indicators for city services and quality of life (2018) to 46 Arctic cities [46]. The project produced a comprehensive picture of cities in the circumpolar north by collecting data for 128 indicators in 19 subject areas across 46 cities (Table 1). The dataset is a significant advance over previous studies of Arctic cities which lacked the ability to provide a comprehensive and quantitative comparison.

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