Building Sustainable Communities


People are at the center of environmental challenges and solutions. By considering linked needs for society to achieve resilience and sustainability, the cross-college, multi-disciplinary Building Sustainable Communities Signature Research Area identifies equitable and effective solutions for addressing global environmental change.

Our mission is to connect scholars working on social, ecological, and technical systems to address how to create more just and sustainable futures. We focus on five overlapping areas:

  1. Decision making and governance
  2. Human behavior, values and cultural norms
  3. Critical infrastructure systems
  4. Complex social-ecological systems and dynamics
  5. Participatory research designs.

In all of these areas, we identify new strategies for recentering people in environmental research to create not only effective but also just social-ecological projects, policy solutions, and infrastructure designs. Key questions include:

  • How can we build policies that are resilient to short-term political and economic pressures as well as changing environmental conditions?
  • What are the distributive, procedural, and recognitional justice implications of proposed social, political, economic, and engineered solutions to environmental change?
  • How do cultural norms, ethics, and moral behaviors shape and respond to changing environmental conditions?
  • What are the ways in which policy-makers and citizens imagine new futures and engage with scientific knowledge to create such futures?
  • How can we identify and maintain resilient resource management systems?
  • How can we build and support diverse environmental research teams?

In sum, how can we better understand how human beliefs, decision, and actions affect a wide range of environmental challenges and solutions across complex systems?

Building sustainable communities infographic

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Purdue’s Approach

Leveraging a multi-year cluster hire of seven new faculty members across seven departments, this initiative is promoting interdisciplinary and systems approaches to understanding and addressing these challenges.  The initiative is focused on three overlapping areas: informal institutions and decision making, critical infrastructure systems, and resilience in social, engineered, and ecological systems. Rather than addressing problems such as natural disaster preparedness and response, or climate change mitigation and adaptation, as primarily engineering or institutional design problems, this initiative investigates good design principles for both complex social and engineered systems, as well as their networked interactions.


UNSA NEXUS: Equitable Co-existence of Agriculture, Mining, and Regional Development in Arequipa: Realities, Barriers, and Opportunities

PI: Zhao Ma
Funding: Universidad Nacional de San Agustin de Arequipa

This project investigates how communities across the rural-to-urban gradient perceive water availability and quality in the context of climate change to identify potential strategies for facilitating co-existence. More information about the Arequipa Nexus Institute here.

Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure: Network Coordination Office

Co-PI: David Johnson
Funding: NSF, CMMI

Purdue University has been awarded a five-year, $4.1 million grant by the National Science Foundation to help coordinate a national initiative aimed at minimizing damage to physical civil infrastructure. A Purdue team led by civil engineering professor Julio Ramirez will direct the Network Coordination Office for the National Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure effort by engineers and scientists to investigate methods for making civil infrastructure safer and making communities more resilient.

CRISP Type 2/Collaborative Research: Critical Transitions in the Resilience and Recovery of Interdependent Social and Physical Networks

PI: Satish Ukkusuri
Funding: NSF, CMMI

Understanding the recovery of communities after disruptions has important implications for efficiently allocating resources, better planning for disasters, and reducing time and cost of recovery. Virtually all communities are embedded in highly interdependent social and physical infrastructure. This coupling between social and physical networks can lead to complex cascading effects that cannot be understood by looking at these networks in isolation. The full implications of these interdependencies for the resilience of communities and their ability to recover after disasters are not currently understood. This research seeks an understanding of the underlying factors that lead to resilience and recovery of interdependent social and physical networks after disasters. The researchers will collect data from communities impacted by various disasters including Hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, and Maria to create and test modeling approaches for improved knowledge of both social and physical factors that lead to recovery.

Identifying Sustainability Solutions through Global-Local-Global Analysis of a Coupled Water-Agriculture-Bioenergy System

Co-PI: David Johnson
Funding: NSF, INFEWS

The National Science Foundation awarded $2.5 million to an interdisciplinary team led by Thomas Hertel, a Purdue distinguished professor of agricultural economics, to build the tools necessary to understand the global-local-global linkages underpinning future sustainability policies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture provided an additional $500,000 to enhance the economic foundations of this framework.

The funding supports the work of the Global-to-Local Analysis of Systems Sustainability (GLASS) initiative, led by Hertel and aimed at understanding the linkages between local decision-making and global sustainability outcomes. David Johnson, an assistant professor of industrial engineering and political science and co-principal investigator, is focusing on trade-offs across different environmental and economic objectives within the food-energy-water systems and potential unforeseen consequences.

Collaborative Research: Cross-Scale Interactions & the Design of Adaptive Reservoir Operations

PI: David J. Yu
Funding: NSF, CMMI

​This project addresses two key tensions in flood and drought mitigation: tradeoffs between minimizing flood and drought risk, and tradeoffs in the choice of where in the system to invest in risk mitigation. This project will study these tradeoffs through detailed case studies in distinct hydro-climatic and governance settings: Lake Mendocino, California and Danjiangkou Reservoir in Hubei Province, China. In both cases, water managers are exploring the use of streamflow forecasts to improve reservoir operations for flood control and water supply under changing conditions. This project will collect and analyze data on hydrology, infrastructure and decision making to study the impacts of operational changes and identify strategies that facilitate adaptation. A model will be developed to test how practices to reduce flood and drought impacts interact across scales (e.g., regional, municipal) and respond to change, in different environmental and social settings. The project team will work with decision makers to learn from their experiences and develop tools that fit their needs. The project will also provide education and training opportunities for the next-generation workforce in hydrology and water resources systems analysis through mentored research experiences and new course modules. Three key questions are investigated in this project: 1) How will a change in reservoir operations propagate through the partially-engineered, partially-evolving watershed system? 2) What characteristics of the hydrological or governance system affect this propagation? 3) What institutional design choices enable adaptive management? While the case-based models developed can address the research question in two specific contexts, the project also aims to derive generalizable knowledge about the features and processes critical to mitigating flood and drought risk as well as insights into unintended fragilities. 

Sociotechnical Systems to Enable Smart and Connected Energy-Aware Residential Communities

Co-PI: Leigh Raymond
Funding: NSF, SCC-IRG

This project aims to develop a new paradigm for smart and connected residential communities that engages inhabitants in understanding and reducing their home energy use while increasing their environmental awareness, responsiveness to collective goals, and improving their quality of life. The research will lead to discoveries concerning how individuals, groups, and residential communities make decisions related to their home energy consumption. Based on this knowledge, this project will develop feedback mechanisms integrated into user-interactive smart devices to enable optimal energy management. The Indiana Housing and Community Development Agency, several industry stakeholders and various community action groups will be engaged in this work throughout the lifetime of the project. Smart and connected (S&C) technology will be implemented in several hundred households in multiple residential communities that will be used as research test-beds and will cover a wide range of demographics, locations, and construction. The research outcomes will be integrated in teaching modules that support curriculum and workforce development as well as capacity-building in engineering, social and economic science, and polytechnic schools at Purdue. Through sociotechnical research advances, community engagement, and dissemination, this project will create a national model for "S&C energy-aware residential communities" in the housing sector, and by example point the broader research community toward S&CC research frontiers that enhance community functioning and national prosperity.

Affiliated Faculty

Jonathan Bauchet

School Of Hospitality And Tourism Mgmt
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Taylor Davis

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Jonathon Day

Hospitality and Tourism Management
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Andrew Flachs

Anthropology Department

Andrew Flachs researches food and agriculture systems, exploring genetically modified crops, heirloom seeds, and our own microbiomes. He researches agrarian change and rural wellbeing in South Asia, Eastern Europe, and the American Midwest.

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Tara Grillos

Political Science
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Erin Hennes

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David Johnson

Industrial Engineering and Political Science
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Jennifer Johnson

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Daniel Kelly

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Zhao Ma

Forestry and Natural Resources
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Manjana Milkoreit

Political Science
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Roshi Nateghi

Industrial Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering
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Linda Prokopy

Forestry and Natural Resources

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P. Suresh Rao

Civil Engineering and Agronomy
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Leigh Raymond

Political Science

Professor Raymond's research focuses on environmental policy, especially market-based policy approaches. He studies how informal rules and social norms related to fairness, ownership, and environmental values affect environmental policy creation, policy change, and policy implementation. His work has covered a range of topics including policies on acid rain and climate change, energy conservation, environmental risk management, renewable fuels, conservation tillage, and biodiversity protection on private lands.

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Satish Ukkusuri

Civil Engineering
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Jae Hoon David Yu

Civil Engineering
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Laura Zanotti

Anthropology Department
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