Purdue University

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?

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

Co-PIs: Zhao Ma (Purdue), Patricia Salas O'Brien (UNSA)

Investigators: Jonathan Bauchet (Purdue), Laura Zanotti (Purdue), Eliseo Zeballos (UNSA), Nelly Ramirez Calderon (UNSA), Glenn Arce Larrea (UNSA)

Funding: Universidad Nacional de San Agustin de Arequipa

The goal of the project is to investigate how communities across the rural-to-urban gradient in the Arequipa Region perceive water availability and quality in the context of climate change and to identify potential strategies for facilitating the co-existence of agriculture, mining, and regional development in an equitable way. We are working towards our goals by investigating the following questions:

  • How do communities across the rural-to-urban gradient perceive and experience water, climate change, and other environmental challenges?
  • What strategies have been used by households and communities to address these perceived challenges related to water availability, water quality, and climate change?
  • In the process of mitigating and adapting to perceived challenges of water availability, water quality and climate change, are there communities, households within communities, or members within households that are impacted more than others, and how and why do they differ from others?
  • What are the possible strategies (from the perspective of agricultural development, water development, climate change adaptation, and institutional building) that could be used to address household and community challenges and concerns with respect to water availability, water quality, and climate change?

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) in Kabul and Swat Rivers and their Impact on Fish Populations and Rural Community Livelihoods

PI: Linda Lee

Co-PIs: Zhao Ma, Marisol Sepulveda

Funding: USAID

Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, a situation which is likely to worsen due to high population growth. River Kabul and its tributaries, including River Swat, are major freshwater sources in the northwestern province of Pakistan. Untreated effluents discharged from more than 100 varied industrial sites enter the rivers, leading to worsening water quality, reduced crop production, and decline in fish numbers.

Since 2018,  PI Linda Lee (AGR) has worked with co-PIs Marisol Sepúlveda and Zhao Ma (FNR) and Pakistani counterpart Bushra Khan (University of Peshawar) on this USAID project. The team has evaluated EDC types and concentrations in river system and identify specific factors impacting EDC loads. The team has been evaluating aquatic ecosystem health with a focus on fish diversity and reproductive endpoints. Complementary social science work assesses local communities’ perceptions of water quality and river ecosystem health, their relationships to lives and livelihoods, and their willingness to engage in conservation practices. The team also provides recommendations to policy makers and regulatory agencies. The results of this study are also helpful to guide additional studies on other rivers in Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan provinces. Much of the social science work has been conducted by PhD student in FNR, Becca Nixon, who has completed two field visits during which she collaborated with University of Peshawar students.

CNH2-L: Using Sound to Advance Conceptual Frameworks of Resilience of Integrated Grassland-Pastoralist Systems

PI: Bryan Pijanowski

Co-PI: Laura Zanotti

Funding: NSF

Grassland biomes are rapidly being lost around the world as they are converted to croplands, mined, and grazed by domesticated livestock. In a few grassland areas, thousands of years of use by native herders has resulted in management systems that are sustainable over time. These systems have become examples of resilient integrated socio-environmental systems.” In this study, the team will investigate features of a human-pastoral system that may demonstrate resiliency, thereby promoting sustainability. As one basis for analysis, they will use recordings of the sounds of wind, thunder, ice breaking, deer, and birds, among others, which are often used by herders to determine when to move to summer landscapes, or if damaging weather may threaten herds or homes. A key question the team asks is: “As herders change their ways of life and engage differently with traditional forms of knowledge, what does this change mean for the future of how grasslands are managed sustainably?”

This study will answer this and other questions by evaluating critical aspects of the soundscape-pastoralist-grassland system in a large intact grassland system. The information gained from the research will provide insight that is valuable to grassland managers.

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. 




Daniel Kelly


Dr. Kelly's research focuses on issues at the intersection of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, moral theory, and evolution. He is a founding member of the Moral Psychology Research Group and is involved with the Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion and the Building Sustainable Communities cluster. A 2018-19 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Kelly was involved in the “Creating a New Moral Political Economy” project. Kelly is also author of Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. He has published papers on moral judgment, social norms, responsibility, racial cognition, cross-cultural diversity, and David Foster Wallace.