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University of Iowa News Release


Sept. 12, 2011

UI professor receives NSF grant to study implementation of sustainability initiatives

Communities are often eager to embrace environmental sustainability, but sometimes the projects fail to get off the ground. A University of Iowa professor will use a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the hurdles that stand in the way of local sustainability initiatives, and how communities can address the snags.

Lucie Laurian, associate professor in the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning, was awarded a three-year, $389,987 NSF grant to research how local-level institutions affect implementation of sustainability initiatives.

"There are barriers," said Laurian, principal investigator of the project. "Sometimes, people work in silos, instead of taking an integrated approach. Sometimes, it's a budget issue. Sometimes, it's the culture of the decision-making agency. We're trying to understand why sometimes it clicks and other times it doesn't."

Laurian and colleague Jan Crawford, a land-use planner in Auckland, New Zealand, will direct an international comparison of planning and development agencies in the United States and New Zealand.

The researchers intend to survey planners and urban managers of randomly selected, mid-sized localities in 50 U.S. cities and 55 New Zealand cities. They plan to gather an array of perspectives, from the mayors to the street planners who issue construction permits. They'll avoid communities that are too large or small because the staffing and resources wouldn't be representative of a typical locality.

The surveys, combined with case studies of two U.S. and two New Zealand localities and input from an international expert panel, will reveal how and to what extent successful implementation is shaped by local institutional capacity, structures, cultures, decision-making processes and the local framing of sustainability.

New Zealand was selected because of its success in sustainable governance. It ranked fourth among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member states and shares the American free-market approach to policy and decision-making.

The analysis will allow Laurian to suggest ways in which public institutions can be transformed to remove existing obstacles. And, she said, the recommendations should help other types of projects go more smoothly.

"Understanding the institutional factors that affect implementation is relevant to other aspects of local governance, like budgeting, infrastructure planning and hazard mitigation," she said. "We also think the findings will be of interest to students who want to promote sustainability in the public or private sector."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Graduate College Office of External Relations, 205 Gilmore Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: John Riehl, 319-384-1309,