Newswise — AMES, Iowa — A new network of researchers and community officials is working to find solutions to some of the biggest challenges within the Mississippi River watershed.

Iowa State University hosted a workshop last summer during which 82 academic experts and local stakeholders discussed a variety of issues in the watershed, including nutrient runoff, erosion, flooding, heat island effects, urban sprawl and much more – with particular attention given to the urban-rural interface.

Outcomes from the workshop can be found in the recently-published proceedings.

The Mississippi River watershed is the largest drainage basin in North America at 1.2 million square miles.

A $50,000 National Science Foundation grant supported the “Redesigning the Urban-Rural Interface” workshop, which was organized by Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture; Janette Thompson, Morrill Professor of natural resource ecology and management; and Kimberly Zarecor, professor of architecture.

Their goal was to develop research questions for sustainable urban systems and to continue collaborations within the network. 

Several major topics emerged from the workshop:

  • Typology of cities: Examining political and natural boundaries and characteristics of cities
  • Definition of scales: Studying not only spatial scales but cultural, time and data
  • Economics as a driver for decisions in urban systems: Studying how farmers and urban communities could share the burden of flood mitigation efforts
  • New methods of research and new forms/analyses of data: Identifying new ways to study the urban-rural interface and its major issues: weather, land use and quality of life
  • Data availability and structure: Discussing how greater availability of data could be useful for exploring urban-rural systems
  • Integration of people in research: Integrating community members into the process so that research is conducted around issues that locals care about
  • Transdisciplinary education: Preparing students for cross-disciplinary collaboration to confront real-world issues

Discussions addressed three scales: within cities, between cities and their satellite communities, and within the entire watershed.

“Many of the challenges in our environment and lived world come from how we have developed this interface between urban and rural,” Passe said. “By connecting these issues throughout the watershed, we could make a difference.”

The researchers looked at mid-sized cities, which range from 50,000 to 500,000 people.

“More than half of U.S. urban residents live in cities of 400,000 to 600,000 people, not the massive cities like New York City or Los Angeles,” Thompson said. “There is a dense human population in the Mississippi River watershed and an energy toward possibly adopting change.”

Two active research projects at Iowa State tie in to this effort:

“Most of the cities in the Mississippi River watershed have shrunk since their peak population,” Zarecor said. “There is all of this leftover infrastructure, all of this concrete and hardscape in places it shouldn’t be.”

This new network is an example of “convergence research,” which brings together experts from a wide range of disciplines, including the arts and design, to address a specific societal problem. The researchers say this is a unique opportunity for experts from fields that haven’t historically worked together to turn research into action.

Grant No Link: Proceedings