Urban Environment

close up of taxis in a city

How are urban areas changing across the globe? How does rapid urbanization impact the local, regional, and global environment?

We live in an increasingly urbanized world, with more than half of the world's population living in cities, and nearly two billion additional people expected to inhabit urban areas by 2030. In a relatively short period of time, urbanization has also emerged as a top environmental issue facing all parts of the globe. Changes in urban areas impact climate, natural ecosystems, valuable agricultural lands and water resources, and directly affect human health and well-being.

At SAGE, we are working to understand how urban areas have transformed the landscape, the demographic, economic and policy changes responsible for rapid urbanization and urban sprawl, as well as the local- to global-scale environmental impacts that result. We work closely with collaborators from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, including colleagues in the UW departments of Geography, Urban and Regional Planning, Agronomy, Agricultural and Applied Economics, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Zoology, Population Health Sciences, Community and Environmental Sociology, and the Center for Demography and Ecology, and collaborators at Georgia Tech, Yale, Boston University, McGill University, and Princeton University. Current funding is provided by the National Science Foundation, NASA's Land Cover-Land Use Change (LCLUC) Program and Interdisciplinary Science Program (IDS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


Ongoing Projects

The 40 cities project - Schneider and her students are examining similarities and differences in urban form and growth in a collection of 40 mid-sized cities (population < 5 mil) from different geographical settings and levels of economic development. The goal of this project is to associate land use patterns with a range of socioeconomic indicators to uncover the driving forces responsible for differential patterns of urban expansion.

Monitoring and modeling urbanization in China - Ongoing collaboration between Schneider, Kurt Paulsen (Department of Urban and Regional Planning) and Karen Seto (Yale) investigating current and future land use change in 15 urban and peri-urban regions in China. This project integrates satellite-based measures of urban expansion with detailed census data and policy variables in econometric models to determine the relative impact of rural-urban migration, rising incomes, infrastructure investment, and local land management and policy, and to predict future trends in urbanization and land use conversion.

Climate change, shifting land use, and urbanization in a Midwestern agricultural landscape: Challenges for water quality and quantity - Kucharik leads a multi-disciplinary team on a project focused on the Yahara Watershed of southern Wisconsin, which is an exemplar of water-related issues in the Upper Midwest, exacerbated by urbanization. They address several key questions: (1) How do different patterns of land cover, land management, and water resource engineering practices affect the resilience of freshwater ecosystems under a changing climate? Numerical models will evaluate changes in key benefits humans receive from sustainable management of freshwater resources (flood regulation, groundwater recharge, water quality, and lake recreation) as well as benefits related to terrestrial landscapes (food, bioenergy, carbon sequestration, climate regulation, and recreation). (2) How can governance systems for water and land use be made more responsive to drivers of change to meet diverse human needs? (3) In what ways are human-environment systems able to cope with change and in what ways are they vulnerable to potential changes in climate and freshwaters? The project includes a subcomponent that will establish a network of temperature/humidity sensors across Dane County to quantify the spatial extent and intensity of the Urban Heat Island centered on the city of Madison.

Global mapping of urban areas - Schneider collaborates with Mark Friedl (Boston University) to develop and test a new global database of urban land cover characteristics (e.g. fractional amounts of built-up land, vegetation type and canopy coverage, and irrigation presence) by exploiting decision tree methods and remotely sensed observations from moderate to coarse resolution sensors.

Monitoring the global impacts of urbanization on agricultural resources - In collaboration with Navin Ramankutty (McGill) and Jon Foley (University of Minnesota), Schneider investigates the impact of current and projected urban growth on agricultural lands at regional to global scales. To address how urban sprawl might affect our most agriculturally productive lands, this project integrates satellite image analysis, urban growth forecasting, field studies, and agricultural databases and census information to identify farmlands most vulnerable to urban expansion.

Impacts of urbanization on ecosystem goods and services - Kucharik and Schneider evaluate how past and projected urban expansion impacts ecosystem goods and services, with a specific focus on changes in energy balance, hydrology, and productivity. Scenarios for high-, medium- and low-density urban areas are simulated using a dynamic agro-ecosystem model (Agro-IBIS), calibrated with agricultural inventory data, remotely sensed observations, and high resolution climate data.

Triple-Win biking project (health in the 'built environment') - Patz and students evaluate health/fitness, air quality, and climate benefits associated with increased bicycle use in Madison, Wisconsin, as a model for developing healthy urban areas worldwide.

Climate change impacts on populations in urban/rural areas - Schneider and collaborator Katherine Curtis (Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, Center for Demography and Ecology) investigate the role of spatial variability in time-correlated climate and population projections across urban/rural areas. This project focuses specifically on connecting sea-level rise predictions along the U.S. coast to county-level projections of population size, age structure, racial and economic composition, and migration patterns in order to better understand the social, economic and political ramifications of climate change.