Co-Developing Research and Engaged Approaches to Transform Environments

The CREATE Initiative addresses grand challenges at the intersection of environment and equity through community-engaged research and interdisciplinary graduate training.

CREATE Research

At its core, the CREATE Initiative is motivated by a recognition that the values, priorities and knowledges of some communities have not been accounted for in the problems that academics pursue or the solutions that policy makers generate.  Our project is committed to the co-development of research with those historically underrepresented partners, with the long term goal of changing how universities work and for whom they work. Responses to environmental change require urgent action, but solutions that reproduce structural inequalities in our society are doomed to fail.

Photo Credit: Kelly Meza Prado

Our Current Work

Our model of producing knowledge for environmental change begins with buy in from our community collaborators to develop novel solutions to the complex and interlinked challenges of water and equity. This model of research is responsive to the conditions “on the ground”, rather than in the laboratory, and increases the relevance and impact of academic scholarship and the representation of community concerns and priorities in potential solutions. Our research is aimed at addressing root causes of environment and equity challenges, mainly incentives, policies, competing values, and mismatches in scale and scope that drive unequal distribution of environmental amenities and associated benefits. CREATE research is highly interdisciplinary, leveraging expertise in geography, history, economics, ecology, planning, and policy.

Our current work explores a diverse range of themes that are relevant but not limited to understanding the relationship between water and equity in urban settings.

Communities in neighborhoods that have been underserved by infrastructure investment and environmental amenities worry that when these historic inequities are addressed they will no longer be able to afford to live in their improved neighborhoods.  Even when they are able to afford to stay, the changing character of the neighborhood or the nature of improvements can make people feel like they don’t belong or that the neighborhood is no longer “for” them. 

Housing and environmental conservation are often posed as competing priorities in urban planning and development. Moreover, affordable housing is often concentrated in places where risks of exposure to pollutants and environmental hazards are higher and land values are lower. These geographies can drive down the quality and livability of investments in affordable housing when flooding, mold, and associated risks manifest. 

Key Questions

  • How can we promote affordable housing in quality environments? 
  • What design and infrastructural conditions should we be attentive to if we want to ensure the long-term quality, desirability and livability of affordable housing?
  • How can communities advocate for their fair share of infrastructure investments and for high quality environments without fear of being squeezed out?

Citizen participation is a buzzword in urban planning and public policy, but for some communities, the costs of sustained, meaningful participation are high, the payoffs are low and the deck is stacked in favor of larger nonprofits and advocacy organizations that have access to consultants and researchers to inform their engagement. Moreover, the processes and
decision-making tools that create narrow avenues of participation often fail to accommodate community values and priorities that cannot be easily integrated into a typical environmental impact statement or a cost-benefit analysis.

Key Questions

  • How can we level the playing field to reduce barriers to sustained participation in shaping the future of cities?
  • What role can and should scholarly research and institutions of higher education play in resourcing communities that might
    otherwise be left behind in planning processes?

Environmental improvements and amenities are often made in the name of “the public good,” but the diverse values, priorities, and ways of engaging with nature in the city are often unaccounted for in planning and investments.

Key Question

  • How can we elevate the culturally, historically, and geographically specific ways that different communities value water and urban nature?

In the US, the racial wealth gap is staggering: white families have more than 10 times the wealth of non-white families, and much of this wealth takes the form of equity in homes.  The rise of home-ownership as a vehicle for middle class wealth generation in the US occurred in tandem with systematic exclusion of non-white people from home-ownership. Moreover, infrastructure investments – whether in storm water management or parks and other recreational amenities – drive up property values and increase wealth for families whose properties are nearby. Finally, infrastructure investment has served as a tool for dismantling communities of color in the name of progress and the common good, as exemplified by the legacy of highway construction through minority neighborhoods in the mid-20th century.

Key Questions

  • What kinds of policies follow from understanding infrastructure as a vehicle for generating and distributing wealth unevenly along racial lines?
  • How can a historical perspective on the ways urban and environmental planning produced inequality inform policies for a just urban and environmental future?
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