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Transitioning to Sustainability:
The Challenge of Developing Sustainable Urban Systems
The National Academies' Second Sustainability R&D Forum

New Release: 
Book CoverPathways to Urban Sustainability: Research and Development on Urban Systems (2010)
More than half of the world's people now live in cities. In the U.S., the figure is 80 percent. It is worthwhile to consider how this trend of increased urbanization, if inevitable, could be made more sustainable. One fundamental shortcoming of urban research and programs is that they sometimes fail to recognize urban areas as systems. Current institutions and actors are not accustomed to exploring human-environment interactions, particularly at an urban-scale. The fact is that these issues involve complex interactions, many of which are not yet fully understood. Thus a key challenge for the 21st century is this: How can we develop sustainable urban systems that provide healthy, safe and affordable environments for the growing number of Americans living in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas? To address this question, the National Research Council organized a workshop exploring the landscape of urban sustainability research programs in the United States. The workshop is summarized in this volume. 

  Project Information  

Project Scope
Agenda and Presentations
Commitee Membership


Project Scope

The National Academies’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability hosted a Forum, “Transitioning to Sustainability: The Challenge of Developing Sustainable Urban Systems,” on September 23, 2009 to foster discussion of current and planned R&D activities on issues of sustainability in urban systems. The approximately one hundred Forum participants included representatives from federal agencies, local and state governments, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. All participants were engaged in R&D or other innovative programs taking a systems approach (e.g. cross-sector, cross-media) to enhancing the sustainability of urban areas. The goals of the Forum included: sharing information about activities and strategic planning efforts of federal agencies, along with related initiatives from universities, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, state/local agencies, and international organizations; identifying areas for collaboration and better coordination among these different R&D programs; considering especially how federal agency efforts can best complement/leverage the efforts of other key stakeholders; identifying critical research gaps and needed analytical tools; suggesting the broader research and analysis needed to effectively support urban-level decision-making; and exploring how urban sustainability can move beyond stovepipes and sectors to systems-level thinking and effective interagency cooperation.

Agenda & presentations

Transitioning to Sustainability: The Challenge of Developing Sustainable Urban Systems
The National Academies' Second Sustainability R&D Forum

The National Academy of Sciences
2100 C Street NW, Lecture Room
Washington, D.C.
September 23, 2009


Transitioning to Sustainability: The Challenge of Developing Sustainable Urban Systems


Panel: Developing Livable Urban Areas 

     Sustainable Cities and Public Health (4.5 MB)
     Howard Frumkin, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

     Ecosystem Services in Urban Areas (2.1 MB)
     Nancy Grimm, Arizona State University

Panel: Resilience and Adaptation 

     Risk Communication and Decision-Making for Local Governments (3.0 MB)
     Keelin Kuipers, NOAA

     Toward Sustainable Urban Systems: Natural Hazards, Vulnerability, and Resiliency (2.0 MB)
     Walter Gillis Peacock, Texas A&M University

     Resilience and Adaptation Considerations for Natural Systems in an Urban Context (482 KB)
     Denice Wardrop, Penn State University

Panel: Models, Metrics, and Future Scenarios 

     City Models, Metrics, and Future Scenarios: Basis for an Urban Genome Project? (7.0 MB)
     Jonathan Fink, Arizona State University

     Models, Metrics, Scenarios (4.1 MB)
     Steward T.A. Pickett, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies 

     An Approach to Modeling, Metrics, and Future Scenarios for Urban Systems Using Remote Sensing: A Case Study of Atlanta, GA (6.4 MB)
     Dale A. Quattrochi, NASA

Commitee Membership Information

The committee listed below was established by the U.S. National Academies. The project's steering committee reviews all proposals and oversees the organization of the workshops.

  • Ann M. Bartuska
    Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Glen T. Daigger (NAE)
    Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, CH2M Hill, Inc.
  • Michael Freedberg
    Director, Division of Affordable Housing Technology Research, Office of Policy Development and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Howard Frumkin
    Director, National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Sybstances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Jonathan H. Fink
    Foundation Professor, School of Sustainability and School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University
  • Malka Pattison
    Office of Policy Analysis, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) 

Steering Committee, Biographies (PDF 36KB)



Transitioning to Sustainability: The Challenge of Developing Sustainable Urban Systems is supported by the U.S Forest Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Geological Survey, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Dept. of Energy, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, and The George and Cynthia Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science.