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Prestigious NSF grant to help study compassion, local decisions in disaster planning

Tue, 02/13/2018


LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas urban planning researcher has received a prestigious National Science Foundation grant to study local decision-making aimed at mitigating natural hazards and damages due to disasters, such as flooding and hurricanes.

The work has become crucial as evidenced by the recent impact of hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and wildfires and mudslides in California, said Ward Lyles, assistant professor of urban planning in the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration and faculty affiliate of the KU Institute for Policy & Social Research.

"We easily lose sight of how local commitment to reducing the suffering of our neighbors and providing the opportunity for future generations to flourish requires building communities that are less vulnerable to natural disasters, especially for historically marginalized populations," Lyles said.

The NSF recently announced Lyles as a recipient of a five-year, $500,000 award from the Faculty Early Career Development Program, known as a CAREER grant, to advance natural hazard mitigation by examining decision-making carried out by local networks of stakeholders who are involved in planning and implementing risk reduction. The KU Institute for Policy & Social Research provided assistance with the award submission and will help manage the award.

The CAREER program supports junior faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. It recognizes excellence in research, teaching and integrating learning and research — the award is the NSF's most prestigious recognition of junior faculty. Lyles' grant will be funded through the Humans, Disasters and Built Environment Program in the Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation in the NSF's Engineering Directorate.

Lyles said the increasing number of major disasters in recent decades makes conversations important surrounding how we develop communities locally and how this can have implications at the state and national level.

Part of his research portfolio focuses on cultivating compassion in urban planning.

"Moreover, as evidenced by themes in our national discourse of political and social divisiveness, cutthroat competition and widespread suspicion, especially over the past year, all too often we lose sight of how individual people, working together at the local level, can increase compassion for each other and make their communities more sustainable," he said.

To understand how to increase compassion and sustainability in reducing hazard risks requires closer attention to decision-making at the local level alongside studies of federal and state policy interventions and technical solutions, he added.

"What this means in reality is that fairly typical people, with their personal knowledge, skills, biases and emotions, must work together in often messy, complicated and contentious situations to decide where to put roads, allow new homes, focus economic development and otherwise build in more or less safe locations," Lyles said. "That is, they make highly localized, deeply value-laden decisions about whether we want to care for each other, what caring for each other looks like and how we go about doing so."

The project will involve surveys, interviews, document review, multivariate regression modeling, case studies and in-person observation to apply analytical concepts and techniques from network science to better understand local stakeholder decision-making.

He will share his research findings with national, state and local-level organizations working in risk reduction areas like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Emergency Management Association and local counterparts.

The program will promote classroom teaching, online learning, informal learning and personal growth through opportunities such as conferences, seminars and in-person training. These activities will build a future generation of hazard mitigation advocates from across disciplines. 

"Among NSF awards, CAREER projects are unusual in that they must integrate research and teaching," Lyles said. "My hope is that the research activities, seminars involving practitioners and academics, training of students and public engagement that comprise my project will advance our ability and will create a knowledge base on what fosters more compassionate and sustainable hazard mitigation efforts and identify, test and refine model of action that can be replicated widely."

Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies provide support to communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Beaumont, Texas. Credit: Donna Burton/U.S. Government Work.



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