Faculty recognized for critical research efforts during the pandemic

These GCSC faculty affiliates were recognized for their efforts on critical health and social justice issues brought on, or exacerbated by, the COVID-19 pandemic.


The following is excerpted from a story by Rebecca Walsh in At the U.

Some of the best long-term, basic research is often made immediately relevant by current events.

The COVID-19 pandemic and social justice disparities have transformed everything from the way Americans buy groceries to how we work and play. University of Utah faculty are responding with innovative projects that explore virus transmission, unequal access to healthcare, and how members of our community talk about their lives during a time when the country faces critical social issues.

With those forces in mind, University of Utah Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed has named a new cohort of Banner Project recipients—nearly two dozen researchers, teachers and librarians who are working to generate new knowledge and document this extraordinary time in human history.

“The faculty members working on these projects deserve recognition for taking on some of the thorniest problems facing our society,” Reed said. “This scholarly work will help us improve COVID-19 treatments; weather this global health crisis; expand access to health care; and bridge the social, economic and racial differences that divide us.”

The Banner Project recognizes mid-career faculty who are intellectual and thought leaders, not only at the U, but also in the community. “The goal is to put faces to the world-class scholarship, groundbreaking discoveries, unique innovations and creative works generated by our scholars,” Reed added.

How vegetation effects microclimates in urbanized Salt Lake Valley

A new study by Carolina Gómez-Navarro and GCSC affiliate faculty Diane Pataki, Eric Pardyjak, and Dave Bowling, looks at how trees and grass can help mitigate excessive heat in urban areas. Hard surfaces like roofs, buildings, and pavement absorb the sun’s heat and radiate it into the surroundings, creating a “heat island effect”. While trees cast cooling shade, the team found that a more effective cooling solution occurs with a mix of trees and turf grass. Read about the study in At The U.

GCSC seminar: disaster resilience in an unjust world

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office

As climate-induced wildfires rage across the West and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten our communities, many of us have disaster on the mind. How will we respond when disaster strikes close to home? How will we recover? How can we build our communities to be resilient in the face of crisis?

In her upcoming Global Change & Sustainability Center seminar, “A Grassroots View of Disaster Recovery,” Dr. Divya Chandrasekhar will explore these questions, as well as examine what it means to be disaster resilient in a complex, uncertain and unjust world. Chandrasekhar, associate professor in City & Metropolitan Planning and an urban and regional planner who has studied disasters across the globe, is particularly interested in the importance of community autonomy to the recovery process.

Because disasters impact every dimension of our lives, from our collective economy to our individual psychology, disaster recovery must happen at the grassroots level—from the bottom up.

“When you say a community has recovered, it means every individual in that community should have recovered in some meaningful way,” Chandrasekhar says. This can only happen when individuals have agency and power in their own recovery process, so she cautions fellow urban planners and other eager outsiders to take care in their recovery work. Without a deep understanding of the community’s needs and capacities, their efforts will be irrelevant or even harmful, she says. Her call to action? Engage communities in deciding their own futures.

While one might think that a person who spends her life studying disasters would feel rather pessimistic, Chandrasekhar says she finds great hope in her work. While disasters inflict trauma and tragedy, they also present an important opportunity.

“Disasters shake up existing structures,” Chandrasekhar says. “They don’t just destroy your building, they smash government structures. They smash patriarchy.” If a community is ready to address these underlying issues, the recovery process presents a good opportunity to demand justice and build resilience, she says. Climate change and COVID-19, which have hit communities of color and under-resourced communities the hardest, demonstrate that oppressive structures like racism and colonialism cause the effects of disaster to be felt disproportionately.

“The process of going from recovery to resilience requires addressing those larger structural issues,” Chandrasekhar says. “There can be no resilience unless there is social justice.”

So, amidst the grief, the anger, and the loss that disaster brings, Chandrasekhar finds hope—hope for healing, for a more just future and for resilient communities that can withstand disaster.

Whether you’re an organizer doing mutual aid in your neighborhood, an urban planner hoping to better engage communities in your work, or an individual searching for hope in this trying time, Chandrasekhar’s talk will have something for you. Join us from 4-5 p.m. Tuesday, September 1 at https://tinyurl.com/gcsc-disaster as she explores the complexity of disaster recovery and calls for social justice as the only path to true resilience.

Our new parter – Center for Ecological Planning and Design

We have a new partnership with the newly-constituted Center for Ecological Planning and Design. Two entities in the College of Architecture + Planning, the provisional Ecological Planning Center and the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, have melded to “bridge the gaps between research and the design and planning fields, both within CA+P and across campus, with a focus on the built environment and the human communities that inhabit it.”

Read more

Divya Chandrasekhar on social capacity and community recovery

When Superstorm Sandy blew through Staten Island in 2012, Joe’s asphalt and concrete equipment was washed away along with $19 billion of New York infrastructure. A business owner in his early 60s, Joe owned his dump trucks, pavers, and rollers outright. Now he was left with two months of payroll and small hope of keeping his business afloat.

Joe was one of the business owners, residents, and policy makers that Divya Chandrasekhar, Assistant Professor in City and Metropolitan Planning and GCSC faculty affiliate, interviewed for her three-year NSF study on community recovery in post-Sandy New York.

Hurricane debris

16 Months after Sandy by George Pankewytch. Via Flickr. CC by 2.0. http://bit.ly/2nbm1Nh

Chandrasekhar’s study investigates the factors that households and businesses depend on for recovery, and how they leverage these factors. Chandrasekhar proposes that if city planners know how households and businesses recover, within the broader context of policy limitations, they can plan for recovery even before a disaster occurs.

Her study has demonstrated that a critical factor in disaster recovery is social capacity, which she describes as “the activation of social capital.”

In other words, people rely on their network of relationships to recover.

“Social capital is one of the worst affected resources after a disaster,” Chandrasekhar said. “But it’s also the first thing that people go to when a disaster strikes.”

Post-Sandy, most people in Chandrasekhar’s study obtained their information – about the storm, about government aid, about insurance – from friends and family. Chandrasekhar is discovering that this social capital is also the first (and in many cases, last) stop for obtaining loans and financial support, filling in the gaps between undelivered government aid and ineffective insurance response.

Take Joe, for example. Six months after her initial interview with Joe, Chandrasekhar received a mass e-mail update from the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation describing Joe as a recent grant recipient. She decided to do a follow-up interview on this surprising turn of events. She learned that while Joe did receive a grant from this neighborhood-based organization, it still wasn’t enough to repurchase his equipment. He had to take out an additional $250,000 small business loan, one that he expects he’ll be paying off the rest of his life.

“Even though he got this grant to help, now he also has a debt,” Chandrasekhar explained. “The picture of recovery thus becomes so much more complex. Recovery is not just about availability of resources – like government grants – but also their adequacy.”

Debt notwithstanding, Joe might be the closest thing to a success story when it comes to post-disaster business recovery. According to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, 25 percent of businesses do not reopen following a disaster. Grants such as the one that Joe received are rare, and in New York, the paperwork required for such grants and loans is mired in onerous processes. Yet, business owners like Joe who do persevere often rebuild in their original location, despite a changing climate’s promise of future superstorms. Why?

“Businesses are operating as social units,” Chandrasekhar said. “They have a place-based attachment to their neighbors and neighborhoods – they aren’t making decisions about whether to stay or go just based on economic factors.”

Businesses use their social capacity to provide the resources they need to recover. Owners often borrow money from family and friends, and receive in-kind support like a couple months of free rent from their landlord. During the long road to recovery, their values and needs typically change. Immediately after Sandy, participants in Chandrasekhar’s study prioritized housing, safety, and social networks as their main concerns. As Sandy shrunk in the rear view mirror, job retention and financial security replaced these concerns.

Can policy keep up? Recovery policy has not been designed to provide long-term solutions, nor does it address employment and financial security. Chandrasekhar proposes that this gap could be addressed by investing in social capacity for the many American communities expected to face disasters in the near future.

For now, Joe and his business are thriving. When the next storm comes, Chandrasekhar hopes that knowing how Joe recovered from Sandy will inspire planners to make this social capacity investment by acting in multiple scales.

“If planners want to accomplish something, they will have to work in both individual household and structural policy levels,” Chandrasekhar concluded.