Integrating Social Science into Urban Sustainability Metrics (2017)

Client Organization: 
City of Ann Arbor
Project Location : 
Ann Arbor, MI
Secondary Client Organization: 
City of Dearborn
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives:
This project will develop and test a set of social science instruments to support city sustainability metrics. The STAR Community Rating System – Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities - ( is a new set of metrics to measure city progress on sustainability. To date 40 cities have been certified. However, the metrics are not supported by social science research that would lend insight into how community values and behavior change play a role in making progress on sustainability. Ann Arbor and Dearborn are proposed clients. Other cities may be considered in addition.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance:
This research is important because there is currently little application of social science in decision-making related to sustainability at the local government level. Cities are not investing in it and neither are key national foundation funders. This project can build on the SCIP work underway at the university ( to explore how this tool might be used or augmented to support data collection in a city and the role/impact of sustainability on a local government. Ideally, this instrument would be used in several cities so that comparisons can be made across cities. It is highly likely that cities would invest in this data collection, if they knew they could make comparisons with peer cities and understand the value of the comparisons.

Specific Activities & Duration:
We are seeking a team of students to 1) understand the STAR Community Rating System, 2) recommend an instrument that cities could use to collect social science data based on the existing SCIP project, and 3) test data collection methods to obtain a representative sample of city residents as cost effectively as possible, and 4) identify (or create) and recommend an instrument, collection method, and data collection frequency and budget. This recommendation would likely go to the city Environmental Commission and/or City Council. A key component is ensuring that the data collection is truly representative and includes information from underserved residents and groups that may not typically participate in public processes.

Integrative Approach:
This project requires a set of disparate skills including understanding complex city systems, the state of urban sustainability metrics, city budgets to explore funding options, social science research, survey instrument development, data collection, statistics and quantitative analysis. Ann Arbor participates in the Urban Sustainability Directors Network so there is an opportunity to engage with other cities on possible uses of this tool and data collection. There may be significant issues with language and data collection in both Ann Arbor and Dearborn.

Skills/Expertise Needed: 

Research, Survey design, data collection and analysis, Behavior change, GIS mapping

SEAS Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Role for each program area: 

We anticipate the project will involve principles from all the areas of expertise selected above because it involves developing instruments to collect data to better support an indicators approach that often fails to adequately support city level decisions. It requires that the group understands: how cities function (EPP), how data may have equity and ethical implications (EJ), what behavior and institutional arrangements affect both the indicators and their outcomes (in terms of decision-making) (BEC); and what kinds of outcomes are likely and/or desirable (both in terms of systems and communities) (SS).

Environmental Policy and Planning. Tracking sustainability metrics unveils the strengths and gaps in a local government’s operation and governance structure. Once the gaps are identified, students will identify methods, paths, or structures for a local government to address these weaknesses through planning and policy development/implementation.

Behavior, Education, and Communication. Students will identify opportunities for behavior change within the various levels of local government to address gaps in the sustainability metrics. Students will be expected to present their results in a highly customized manner to successfully educate and communicate to the different audiences- elected officials, department heads/directors, front line staff/supervisors, residents, business owners.

Environmental Informatics. There will be opportunities to use GIS to explore equity issues in a variety of spatial analyses. For example, is access to parks, equitable distributed across the city? Access to transit? Etc.

Environmental Justice. Local governments have significant shortfalls in understanding the breadth and impact of environmental justice issues. Interns will be expected to identify and explain the shortfalls to leaders within the local government. The interns will also be expected to identify strategies to address the shortfalls.

Sustainable Systems. Cities are complex systems. Students will explore the interaction of city systems and the cobenefits of municipal capital investments.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

The students will be considered subject area experts in the State of Michigan for sustainability and local governments. The students will have developed a network of sustainability practitioners, local elected officials,  affiliated state agencies (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Community Health, Michigan Agency on Energy), Michigan Municipal League, Michigan Townships Association, Michigan Association of Counties, and national philanthropic funders (Summit Foundation, Kresge Foundation). The students will be expected to present at the Annual Meeting of the Michigan Green Communities Network (maybe USDN annual meeting or a monthly USDN webinar??)

Funding Sources: 

If this project is chosen, the city will explore funding support from within the organization and from outside funders (e.g., foundations).  It is difficult to dedicate funding without a defined project.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


  • Review of the STAR Rating System and SCIP project instrument
  • Recommendation on survey instrument to support city sustainability goals and metrics
  • Pilot data collection and analysis
  • Recommendation to city Environmental Commission on data collection strategy and proposed budget
  • Discussion of scale – would the project be cheaper if multiple cities pitched in for data collection and analysis?


  • The city of Ann Arbor is part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and has direct access to city sustainability directors across the US and Canada. A presentation to USDN is a potential opportunity.
  • The city can also provide access to members of the STAR Rating System in the initial phase of the project and arrange for a presentation – webinar – with STAR staff.
  • Depending on the recommendation and available funding, the plan would be for the city to implement the findings, ideally as a group of cities.
Contact full name: 
Matthew Naud (Ann Arbor), David Norwood (Dearborn)
Job title: 
Environmental Coordinator
Ann Arbor
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Maria Carmen Lemos
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Our Organization has been an SNRE master's project client in a previous year
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Angey Wilson, MS Behavior, Education and Communication/Environmental Policy and Planning 
Project Status: 
Past Project