University of Maryland shares NSF grant to study urban development impact

January 19, 2011

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland will share part of a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the relationships of land use, climate and ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay region. The multidisciplinary project merges social science, natural science, and engineering disciplines to investigate the complex dynamics between water and the built urban environment.

The University of Maryland's Charles Towe - an assistant professor of agriculture and natural resource economics - is a team member of the social science component of the project. Towe will use the grant to reconstruct the Baltimore area's land development over the past 30 years and study the mechanisms driving land conversion in Maryland.

"We make location decisions based on the availability of land or water. Policies are influenced by these factors," Towe says. "We're attempting to say something about this messy dynamic."


The way cities and suburbs develop is determined by links between homebuyers and developers. Homebuyers choose where to live based on budget considerations and location amenities, such as driving access to urban centers, school districts, or environmental characteristics. Developers respond to costs and returns, determined by factors such as the availability of sewer and water lines, or the stringency of zoning and land use regulations. The patterns and timing of urban development depend on how homebuyers, developers and regulators interact in the marketplace.

Using historical data, the social science team aims to simulate Maryland land conversion by deconstructing homebuyer preferences for location amenities, which generate housing demand, and identifying factors that affect developer building decisions, which determine housing supply. By understanding the dynamics that led to past land conversions from farms and forests to urban and suburban uses, these researchers can develop a model to predict when and where future land development might occur under various policy scenarios.

Based off of predictions of future urban landscapes, hydrologists and engineers can estimate the affects that land-use changes will have on nutrient cycles and water quality. For example, in more highly urbanization areas, rainwater hitting parking lots, roads, rooftops will runoff into streams, often carrying salt and nitrogen compounds that degrade nearby waterways.

Similarly, built structure such as bridges, channels and culverts can alter streams and rivers and disrupt aquatic ecosystems. By coupling economic and hydrologic models, the multidisciplinary research effort aims to develop a comprehensive model that policymakers can use to gauge the environmental impact of various land use regulations.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant is one of only three awarded in a national competition. The funds will be shared by 13 investigators at the University of Maryland, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Ohio State University, the University of Rhode Island, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, US Geological Survey, and USDA Forest Service.

About $1 million of the five-year grant from the NSF Water Sustainability and Climate program will go towards the social science component of the project, including $200,000 for Professor Towe's research at the University of Maryland.

University of Maryland

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