Sustainable Communities

Our most challenging ecological issues involve the difficult balance of ecosystem sustainability and human well-being. Sustainability is a pressing concern for towns, cities, and communities, which depend upon natural resources and ecosystem services for economic stability and support of growing populations. 

How do we improve livelihood opportunities and reduce poverty today, while conserving natural resources for tomorrow, protecting the livelihoods and well-being of future generations?


Sustainability is finding the balance between human communities and nature in order to meet society’s current needs while preserving resources for the needs of future generations.  Sustaining human well-being requires sustaining the ecological processes and functions that we depend upon. To achieve sustainability, the human socio-economic drivers of ecological change must be addressed. However, complex ecosystem functions and the needs of human communities often operate at vastly different scales of time and space, creating unique challenges. Scientists at NREL approach this challenging frontier through cutting-edge research and modeling that bridge traditional disciplinary boundaries in academia to simultaneously protect human prosperity and natural resources. 

Population growth and climate change are enormous challenges that are intensifying the need for sustainable communities. Ecological carrying-capacity and stakeholder-conflict threats are real, and potentially devastating. Dissemination of modern technologies and innovative environmental governance approaches will be necessary to protect community health and welfare, foster international cooperation and social justice, and ensure economic well-being. Difficult trade-offs related to the use of natural resources may be necessary. Because of the potential benefits and exploitation of natural resources, their use are unevenly distributed across social groups and geographic locations.

Regulations and resource management decisions must explicitly address environmental justice across diverse communities in order to ensure natural resource needs are met for the society as a whole. Identifying how to best negotiate these trade-offs is critical to the future of our communities, and requires sincere engagement of all stakeholders and mobilization of social and financial capital across agricultural, energy, technology, and recreation sectors.

For decades, research at NREL has focused on finding a balance between conservation and use of natural resources. To study and model sustainable development solutions, we leverage expertise in diverse research methods in collaboration with colleagues from social science disciplines such as Anthropology, Political Science, Economics, Sociology and Psychology. NREL has also enabled involvement of civil society through stakeholder engagement, participatory research design, and citizen science.


A research philosophy rooted in sustainability

“It is not only the research that we conduct that supports community sustainability,” tells NREL researcher Dr. Stacy Lynn, “it is the fact that the research is being driven by community needs and their active engagement with NREL researchers.” Dr. Lynn credits senior researcher Dr. Robin Reid for being a leader in this movement to engage with communities. Over the years, Dr. Reid, who holds a joint appointment at NREL and Center for Collaborative Conservation, has championed a community-led approach to natural resource research and shaped the way that NREL tackles community sustainability. Here are some examples of how that philosophy is being practiced at NREL today.





Community Ecology Research Agenda for East Africa

The challenge of sustainable development is faced by local and distant communities alike. NREL conducts much of its sustainable community research abroad. NREL scientists Drs. Randall Boone, Paul Evangelista,  Kathleen Galvin, Stacy Lynn, Robin Reid, and their graduate students are studying a suite of issues at the nexus of land management, wildlife, and livelihoods in East Africa, addressing water governance, wildlife conservation, and landscape fragmentation due to the expansion of urban centers, road networks, and fencing of areas traditionally open to the migration of wildlife.  Researchers have also studied community-level traditional ecological knowledge and medicinal plant use in Ethiopia and Kenya, and evaluated endangered species, such as the Ethiopian wolf and wild ass, that have a complex and fabled history of interaction with ancient African communities.

This NREL team has a diverse set of specializations that are incorporated into both field and modeling components to answer locally-driven research questions. This technique of combining community interests and inputs with scientific methods and modeling has served NREL throughout its long history of sustainable development research in Africa. 

NREL connections in East Africa have inspired graduate student research projects aimed toward building community sustainability.  For example, Ph.D. student Cara Steger is directly involved with community-based conservation in the Ethiopian highlands. Management of grasslands near the community of Guassa has changed significantly since the 1970’s due to population growth and governance changes. Through surveys and focus groups, Cara learned that shrub encroachment is the largest ecological and economic concern for the local population.  Most Guassa area residents depend upon harvesting Festuca grass for subsistence and sale to urban markets, but interactions between grazing, grass harvesting, climate change, wildlife, and human management have increased shrub growth and diminished grass production. By initiating collaborative research within the Gaussa community, learning how local inhabitants understand the landscape, and identifying areas of priority via participatory mapping, Cara is opening up a dialogue about grazing and grassland management practices that is expected to enhance regeneration of Festuca grass.  Cara feels that inspiring communities to become involved in 

grasslands research can overcome the weaknesses of national resource governance. “If communities can better understand shrub encroachment and its effect upon grasslands, more sustainably managed grazing regimes are possible,” she explains. A dialogue around grazing practices and sustainability can inspire best grazing practices and reduce the stigma associated with shepherding livelihoods.

Wildebeest heard in Tanzania

Effectiveness of Community-Based Conservation of African grasslands

How do you maintain ecosystem integrity and maintain livelihoods? This question motivates much of the research at NREL. Dr. Kathleen Galvin is attempting to answer this question through a meta-analysis of community-based conservation (CBC) movements among pastoralist groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Many sub-Saharan grasslands and steppes that have been common-property resources for millennia are becoming degraded and fragmented by mounting population pressures. Dr. Galvin brings her background in anthropology to evaluate community-based conservation as an approach to achieve sustainability. “Though CBC may be a sound model, people are not necessarily following it,” says Dr. Galvin.  Through the meta-analysis, NREL researchers are identifying conditions under which the CBC model would make a larger impact towards securing the sustainability of sub-Saharan livestock grazing. The necessity for strong leadership has emerged as an important theme. Dr. Galvin explains that “CBC leadership needs to be vertically and horizontally connected. Connected to governance structures, and connected to community members.” In addition, the leadership needs to account for the Cultural particularities need integrated into the system.

Enabling communities to steer sustainability research

Dr. Greg Newman founded, an initiative to involve non-scientists in ecological research. Citizen science facilitates building large databases of ecological information by involving people from around the world in data collection. “Citizen science puts the power of sustainability in the communities’ hands,” says Dr. Stacy Lynn, who is part of the CitSci.Org team.  “ enables community to do ecological research, with and without career scientists.”  Many CitSci activities involve tracking and monitoring species, rare, endangered, or invasive, but the network can also be used to monitor water quality, climate change, or even to record pollution events or violation of environmental regulations.

For example, human activities near freshwater lakes can harm water quality and impact the ecosystem services that lakes provide to nearby communities, such as fish production and tourism. Farming, mining and aquaculture practices can decrease water oxygen levels through a process called eutrophication, the impacts of which can put lakeside economies on the skids. To address this, Dr. Ed Hall is finding ways to collect data on watershed pollutants in order to improve land and water management practices and protect local livelihoods.  In Honduras, Dr. Hall has been studying how large scale aquaculture and mining can coexist with tourism and subsistence fishing at Lake Yojoa. Local livelihoods depend upon all four of these activities, but it is not clear to communities how these activities may be in competition with each other.

In developing countries, “scientific authority often seems concentrated with foreign researchers and international companies.” Dr. Hall contends that “involving residents in data collection can improve the spatial and temporal resolution of data and simultaneously put evidence-based arguments in the hands of communities.” Furthermore, the process of collecting data can lead to “reflexive behavior” among communities that depend upon healthy lakes for their economic sustainability.

Dr. Melinda Laituri’s participation with the U.S. State Department “Secondary Cities” initiative is another example of how NREL can support sustainable communities. The “Secondary Cities” initiative supports mapping environmental threats in rapidly growing cities in developing countries through training and technical assistance.  Natural disasters and the impending impacts of climate change are acute threats to the sustainability of cities in developing countries. Dr. Laituri is enabling community sustainability by providing trainings in geographic information systems (GIS).  By sharing her skills, she is enabling resilience and sustainability of these communities.




Bringing the world together for sustainability

Dr. Julia Klein and other NREL scientists are studying socio-ecological systems in high mountain areas. The Mountain Sentinels Project is synthesizing data from case studies of natural and human processes in mountain communities around the world.  Colorado-based researchers bring intimate knowledge of mountains to questions about how natural ecosystems and human social systems affect one another in these unique and precious environments. The development of a stakeholder network will provide novel opportunities for sharing knowledge, experience, and data through face-to-face and virtual interaction.

Participation in global institutions increases NREL’s reach in the world, and returns valuable research collaborations. For example, Dr. Gillian Bowser serves on the UN Women’s Major Group and the Research Independents NGO, which is an organization that serves civil society within the United Nations structure. These groups provide critical review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) process during the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and other UN bodies with an aim to affect joint community and natural resource sustainability. Dr. Bowser also serves as a stakeholder on the Global Environmental Outlook report of the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program), which ties the SDGs to global environmental change.