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Urban areas compete for regional food, energy, and water resources. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee (pictured above). Georgia has been in a long-standing dispute with the state of Tennessee over water rights to the Tennessee River, which flows through Chattanooga and then into Alabama, skirting the Georgia border. Image by David Sager, courtesy Unsplash.

Environmental change, population growth, and accelerating consumption of food, energy, and water resources are creating worldwide challenges for urban sustainability so a team of University of Tennessee, Knoxville, researchers is developing an international network with a goal to support sustainable urban systems.

These systems, which include cities and their surrounding areas, generally have conflicting interests in terms of limited food, energy, and water resources.

With funding from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, project leader Jie (Joe) Zhuang, a professor of environmental soil science in the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, and Tom Gill, director of the Smith Center for International Sustainable Agriculture, are partnering with UT colleagues in an interdisciplinary effort. They propose to create an international research coordination network (iRCN) focused on food, energy, and water (FEW). The work should make it easier for FEW-based researchers to think more broadly and inspire outreach, engagement, and multinational transdisciplinary efforts to enhance urban sustainability.

Other partners in the effort include Frank Loeffler, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for microbiology and civil and environmental engineering; Mingzhou Jin, an industrial engineering professor and director of the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment; Wendy Tate, a professor of supply chain management; and Gary Sayler, emeritus distinguished professor of microbiology.

a graphic showing the interaction of policy, stakeholders, and research on resources of energy, food, and water
The food, energy, and water nexus generates complicated relationships. Credit: J. Zhuang

The proposed iRCN is expected to merge information from research networks among countries of different urbanization and income levels including Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Guatemala, the Netherlands, Tanzania, Uganda, Uruguay, and the U.S.

Since no single group of disciplines can generate a comprehensive understanding of urban FEW impacts, Zhuang says the work will help researchers link currently uncoordinated work, engage stakeholders, and advance a global agenda of sustainable urban development.

The new network will serve as a template for budding FEW-urban research initiatives in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and aims to help less urbanized countries avoid negative experiences when transitioning to sustainable development.

Because communities will need workforces capable of implementing sustainable urban development, the funding also provides for unique international education opportunities. Those include new courses, an honors student research program at UT, multiple study abroad programs for U.S. students, and an annual summer school in China where U.S. students will interact with students from more than 20 countries. The efforts should contribute to developing a diverse, competitive, and globally engaged workforce that can communicate FEW-based challenges and solutions and translate research innovations into practice across international borders.

The iRCN will support a structured rationale for economic and environmental policy as well. The three-year effort is funded with a $500,000 grant from the NSF Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems.


Patty McDaniels (615-835-4570,