BUFFALO, N.Y. — As the world warms, communities around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario may become a refuge for people seeking relief from drought, sea-level rise and other climate-related extreme events in different parts of the U.S. and the world.

How can the Lower Great Lakes region develop sustainably in the future? And how can researchers, communities and governments work together to address sustainability and resilience challenges that may arise?

From Aug. 19-21, about 75 stakeholders from U.S.-based watersheds around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario met in Buffalo to discuss these questions at a UB-led workshop aimed at developing a region-wide collaborative research network to tackle these questions.

Information gathered during the event will be included in a proposal that asks the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund the network, which will focus on the Lower Great Lakes area.

Attendees from around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario included researchers or sustainability and resilience officers from eight universities (UB, the University of Michigan, the University of Toledo, Cleveland State University, Penn State Behrend, SUNY ESF, SUNY Oswego and Clarkson University), as well as representatives of the indigenous tribes, local, state and federal agencies, and community organizations such as Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, GObike Buffalo, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, and the African Heritage Food Cooperative. International observers also attended.

“We are in a changing environment that sends ripple effects throughout the natural, social, infrastructure and organizational systems that support the urban and rural communities in the Lower Great Lakes,” says Chris Renschler, PhD, the workshop’s lead organizer and an associate professor of geography in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “We are experiencing weather event pattern changes in our seasons in the region, and at the same time, this region may be a desirable destination for people looking to escape from areas that are facing severe threats from climate change.

“We need to think about how resilient our urban and rural systems are to changes: How can we adapt? How quickly can we respond? What services do we need? We need to think about these questions now rather than waiting until it is even harder to respond or we’re too late. And we need to think about these questions not just in terms of the environment, but also in terms of our economy, our physical infrastructure and our culture and society.”

Bringing diverse stakeholders together with a common goal

The workshop — the OUTSTEP Lower Great Lakes workshop(Organizing Urban Transects for a Sustainable Transformation of Economic Partnerships across the Lower Great Lakes) — took place at the Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference Center.

Renschler, an expert in natural resources management, extreme events and community resilience, is heading a team that received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to host the event.

Other UB investigators on the project include Susan Clark, PhD, director of the Sustainable Urban Environments Initiative in the College of Arts and Sciences; JiYoung Park, PhD, associate professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning; Michael Shelly, PhD, environmental/ecological economist in the Research in eNergy, Environment and Water (RENEW) Institute, and Ryan McPherson, UB chief sustainability officer.

The community and government participants who attended the workshop helped scientists identify research topics, providing perspective on important challenges facing the Lower Great Lakes.

The event had two major goals: laying the foundation for a region-wide research network, and developing ideas for integrated research projects — with and for community stakeholders — that an NSF-supported network could carry out.

If funded, the research network could more effectively engage with community partners and influence policy-making through collaborative projects to improve the region’s sustainability and resilience.

“I am excited about the involvement of diverse community stakeholders, which will make our research ideas more grounded and useful for communities to effectively adapt to the changing climate,” Clark says. “In addition, I am looking forward to developing partnerships with local businesses and other organizations that will potentially offer more experiential learning opportunities for students related to sustainability and resilience. The network we are building, as well as the consensus around research priorities, will help to define and guide the mission of the new sustainability initiative I am developing for the UB College of Arts and Sciences.”