A University of Alabama College of Engineering research center has been invited to join a global initiative for the United Nations with a focus on sustainable development.
UA’s Center for Sustainable Infrastructure will join the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, or SDSN, the national and international initiative to promote practical solutions for sustainable development. Dr. Steven Jones, UA professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, is the lead person for UA’s involvement in this network.
“The goal of the network is to have representation from at least one university in all 50 states,” Jones said “We got in there early, and its great visibility for the University nationally and its great visibility for the University internationally. This is an opportunity for The University of Alabama to be sitting at the table and talking about sustainability issues.”
According to Jones, the United States is the only country in the developed world where the average life expectancy is declining. This is due to various conditions that affect much of rural and small town America, including Alabama.
“If there is some way that by connecting The University of Alabama and the state of Alabama to this larger network to do some good for Alabama, obviously I would be thrilled to be a part of that,” Jones said. “It’s called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. So, they want to create a network where people in academia and policy makers from different states will work together to address common sustainability issues that affect both rural and urban parts of the country.”
One of the main areas of focus for Jones and his work with the SDSN is issues regarding transportation. Jones says the lack of transportation in rural and small town Alabama is a barrier for sustainability.
“Transportation means access to healthcare, it means access to jobs, it means an elderly persons’ access to social activity and quality of life,” Jones said. “We are such an automobile dependent state that it’s not sustainable. Our population is aging, more and more people are going to get to the age where they can’t drive anymore, and we’re going to have societal and economic impacts because of that.”
One of Jones’ goals is to incorporate other colleges within the University. Dr. Catherine Carlson, UA assistant professor of social work, is also involved.
“Most of my social work career has focused on research or programming for social development and humanitarian relief in Africa and Asia,” Carlson said. “In the global arena, much of the work has centered around the Millennium Development Goals and now the Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, social work in the U.S. has largely focused on domestic policies, neglecting to incorporate these global frameworks.”
Carlson and Jones have previously worked together on a publication on the role of social work in addressing road traffic safety in Africa. This partnership led to the current cross-disciplinary involvement between the College of Engineering and the School of Social Work as part of the SDSN.
“I have been working in my social work bubble to integrate the SDGs into my teaching at UA,” Carlson said. “I was excited to learn that there was another faculty on campus trying to do the same thing, in his respective discipline, and that there was a broader network focused on developing the achievement of the SDGs in the United States.”
The United States SDSN held their inaugural event in 2018 at Columbia University in New York. Jones attended this event as the University’s representative. In September 2019, the United States SDSN will host the seventh International Conference on Sustainable Development in New York.
“People are going to come to this conference from all over the world, and there is going to be a set of sessions around the theme of transportation, and it is all going to be anchored and branded by The University of Alabama,” Jones said. “As a native of Alabama and as someone who has been at The University of Alabama a long time, I think this is very positive press and positive outreach for us as a University and for us as a state.”
During this conference, Jones and two colleagues, one from China and the other from Kenya, will be organizing and chairing sessions around the theme of transportation and sustainable development. The conference will address a range of sustainability-related themes. Abstracts are due May 1.
“What I want to do is be the conduit to link other researchers that I meet through the network back to UA,” Jones said. “This is a great thing. It’s great exposure to be at this table, and it’s just the beginning.”