Adapting Urban Environments for the Future

Adapting Urban Environments for the Future is an integrative program of research on urban sustainability that will generate and mobilize the knowledge required to make cities more socially inclusive and resilient, less environmentally impactful, and better able to meet future sustainability challenges while improving the well-being of residents.

The rapid expansion of the global urban population means that cities are central to the transition to a sustainable economy and society. Cities will bear the brunt of environmental crisis, but they are also where human societies can be shifted to more sustainable trajectories. But, how can cities and urban systems be made more sustainable? The governance of cities must balance competing voices and visions over multiple spatial and temporal scales.


The MSSI “Adapting Cities for the Future” research theme examines and generates solutions that improve the monitoring, planning and governance of urban sustainability, given the many constraints on cities’ development and looming uncertainties about the future climate and economy. This interdisciplinary research programme fosters and expands McGill’s research strengths in this area. A centrepiece of the programme is the development of Montreal as a living lab for urban sustainability research.

Directions for research

The Urban Theme is exploring urban sustainabilty at five spatial scales. Critical research questions being addressed in Montreal as well as other research sites worldwide, include:

  • What is a sustainable city? At what scale(s) can this be defined? Is this a viable development goal?
  • What densities or development patterns can maximize the health and resiliency of biophysical processes (carbon sequestration, water retention etc.) social inclusion, human well-being, and happiness, while minimizing energy use and waste production?
  • How, with their vast webs of energy flows, food and water sources, and immigration, can the impacts and benefits of cities be understood (individual buildings, neighbourhoods, municipalities, watersheds, countries)?
  • What are the appropriate forms and scales of governance for urban sustainability decision-making? How do local governance actors attempt to act regionally or globally towards sustainability goals, and what allows them to be successful?
  • What is the role of cities in impacting biodiversity in urban, suburban, and peri-urban areas? How can urban ecosystems be managed and restored to promote urban biodiversity and many associated ecosystem services.
  • How can cities adapt to new forms of mobility and the scientific-technological, political-institutional, and human behavioural questions these raise?
  • How can ‘smart city’ policies and ‘big data’ contribute to urban sustainability outcomes?

More specifics of how we’re addressing these questions can be found under the ‘Research’ tab.


Theme co-Leads

Andrew Gonzalez

Dr. Andrew Gonzalez is Professor and Liber Ero Chair in Department of Biology, McGill University, and the founding Director of the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science. His research is focused on the causes and consequences of biodiversity change. Major research foci include: 1) global change impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, 2) rapid evolution and the maintenance of biodiversity, and 3) applying network science to the design of resilient ecosystems for urban sustainability. 

Kevin Manaugh

Dr. Kevin Manaugh is an Assistant Professor jointly appointed in the McGill School of Environment and Department of Geography. He is interested in how transport systems can play a role in creating environmentally friendly, inclusive, and healthy cities. He focuses on understanding the scientific, technological, political, and behavioural opportunities and barriers associated with moving towards low-carbon transport.

David Wachsmuth

Dr. David Wachsmuth is the Canada Research Chair in Urban Governance and an Assistant Professor in the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. His research analyzes urban governance challenges that exceed the boundaries of the city, focusing in particular on environmental sustainability, local economic development, and housing politics.

Other Collaborators

Brian Leung, Department of Biology
Sarah Moser, Department of Geography
Raja Sengupta, Department of Geography
Mylene Riva, Department of Geography
Nancy Ross, Department of Geography

Funded students and Postdocs

Robin Basalaev-Binder
Conor DeSantis (School of Urban Planning)
Ailin He (Department of Economics)
Chenxuan Hou (Desautels Faculty of Management)
Anthony Sardain (Biology)
Maryam Teimouri (Department of Geography)
Kyle Teixeira-Martins (Department of Biology)
Ty Tuff (Department of Biology)
Shiriam Varadarajan (Department of Biology - PRISM)
Megan Wylie (Department of Geography)
Qiao Zhao (Department of Geography)

Other students and Postdocs

Hannah Rebentisch (Department of Geography)
Jay Jones-Doyle (Faculty of Law)
Ghislaine Kieffer (School of Urban Planning)
Jamie DeWeese (School of Urban Planning)


Hossein Chavoshi , Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Geography

Urban Sustainability Dashboard

Urban governance, including decision-making related to sustainability problems, must balance competing voices and visions over multiple spatial and temporal scales. This dashboard – a repository for data analysis pipelines, simulations, and visualizations - will support data-driven decision making for the monitoring, planning and governance of urban sustainability. The dashboard will be useful to researchers, policy makers, and the general public who will be able to interact with dedicated interfaces for each user group. For example, individuals will be able to query questions related to their neighbourhood, while urban planners will be able to see larger patterns and identify issues.

The local politics of global sustainability

This project investigates the circumstances under which local governance actors take action to address global sustainability challenges. The primary case studies are 100 Resilient Cities, a global interlocal policy network funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and a complete set of a local climate action plans in Canada and the State of California.

Sustainable neighbourhoods

Nancy Ross, Mylene Riva, and Kevin Manaugh are co-supervising a post-doctoral researcher on a project examining the concept of neighbourhood-level sustainability.

Sustainable neighbourhoods support active living and low-carbon mobility, maximize carbon sequestration and biodiversity, are inclusive, affordable, accessible and sustain well-being from early childhood through advanced age. This project identifies Canadian neighbourhoods across the sustainability spectrum and targets contrasting neighbourhoods for social surveys to identify behavioural patterns around consumption (energy, transportation, food). This research will help us better understand the relationship between structural and behavioural sustainability. What type and amount of urban green space can maximize the biophysical and ecosystem services qualities as well as human health benefits and reductions in GHG due to encouraging active transport?

Walkability in Indian master-planned cities

Raja Sengupta, Sarah Moser, and Kevin Manaugh are collaborating with a colleague in India, Dr. Prasad Pathak from Centre for Earth and Environment at FLAME University in Pune, India to study walkability across urban gradients in India, including new master planned cities and ‘Smart Cities”.

This project utilizes conventional GIS-based network analyses to study proximity of amenities such as green space and healthcare as well as novel machine learning image analysis of street-level design features such as the presence of trees and safety features. This will allow the team to understand how the provision of safe, comfortable, and pleasant places to walk are distributed in India, a country with rapidly increasing rates of vehicle ownership. This project also takes a critical look at whether and how conceptions of ‘walkability’ (which were developed to describe conditions in North American urban environments) can be adjusted to work in other contexts with vastly different conditions, legacies of built form, and social norms around transport behaviour.

In collaboration with local academics and planning practitioners, have developed a walkability audit tool to analyse local conditions across three neigbourhoods in the city of Pune which exemplify differences in built form and planning approaches, for example a centuries-old downtown area and a newly-built ‘Smart-City’ suburb.


The Panama Research and Integrated Sustainability Model, led by Brian Leung in the Department of Biology, is a national level, integrated model of natural and human assets that is being developed to enable sustainability research as well as evidence-based decision making. For more information, visit the PRISM website.

New Opportunities Projects

The New Opportunities fund supports urban sustainability research projects by McGill faculty. Below are previously funded projects.


Urban Heat Wave Vulnerability Index (UHWVI): extending the Urban Heat Island (UHI)
Raja Sengupta (Dept. of Geography) & Frederic Fabry (Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences)

This project is mapping the “Urban Heat Wave Vulnerability Index (UHWVI)” across the Island of Montreal using temperature variation, socio-demographic data, tree canopy and greenspace estimates. This will provide a better understanding of how higher night-time temperature patterns vary through the city, and how they may affect vulnerable populations.


Linking Disability Rights and Climate Resilience in Urban Environments
Sébastien Jodoin (Faculty of Law), Matthew Hunt (Faculty of Medicine) & Nandini Ramanujam (Faculty of Law)

Cities are in the process of adapting for the inevitability of climate change while concurrently improving accessible for persons with disabilities. How do the policies and pathways to these two separate goals relate, and are the rights of persons with disabilities adequately incorporated in climate adaptation efforts? This project lays the groundwork for a large, interdisciplinary SSHRC Insight Grant application.


Methane emissions from natural gas distribution pipelines and infrastructure in Montreal
Mary Kang (Dept. of Civil Engineering)

This team, in collaboration with the City of Montreal and GHGSat (a global emissions monitoring company based in Montreal) is using mobile laser‐based methane and ethane sensors to test Montreal’s distribution pipelines and associated infrastructure for natural gas leakage. Higher than anticipated methane emissions have been found through similar studies of other cities, and this research will help better estimate and mitigate methane emissions in Montreal.


Sustainable Consumption: The Full Consumption Cycle from the Consumers’ Perspective
Emine Sarigöllü (Desautels Faculty of Management)

This project provides a literature review and synthesis to support a Tri-Council team grant application addressing the need for an interdisciplinary study of consumers’ sustainable consumption. The aim is to comprehensively and systematically address multiple issues pertaining to sustainable consumption throughout a product’s lifetime, an increasingly important research and public policy area, using a “product lifecycle assessment” adapted from natural sciences and engineering.



From a Throwaway Society into a Sustainable Society: A Consumer Perspective
Emine Sarigöllü & Myung-Soo Jo (Desautels Faculty of Management)

  • Hou, C., Jo, M. S., & Sarigöllü, E. (2020). Feelings of satiation as a mediator between a product’s perceived value and replacement intentions. Journal of Cleaner Production, 258. Open access. [View Paper].
  • Hou, C., Sarigöllü, E., Jo, M. S., & Liang, D. (2018). Stepping outside the self promotes pro-environmental behaviors. Sustainability (Switzerland), 10(9), 1–15. . Open access. [View Paper].


Trajectories of inequality in Montreal: What neighborhoods stand to benefit most from the proposed ‘Pink’ metro line?
Sebastien Breau (Department of Geography)

This project assesses the potential impact of the proposed ‘Pink’ metro line as a sustainable and more inclusive form of transportation in Montreal, and making use of novel spatial statistical methods. The work was presented at the American Association of Geographers conference in April, 2019 and the authors have been asked to contribute the research to an upcoming special issue in the Journal of Applied Geography.


Light, Night and Urban Sustainability
Will Straw (Department of Art History & Communication Studies)

This project resulted in an all-day symposium on April 11, 2019 to explore in which international workshop of urbanists, lighting experts, historians, and geographers took up the question of how to ensure that the nights of our cities are safe, accessible, lively and environmentally sustainable for all.

Two new postdoc positions, April 2020

The theme is hiring two postdocs to develop the Montreal Sustainability Dashboard (MSD). They will begin evaluating applications on May 31. 

See the full call here.

New Opportunities call, April 2019

The Adapting Urban Environments for the Future theme within the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI) aims to develop an integrative program of research on urban sustainability that will generate and mobilize the knowledge required to make cities more socially inclusive and less environmentally impactful, while improving the well-being of residents.

See previously funded projects under the 'Research' tab.

Light, Night & Urban SustainabilityApril 9, 2019

This one-day symposium was organized by Professor Will Straw (James McGill Professor of Urban Media Studies) and The Urban Night, an interdisciplinary research project on cities and the night. It was supported through MSSI's Urban Environments theme through their New Opportunities Fund.

This symposium tackled the question of how the night-time of cities might be made environmentally sustainable, accessible, safe and culturally effervescent.  A key (but not exclusive) focus of the symposium was the role of lighting in the night-time experience of cities.

To learn more, visit The Urban Night.

Urban Sustainability and Population Health: Turning Data into Insights, October 26th, 2018

This was a co-hosted research seminar in Fall 2019 with the Geo-Social Determinants of Health Group, Urban Sustainability and Population Health: Turning Data into Insights brought together researchers from health, engineering social sciences and natural sciences disciplines to explore how to better use data for urban and environmental research.

You can see a full program of the day here: PDF icon urban-sustainability-and-population-health-meeting-agenda.pdf


Co-Lead Discussion

Theme Update

Theme Launch

Angelo, H., & Wachsmuth, D. (2020). Why does everyone think cities can save the planet? Urban Studies, 57(11), 2201–2221. [View open access paper]

McDonald, R. I. et al. (2020). Research gaps in knowledge of the impact of urban growth on biodiversity. Nature Sustainability. [View paper]

Zarabi, Z., Manaugh, K., & Lord, S. (2019). The impacts of residential relocation on commute habits: A qualitative perspective on households’ mobility behaviors and strategies. Travel Behaviour and Society, 16(October 2018), 131–142. [View paper]

Wachsmuth, D (2019) Sustainable urban governance and the urban governance of sustainability. In Governing the Plural City (British Academy). [View paper]

Robin Basalaev-Binder and David Wachsmuth (2018). Rebuild by Design Five Years Later: Reflections from the Designers. Policy report for Rebuild by Design. 38 pages. [View paper

Albert, C., Rayfield, B., Dumitru, M. and Gonzalez, A. (2017). Applying network theory to prioritize multi-species habitat networks that are robust to climate and land-use change. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12943. [View paper]

Wachsmuth, D., Cohen, D.A., & Angelo, H. (2016). Expand the frontiers of urban sustainability. Nature, 536, 391-393. [View paper]

Ahern, J. (2013). Urban landscape sustainability and resilience: The promise and challenges of integrating ecology with urban planning and design. Landscape Ecology, 28, 1203-1212. [View paper]

Cardinale, B. al. (2012). Biodiversity Loss and Its Impact on Humanity. Nature. DOI:10.1038/nature11148. [View paper]

Bell, G., and A. Gonzalez. (2011). Adaptation and Evolutionary Rescue in Metapopulations Experiencing Environmental Deterioration. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1203105. [View paper]

Agyeman, J. (2008). Toward a ‘just’ sustainability? Continuum, 22(6), 751-756. DOI: 10.1080/10304310802452487. [View paper]

Back to top