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Urban Systems and Communities in the 21st Century

Communities in the 21st Century are undergoing dramatic transitions. Social and technological innovations - such as the sharing economy and autonomous vehicles - are transforming communities by redefining how people work and move through their environments. Increasingly global markets allow massive flows of goods, services, information, and people. At the same time, changes in the natural and human environment that bring about more frequent and more severe hazards - such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires - threaten the safety and wellbeing of communities. Urbanization is a defining phenomenon affecting communities in the 21st Century.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing in a portfolio of interdisciplinary activities to advance fundamental knowledge about the diverse changes associated with urbanization to help the nation and the world address the challenges and seize the tremendous opportunities of urban systems. Key questions include:

  • What theories explain the structure and function of urban systems and what are the critical drivers of change?
  • What aspects and intersections of social, built, and natural systems influence the resilience and sustainability of communities and the wellbeing of the people living in them?
  • Can successful innovations in one urban system be transferred to others?
  • Can science improve forecasts and make predictions about the future states of urban systems?
  • How can communities design urban systems from within to achieve beneficial outcomes?

The following interdisciplinary, cross-directorate activities examine and promote science and engineering knowledge relevant to critical aspects of urban systems


Photo Credit: Artdee2554/

Smart and Connected Communities

The goal of the S&CC program is to accelerate the creation of the scientific and engineering foundations that will enable smart and connected communities to bring about new levels of economic opportunity and growth, safety and security, health and wellness, and overall quality of life. S&CC supports integrative research that addresses fundamental technological and social science dimensions of smart and connected communities, and pilots solutions together with communities, through meaningful engagement with the community throughout the project.

A ‘smart and connected community’ is a community that synergistically integrates intelligent technologies with the natural and built environments (including infrastructure) to improve the social, economic, and environmental well-being of those who live, work, or travel within it. The S&CC program intentionally takes a broad view on “community.” Communities are defined as having geographically-delineated boundaries - such as towns, cities, counties, neighborhoods, community districts, rural areas, and tribal regions - consisting of various populations, with the structure and ability to engage in meaningful ways with proposed research activities. While many S&CC projects are focused in urban areas, this program also supports projects focused on other types of communities - including rural communities and tribal regions.

This program was launched in 2016 and has issued 51 awards through Fiscal Year (FY) 2018. S&CC’s Integrative Research grants have ranged in size from $0.8 to $3.6 million and currently support research projects that integrate across both the technological and social dimensions of smart and connected communities and meaningfully engage participating community stakeholders. S&CC’s portfolio also includes Research Coordination Networks and planning grants.

Smart and Connected Communities Program
NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities Effort

Press Releases:
October 4, 2018: NSF announces $24.2 million to support research fueling smart cities and communities
October 12, 2017: NSF announces $19.5M in awards to support fundamental research to advance the nation’s local cities and communities

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sustainable Urban Systems

In response to NSF's Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC ERE) 2018 report titled Sustainable Urban Systems: Articulating a Long-Term Convergence Research Agenda, the NSF is calling for workshop proposals to explore concepts of Sustainable Urban System Research Networks.

The AC ERE’s report articulates a vision and a compelling research agenda for developing the next generation of sustainable urban systems (SUS) science, that includes:


  • Developing new data and methods to understand the interactions among natural, built, and social systems in urban areas;

  • Advancing comparative, typology, and scalability studies to develop generalizable theories of urban systems;

  • Co-producing knowledge through engagement with communities and stakeholders and by leveraging real-world experimentation ongoing in urban areas; and
  • Developing the science model and make predictions about the future of sustainable urban systems.

The AC ERE recommends that the NSF support “large multi-investigator cross-directorate projects that integrate most of the key elements of a convergent SUS science.”


In FY 2019, the NSF plans to support workshops that explore concepts for potential Sustainable Urban Systems Research Networks. Prior Research Network competitions have resulted in several $12 million awards. Next-generation SUS Research Networks of comparable-size should enable broader, more extensive, and more comprehensive SUS research and education than is currently possible elsewhere in NSF’s portfolio.


Dear Colleague Letter (NSF 19-032): Conference Proposals on Concepts for Advancing Sustainable Urban Systems (SUS) Research Networks
AC ERE Report: Sustainable Urban Systems: Articulating a Long-Term Convergence Research Agenda
2019 Sustainable Urban Systems Conference and Workshop Awards

Photo Credit: Ning Lin, Princeton University

Coastlines and People

Coastlines and People (CoPe) is an emerging interest area focused on geophysical (atmospheric, geological, hydrological, oceanographic) processes and hazards that impact both the physical coastlines and the people that inhabit coastal areas. While coastal communities vary extensively, most of the world’s largest cities are coastal and the amount of urban infrastructure built along coastlines continues to grow. CoPe is interested in advancing understanding of how natural hazards affect all types of coastal communities and will contribute significantly toward understanding urban resilience.

In September 2018, four simultaneous workshops were held. These involved researchers from a broad range of disciplines and a variety of stakeholders. These workshops were designed to articulate the research needs related to the impacts of coastal environmental change and natural hazards on populated coastlines; and to imagine Coastal Research Hubs for convergence research at the intersection of natural processes and hazards, human dynamics, and the built environment. The output from these workshops is publicly available at Coastlines and People.

NEW: NSF is interested in supporting projects to build capacity and explore research focused on understanding the impacts of coastal environmental variability and natural hazards on populated coastal regions and is currently seeking proposals for Research Coordination Networks, Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research, Conferences, and Non-academic Research Internships for Graduate Students (INTERN) supplements. See Dear Colleague Letter (NSF 19-059) for more details.

Coastlines and People
NEW: Dear Colleague Letter (NSF 19-059): Research Opportunities Related to Coastlines and People (CoPe)

Photo Credit: John Schade

Long Term Ecological Research - Urban Ecology

The NSF established the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program in 1980 to study ecological phenomena over long periods of time. The LTER network consists of 28 long-term research sites. Together, these sites have produced data on ecological, social, and economic processes for several decades. 2 sites, the Central Arizona - Phoenix LTER and the Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER, are specifically focused on Urban Ecology. Both were established in 1997. The North Temperate Lakes LTER, established in 1981, is devoted to the study of lakes and includes Lake Mendota which is located in the heart of Madison, WI.

NSF has long required that data collected by LTER sites be made broadly available to scientists, educators, and the public to ensure these long-term investments empower interested parties beyond the scientists directly supported by LTER. These data are accessible through public data repositories like the Environmental Data Initiative. For more information on LTER network activities and for links to individual LTER site web pages, visit the LTER Network webpage.

Long-Term Ecological Research Program
Environmental Data Initiative
LTER Network


Together these programs will significantly advance scientific understanding of 21st century communities. S&CC and CoPe extend beyond urban systems and respectively seek to advance understanding of smart technologies and the impacts of geophysical hazards on non-urban communities as well. SUS and the Urban-LTER sites are focused primarily on urban systems.

Researchers seeking to submit a proposal are encouraged to read the available solicitations and/or Dear Colleague Letters to determine which opportunity best fits their idea. If uncertain about where a specific research idea would best fit, researchers are encouraged to email one of the points of contact listed in the solicitations and DCLs.

Additional Opportunities

The science and engineering of urban systems also is supported by NSF’s core programs, including but not limited to:


Civil Infrastructure Systems

Cultural Anthropology

Cyber-Physical Systems

Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences

CNH2: Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems

Engineering for Civil Infrastructure

Environmental Sustainability

Geography and Spatial Sciences

Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment



Published on 5/1/2019. This website will be updated as more information becomes available.