You are here

Mapping the Future

September 1, 2016

As a kid, Professor Steven Manson was surrounded by the wooded landscape of his small British Columbian hometown and the gadgets and technology that fascinated him. As a teen, these two interests converged and set him on a quest to use technology to better understand the environment around us.

Having come to the University of Minnesota in 2002, he has distinguished himself not only for his academic and research rigor but for his engagement with the community and determination to create positive change. His CV speaks to his resolve: He was named a Scholar of the College in the spring of 2016 and his wide range of projects are supported by over $25 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Justice. Now he has been named as the new associate dean for graduate and research programs for the College of Liberal Arts.

“It is an exciting and challenging time for higher education and the broader society of which we are all part,” he says, “so I am particularly interested in ensuring we can continue to tackle important issues.”

Better Housing Through Data

Manson works on problems such as declining water and air quality, climate change, food shortages, and social and environmental impacts of migration. A large body of his research focuses on land use and the human impact on the environment.

“The way we solve our problems today,” he says, “will determine whether or not our great-great-great grandchildren will live in a livable and equitable world.”

In his land-use research, Manson inquires into the urban and rural landscape change over time and links it to actionable policy that helps leaders and planners guide the course of urban development.

For example, with NASA and CURA funding, Manson and colleague Brenda Kayzar looked at land-use dynamics in the Twin Cities exurbs of Farmington and Rosemount. They found that housing stock in these cities was too uniform—maybe one or two types of houses were available. Families who wanted to live there often had to buy houses that were too big and expensive because there was no alternative—and this led to serious economic implications for Rosemount and Farmington after the housing collapse of 2008.

Using data and land-use studies, Manson and Kayzar created toolkits for city planners that allowed them “to guide the course of development … [and] to find different routes and configurations of land use.”

Big Answers From Big Data

The topic that gets Manson most excited these days is the rise of big data in research. He’s involved with TerraPop, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation that is creating “gold standard” data on human and environmental systems. The idea is that data will be collected and made available to serve as the ultimate source of information on large populations and how they interact with the spaces around them.

“This is permeating a lot of CLA, from the humanities through social sciences and statistics, and is a key interface with other campus colleagues,” Manson explains. The data can be used for many research applications and will provide standard information for anyone—from academics to journalists to policy makers.

“We’re clearly at a stage in the world where so many of the big problems are human and environmental: climate change and global warming, issues around agriculture, growing population, changes in the ocean, all are interconnected,” Manson says. As he collaborates with economists, ecologists, and other expert “-ists,” he says, “What I bring to the table is a classic geographical perspective—thinking about human and environmental relations, and considering how place and distance matter.”  

Supporting Future Scholars

On campus, Manson is known as a dedicated mentor, having won the Supporting Women in Geography Advising Award for his graduate advising. He has also collaborated with a local educational organization, EcoEducation, to bring environmental education into urban elementary schools to not only boost the students’ science skills but also to bring them on campus so they can begin to see a future for themselves in higher education.  

He hopes to bring those same sensibilities to his new role as associate dean. “I am interested in helping graduate students find success on their own terms,” he says, “which increasingly means ensuring they are prepared for a wide array of lives and livelihoods.”