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K-State Today

January 20, 2023

K-State researchers publish study on rural sustainability in top journal

Submitted by Chuck Martin

Kate Nelson, assistant professor of geography and geospatial sciences, Tuan Nguyen, assistant professor in the College of Education, and Jean Francois and Shreya Ojha, geography and geospatial sciences doctoral students, have published a paper that provides an overview and synthesis of rural sustainability evaluation literature in  Sustainable Development, a leading development and planning journal.

The paper, "Rural sustainability methods, drivers, and outcomes: A systematic review," examines more than 60 studies related to the evaluation of rural sustainability to describe trends in study topics, methodological approaches and geographic study areas. The study also identifies differences in how sustainability is conceptualized and operationalized, the types of factors whose impacts on sustainability are evaluated, and whether those impacts are positive or negative.

The team found that most studies operationalize sustainability across at least social, economic and environmental dimensions, which acknowledges the complexity of sustainability issues. There was strong representation from both qualitative and quantitative analytical traditions. They also found that regardless of how sustainability is measured and what the factor impacting sustainability is, reported positive impacts strongly outnumber negative impacts on sustainability.

"What we find is that nearly any effort to address sustainability will yield some benefits," Nelson said. "However, some tradeoffs are also to be expected." 

The study suggests that to improve understanding of the interventions and factors that can improve sustainability in rural areas — and better inform rural policy and decision-making — greater attention to conceptualization, design and reporting is needed. 

"The large number of positive impacts on sustainability that are reported in the literature are encouraging," Nelson said. "Unfortunately, inconsistency across the literature means that we lack the information needed to determine in what situations, or to what extent, the positives outweigh the negatives. What is needed are a great many more rural sustainability evaluations that use rigorous methods and in which what is being evaluated, and why, are clearly defined."