Asim Zia, Assistant Professor at the University of Vermont
208E Morrill Hall, Burlington, VT 05405 | 802.656.4695 | Email:

Asim Zia's current CV (PDF)
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Policy Analysis of Complex Systems:
   arrowEcological Boundary Setting in Mental and Geophysical Models

This research has been funded by National Science Foundation, under their program on Human and Social Dynamics (Award # 0433165). More information on the award is available at


When agencies and the public attend to an environmental "problem," they explicitly or implicitly bound that problem in space and time by associating it with a system and a set of dynamics that they think generates the problem. These boundary- setting decisions are crucial to problem formulation-the most difficult aspect of analyzing decisions-and they also determine which data, and which scientific theories, will be deployed to understand and model the systems. Past research has suggested that stakeholders from different interest groups often "model" the system differently, depending on their interests, so bounding decisions become controversial, blocking agreement on the nature of the problem and making effective action impossible. The research team will address boundary-setting activities and choices in two very different settings. First, the team will develop and use interviews, discourse analysis of documents, and revealed preference valuation, in conjunction with GIS modeling and mental modeling techniques, to examine and represent how citizens and participants "bound" the system they care about. Second, we will examine how geo-physical modelers-especially those who build models intended to be useful in public decision making-set the spatio-temporal bounds of their quantitative models. Using this combination of social scientific methods and geophysical modeling techniques, the team will explore the role of social values in boundary-setting. Historically, the group will use developments in the Chesapeake Bay region in the 1970s and 1980s--and the determination of agencies and the public that environmental problems in Chesapeake Bay must be understood as a watershed-scaled problem--as an exemplar of a successful confluence of science working in a context of shifting policy boundaries.

The research will examine a series of environmental problems by building upon existing work in three rapidly changing metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Chicago, and St. Louis. Each city faces serious issues requiring reconsideration of how environmental and social problems are bounded and addressed. Two types of values will be studied: (a) sense of place values--values that residents associate with their locality--and (b) spatial dimensions of equity issues, as private and public decisions may create differentials in the quality of life within and across physical and political boundaries. The intellectual merit of the study derives from rigorously developing and applying innovative empirical methods to the formulation of pressing environmental problems, improving our understanding of the modeling of spatial dynamics associated with some of society's most complex problems.

Relevant papers and presentations:


  • Zia, A., Norton, B. G., Metcalf, S., Hirsch, P., Hannon, B. (In Preparation) An Ambit-Base for Sense of Place: Where We (C)are?
  • Zia, A., B. G. Norton and P. D. Hirsch (In Preparation). "Descriptive, Dynamic and Normative Aspects of Bounding Policy Problems: Transformation of Scale in Chesapeake Bay Pollution Management.


  • Norton, B. G. et al. (In Preparation) Scale Matters: Where We are, Who We Are and Why We Care?


  • Zia, A., Norton, B. G., Metcalf, S., Hirsch, P., Hannon, B. (In Review) An Ambit-Base for Sense of Place: Where We (C)are? Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) 51st Annual Research Conference, Minneapolis, October 2010