Research Projects

Dr. Rina Ghose, Professor, Department of Geography, UWM

My research interests center around questions of environmental and social justice, and intersect between urban geography and planning, political economy, social and cultural geography and critical GIS. Over the years, I have undertaken certain key I draw upon social theory and mixed research methods to examine several intersecting research projects that aim to unpack the complex processes of urban governance, land use planning, citizen participation.

1. Urban-rural migration, rural gentrification in the Rocky Mountain region
My interests in social equity, urban governance and land use planning led me to study the rural gentrification process in the Rocky Mountain area for my doctoral dissertation project. Since 1990, the Rocky Mountain region experienced rapid migration, growth and urbanization, which led to land use debates, conflicts over resource allocation, real estate prices and community identity. Funded by National Science Foundation, I undertook case study research to examine this phenomenon in Western Montana. My findings indicated that a counterurbanization process was underway, involving the migration of equity-rich, middle-class population from urban areas into the smaller towns of Rocky Mountain region, where migration activities were motivated by the dream of a rural idyll and a rejection of the urban life. The spectacular setting of the Rocky Mountains provided gorgeous scenery, recreational opportunities, and an easy going life style, while the small town setting provided reassurances of safety at comparatively low cost of housing. Such migration caused the Rocky mountain towns to experience rapid growth and urbanization. Using the theoretical framework of rural gentrification set by British geographers, I argued that an ongoing rural gentrification process is underway in USA, in which the greater purchasing power of the middle class urbanites enables them to commodify and consume the rural countryside, and in doing so, to impose quite profound changes on the social and physical environment. Planning agencies have been ill-equipped to handle these transitions, leading to conflicts between the newcomers and the locals over the changing identity of the community and reallocation and increasing privatization of resources. Such conflicts include issues of housing availability and affordability, and environmental conservation. Attempts to curb such impacts through planning and policy measures have had mixed outcomes, and ongoing growth has created serious concerns regarding the impacts of unplanned urbanization upon environmental and social environments of the impacted communities. My research on this topic has been well received, and my article in Urban Geography has been cited many times (Ghose 2004). An invited chapter on this topic also appeared in the book titled “City Dreams and Country Schemes” which contains a series of essays by Historians (Ghose 2011).

2. Research on GIS and Urban Governance
Geographic information and GIS technologies have long been used in planning agencies to undertake urban governance. Spatial information, processed through GIS, is perceived as objective and valid, and key to ‘rational’ planning. Given the central role of spatial knowledge and geospatial technologies to governance, I examine their multifaceted implications in the process of governance through two separate research agendas. The first unpacks the notion of Public Participation GIS, while the second uncovers the hidden layers embedded in the GIS practices of local government agencies.

Public Participation GIS
My interest in the process of citizen participation in urban planning drew me to this topic. The centrality of spatial knowledge to urban decision making has made it a key component in citizen participation, yet it is difficult for marginalized citizens to construct such knowledge owing to their lack of access to GI datasets or GIS. I began my research on PPGIS by asking how spatial technology could be used to enhance citizen participation in order to address the socio-spatial inequities in inner-city neighborhoods (Ghose 2001). Given the situated nature of PPGIS, I have drawn upon longitudinal case study research in Milwaukee, where many initiatives have been undertaken since the early 1990s to bridge the GIS digital divide in order to facilitate the participation of inner-city community organizations in urban governance. My theoretical framework is derived from scholarship in urban geography, planning, and critical GIS. My data is derived from intensive interviews, documents analysis and observations. Overall, the high citation counts of these papers show that my research has been very well received.

My past research has examined the ways that grassroots organizations construct powerful spatial narratives to navigate “collaborative” planning programs and contest structural inequities (Ghose 2001, 2003, Ghose and Huxhold 2002). Simultaneously, I explored the technocratic implications of GIS use among the community organizations, which hindered effective citizen participation, by reinforcing top-down rational planning model (Ghose and Huxhold 2001). The fragile nature of grassroots organizations imposes further challenge, and organizational characteristics can differentially shape the participation and spatial knowledge production activities of community organizations, leading to uneven outcomes (Elwood and Ghose 2004). Further, I examined the implications of neoliberal governance policies upon citizen participation in collaborative planning, which posed contradictory effects (Ghose 2005). I also utilized new explanatory framework for PPGIS research, leading to greater theorization in the discipline. I have specifically addressed the politics of citizen participation and the effects of neoliberal ideology upon PPGIS. The emphasis on public-private partnerships has created new networks of actors and institutions, providing opportunities and constraints, and leading to uneven PPGIS outcomes. In my 2007 paper in Environment and Planning A Journal, I explain such unevenness by creating a new explanatory framework drawn from the literature of politics of scale and networks. I further explore the centrality of politics and power in participation and GIS use in the Handbook of GIS and Society book chapter (2011) to demonstrate the influence of neoliberalization on PPGIS. Drawing upon urban political economy literature, I created an explanatory framework that examines the contradictions embedded in urban PPGIS.

Simultaneously, I have grappled with the issues of sustainability in PPGIS provision. Given that technical complexity and high cost of GIS makes it difficult for organizations to have in-house systems, PPGIS has largely relied on GIS provider actors. Yet, limitations posed by neoliberlized restructuring of funding and governance has created serious challenges for these GIS actors, who face sustainability issues themselves. The ways of negotiating and navigating such challenges are explored in my paper published in Cartographica (Lin and Ghose 2008). Using my theoretical framework of scaled network analysis, the paper explains the dynamic process of social struggle for power and control within which the GIS provision is situated. It illustrates how multiple scaled networks have been constructed by the Data Center to facilitate its GIS provision. It also examines the implications of networking to the dynamic production of its GIS provision.
The challenges of using conventional GIS software underline the necessity of an alternate GIS (GIS/2) or a Community Information Systems instead of the traditional GIS software for grassroots organization (Ghose 2001). I have pursued this endeavor through multiple university-community partnerships, and in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of International GIScience Conference, I explore the possibilities of using Web 2.0 to create powerful yet user-friendly GIS/2 (Ghose 2012).

Given the recent proliferation of PPGIS research, it is also important for us to conduct longitudinal research in order to assess and evaluate its outcomes. Another paper, published in International Journal of Applied Geospatial Research, undertakes a historic examination of a collaborative project in Verona, WI to explore the institutional arrangements, actor-networks, and power positions that shape participatory GIS (Mukherjee and Ghose 2012). Currently, I am undertaking a longitudinal examination of urban PPGIS in Milwaukee, to explicitly examine how the process has been shaped over time, in order to understand its differential outcomes.
In summary, I have continued detailed empirical investigations of PPGIS while simultaneously creating new explanatory frameworks, leading to greater theorization in the discipline. My research contributions in PPGIS have been acknowledged in a number of ways. I have been invited to participate and present my research in a number of highly selective international workshops. In 2007, I was invited to present my research in the PPGIS e-seminar, organized by University Consortium of GIS/Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers. The select group of speakers represented the top scholars in this research arena, and our talks were broadcast globally. I was also an invited speaker at the 2012 conference on “Information flows in urban governance: Legitimacy, accountability and transparency” at Amsterdam, Netherlands, which was funded by Netherlands National Science Foundation. Other acknowledgements of my research are demonstrated by the invitations I have received from prestigious universities which hosted my talks. I have also been invited to a member of the editorial board of international journals such as Cartographica, Geography Compass, Dialogues in Human Geography, and International Journal of E-Planning and Research (IJEPR). I have been awarded fellowships from Center for 21st Century Studies and from Center for Information Policy Research at UWM in recognition of my research. Finally, I have received the prestigious “Excellence in Research Award” from UWM Foundation and Graduate School, where I was one of the five candidates, selected across rank and across campus for recognition of outstanding scholarship.

GIS practice in urban governance
The centrality of GIS in urban planning process raises questions concerning GIS practices in local government planning agencies. I initiated a new research project that examines GIS practices in local government to understand the process of GI data creation, data sharing, and data usage. I also aimed to examine the influence of institutional arrangements, the actor-network relationships, the organizational context, and the external political-economic contexts upon such practices. Drawing upon past studies on GIS adoption and implementation in local government agencies, I created an explanatory framework synthesized from literature in urban geography and planning, critical GIS and urban political economy for this research agenda. Working in close collaboration with three of my doctoral advisees (Day, Lin and Mukherjee), this research examines the intertwined relationships between urban government, GIS development and multi-level socio-political-economic conditions in which GIS practices are situated. In-depth case study research was conducted, and data were derived from surveys, interviews, and analysis of planning documents.
One research project focused on Wisconsin’s Land Information System, which has been historically significant in its efforts to modernize land records through its Land Information System. Few have studied the programs that were originally developed to modernize land records, yet these are significant as these resulted in the adoption of GIS at the local government level. We undertook a longitudinal examination to understand the data generation, data sharing and data usage practices in Dane County, WI. Situating the study of its GIS implementation in its historical context, we find evidence of the ongoing influences of past arrangements on contemporary practices (Day and Ghose IJEPR 2012, Mukherjee and Ghose Journal of Urban Technology 2011). Further, we find that the current institutional arrangements of data generation, data sharing and data usage practices are rooted in its history which comes into conflict when new demands arise (Mukherjee and Ghose 2009). We also find the process to be strongly shaped by key actors embedded in thematic and territorial networks whose goals and ideas created long lasting impacts (Mukherjee and Ghose 2009, Day and Ghose 2012). With the emergence of new goals and new actor-networks, further negotiations are necessary (ibid). Third, the transition from Keynesian economy to neoliberal economy and the emergence of new actors with new needs create considerable tension (Day and Ghose 2012). The decision for local government agencies to control access to public data through copyright and legal mechanisms in order to sell it as a product is a direct repercussion of neoliberal policies and contradictory to the spirit of Freedom of Information Act.
Simultaneously, I was drawn toward exploring GIS practices in India and China, as both are non-western countries that have experienced rapid growth and urbanization owing to their strong participation in globalized economy. In both cases, GIS technologies are now being extensively implemented by government agencies for the purposes of urban development. However, in-depth investigations of its GIS practices are absent. The resulting publications with Lin and Mukherjee now provide us with new insights.

In the case of China, our research showed that Shenzhen’s GIS practices are situated in multi-scalar social interactions and interrelations between actors and organizations (Lin and Ghose Cartographica 2010). The findings also demonstrated that rational managerial goals have not been the most determining factor in the city government’s GIS development. Rather, GIS practices have been inextricably linked with the nexus of China’s central-local state power struggle in the context of urbanization and globalization. As such, these technological developments have been largely government-centric and internally-oriented in delivering services.
A similar approach was taken to investigate India’s engagement in GIS for planning and e-governance (Mukherjee and Ghose IJEPR 2013). India’s strong participation in the globalized economy has resulted in rapid rates of urbanization, leading to implementation of e-governance projects which utilize GIS. Published in the International Journal of e-Planning and Research, our paper examines how India’s GIS practices are intricately intertwined with government reforms, state policies, national mapping regulations and strategic position of various agencies involved in the planning and implementation process. Our examination of a key e-governance initiative showed the dominance of power positions, and the ongoing tensions concerning public access to geographic information, and public participation in urban governance. I hope to pursue this project further through future research.

3. Research on Urban Food Inequity and Community Gardens
Over the last four years, I have embarked on a new research project that examines urban food inequities, hunger and the efforts towards food justice through urban community gardens. This is an extension of my research on citizenship practices in marginalized neighborhoods. Since 2010, I have examined urban community gardens in the inner-city neighborhoods, as both sites of alternate food production and sites of community development. Using a theoretical framework drawn from urban geography, political ecology, and public health, my doctoral advisee (Pettygrove) and I have conducted extensive research on Milwaukee’s community gardens. We find that community gardens are providing an alternative to food welfare reductions, urban food insecurity, environmental degradation, and urban disinvestment. The gardens are also serving as sites of grassroots citizenship practice and place-based community development. Therefore, we find that community gardens can challenge hegemonic ideologies, resist capitalistic relations, and assert rights to space for citizens marginalized along race and class lines. However, these are also localized strategies to larger, structural problems. Also, community gardens are less valued under neoliberal ideologies which prioritize economic development projects, and are sites of land use conflicts. We find that through the guise of participation and volunteerism, citizens can be coopted into supporting neoliberal projects (Ghose and Pettygrove, Antipode 2014). Citizen gardeners must also negotiate obstacles such as restrictive zoning regulations, scarcity of gardening resources, lack of gardening labor by creating supportive networks built through the “strength of strong and weak ties” with volunteers, planning agency, businesses and other nonprofit organizations (Ghose and Pettygrove, Geoforum 2014). We have also examined the methodological aspects of examining urban food inequities through the use of community-engaged GIS (Pettygrove and Ghose, IJAGR). I am conducting further research on community gardening practices in the inner-city, and have three additional papers in the draft stage.

4. Research on Digital Technology and Society: My interests in exploring technology/society interactions were extended into yet another research project that examined the societal implications of the use of the Internet within the Indian Diaspora. Published in the Progress in Human Geography, our paper explored the process of identity formation through Internet usage among the Indian community in the USA. It has been cited 124 times, denoting its significance in the field of communication and media studies. India’s strength in software development along with the migration of highly educated Indians into the high-tech economy of USA has created a unique use of the Internet, which acts as “bridgespace”, a virtual space that supports flows of people, goods, capital, and ideas between South Asia and North America. It enables cultural preservation and the maintenance of ethnic identity among the Indian immigrants as well as acts to support cosmopolitan, intercontinental lifestyles and consumption habits within the Indian Diaspora. This paper emerged out of my own experiences as an Indian immigrant, and I believe this topic needs further exploration. Because of my commitments to the other research projects, I have not had much time to devote to this topic, but I am intrigued by the ways the Indian communities are using the Internet, and intend to conduct further research on this topic in future.