Academic Stories

The evolution of the Galápagos

Undergraduates spend the summer researching urbanization in the Galápagos Islands

As a high school student, Amy Tian always thought of the Galápagos Islands as a pristine natural paradise where animals like marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies lived in total isolation from the human world. When she visited this past June, however, she faced the reality of urban development on the islands.

“It was one of my lifelong dreams to make it to [the Galápagos] one day,” said Tian, a rising third-year in the College. “But I never would have anticipated it to look like what it did when I arrived. The place was like a resort town – but the urban planning wasn’t exactly the best.”

Tian was one of four undergraduates who participated in the 2019 Galápagos Urbanization & Sustainable Development program (GUSD). A joint collaboration between UChicago’s Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, the Program on the Global Environment, the College Center for Research and Fellowships and the Social Sciences Collegiate Division, the GUSD program gives students the opportunity to spend four weeks doing field work in the Galápagos to gather data on increasing urbanization of the islands.

“The allure of the Galápagos Islands is driving rapid urbanization. This poses questions about how human development on the Galápagos can co-exist with the environment,” said Luís Bettencourt, inaugural director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. “By mapping the islands, we can see how the Galápagos is changing and track the impact that development has on local environments over time.”

Joining Tian in the program were: Ryan Cutter, a rising third-year majoring in environmental science; Sam Joyce, a rising fourth-year majoring in environmental and urban studies; and Jein Park, a rising fourth-year majoring in public policy and sociology.

After attaching GoPro cameras to their helmets, the students biked through the streets of two major towns in the Galápagos. The cameras were programmed to automatically take panoramic photos of the street view every few seconds, in order to create a virtual representation of the surroundings.

With the help of Mapillary, the street-level imagery platform that uses computer vision to extract geospatial data, the students then analyzed the content of the photos they took. They calculated how much of each image consisted of signs of urbanization, like roads and buildings. By aggregating these calculations, they were able to quantify the degree to which the Galápagos have been “urbanized.”

“Participation in this kind of research experience in the Galápagos provides a nuanced glimpse into a wholly unique environment. The opportunities and challenges to sustainable urban development can be better understood when students are able to apply classroom knowledge in environmental and urban studies to real world problems,” said Sabina Shaikh, director of the Program on Global Environment. “Partnerships with the College and the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation have afforded these kinds of research experiences, which are critical complements to curricular initiatives.”

Beyond collecting data on urbanization, each student designed his or her own research project, using his or her unique academic background to study an issue related to sustainable urban development.

For her project, Tian studied the possibility of powering the Galápagos with solar energy. Relying in part on the data she and her classmates collected, she calculated the number of solar panels it would take to meet the yearly energy demands of the two largest towns in the Galápagos, Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Ultimately, she found that only around a quarter of the rooftops in each city would need to be converted into solar rooftops to sustain current energy consumption.

“As a biology and public policy major, I like the idea of using evidence-based research to inform policy decisions. I thought that my project was a really good way of blending those two aspects,” Tian noted. “And it’s relevant, too, since the Ecuadorian government is currently making plans to completely wean off fossil fuels by transitioning to renewable energy.”

To gain experience in urban planning, meanwhile, Joyce chose to research the effects of rising sea levels on the islands’ physical infrastructure. As an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Galápagos are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

“There hasn't been a lot of local planning around sea level rise, mostly due to a lack of data,” Joyce commented. “My project sought to evaluate which areas of the Galápagos would be vulnerable under different sea level rise scenarios. I found that a significant sea level rise wouldn't threaten any commercial structures on the island of Santa Cruz. But it could have significant impacts along the tourist waterfront in the island of San Cristóbal, which could have significant implications for future development on that island.”

Overall, this year’s student researchers liked that their work required synthesizing knowledge from different areas of study. “I valued working on an interdisciplinary team where each of us had different academic backgrounds,” said Tian. “I really realized how powerful it is to have people looking at the same place and set of issues from different perspectives.”

For the foreseeable future, the program plans to send student researchers to the Galápagos every year to continue the mapping process. In doing so, the program aims to track the islands’ rate of urbanization over time. Since the University of Chicago is the only organization that has conducted such research on the Galápagos, the students’ findings provide a useful “data bank” for urban science researchers to draw upon.

In addition to gaining research experience, program participants learned about the inherent unpredictability of field research. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about the importance of adaptability in field work,” Joyce said. “We often came up with a great plan beforehand, but we really couldn’t account for everything that would come up in the field. For instance, what if one of the bike seats can’t adjust, so we can’t send out people in the same order we planned?”

Perhaps most memorably, the students also enjoyed the natural setting of the Galápagos. As urbanized as the islands have become, they still boast some of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna, and the students found plenty of opportunities to appreciate that natural beauty. 

“I just enjoyed being in such a unique natural environment,” Joyce said. “When you get back and you're reflecting on the trip — it was really cool that there were sea lions everywhere, and frigatebirds and all sorts of wildlife that you can't see anywhere else.”

About the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation:
The Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation is a hub for urban science, dedicated to training the next generation of urban scholars. We study the fundamental processes that drive, shape, and sustain cities. Our researchers come from the social, natural, and computational sciences, along with the humanities. Together, we pursue interdisciplinary scholarship, develop new educational programs, and provide leadership and evidence to support global, sustainable urban development.

About the Program on the Global Environment:
The Program on the Global Environment (PGE) fosters undergraduate study of the complex intersections of urbanism, environment, and society. The program is home to the Environmental and Urban Studies BA major and minor program, which motivates a deeper theoretical understanding of urbanism and nature, as well as practical strength in addressing urban and environmental challenges and opportunities for sustainable development. PGE augments its curricular initiatives with engaged activity including the Chicago Studies Program, Frizzell Learning and Speaker Series, Student Advisory and Research Council, Urban Environment Working Group and support of collaborative research projects, student internships, fellowships and international experiences.

About the College Center for Research and Fellowships:
The College Center for Research and Fellowships (CCRF) supports undergraduates as they pursue transformative, educational experiences through scholarly undergraduate research and nationally competitive fellowships. CCRF promotes meaningful connections between faculty and students, encourages mentorship, provides high-impact, developmental advising and educates the UChicago community about opportunities for all College students and alumni.

About the Social Sciences Collegiate Division:
The Social Sciences Collegiate Division is home to the undergraduate curriculum in the social sciences at UChicago and offers an academic experience designed to immerse students in the full range of social science inquiry. Through coursework, research, and a rich program of co-curricular opportunities, students explore the conceptual frameworks, theories, and methods essential to understanding the social, economic, political, cultural, and psychological phenomena that organize human communities.