Stylized map of no real place, featuring roads, rivers, green areas, and yellow zones. Lines and icons depict transportation routes and landmarks.

Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) Research for Resilience: Addressing California’s Climate, Conservation & Housing Crises

The Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is the fastest growing area of housing development in California, as well as a leading cause of wildfire, natural area loss, and climate change. Yet there is no systematic research on what is driving this growth. Many assume it is the result of people’s perennial desire to “live close to nature,” particularly in the post-COVID era. In this project, we hypothesize something else: that an increasingly powerful driver of WUI growth is California’s affordable housing crisis, with its role in displacing lower income residents from cities and into these remote, dangerous, and increasingly unequal areas. 

To investigate this, we conduct the first comprehensive study of the drivers and demographics of WUI growth—drawing on ethnographic, historical, spatial, and statistical methods. We combine these approaches with fire and plant ecology to investigate the socio-environmental and cultural impacts of WUI growth. Such impacts may include the increase in commute sheds and carbon emissions, unequal capacity to mitigate the risk of fire and flood, uneven redevelopment in the aftermath of these disasters, as well as new challenges for rural and Indigenous land stewardship practices, like prescribed burning.  

This conceptual diagram displays a vicious cycle of five “moments”: (1) the housing crisis in cities that can intensify (2) displacement to and growth of the WUI, which leads to (3) a variety of socio-environmental consequences of WUI growth, and (4) WUI and climate-related disasters. This can result in (5) uneven redevelopment and further displacement, which can in turn exacerbate the housing crisis.
This conceptual diagram displays a vicious cycle of five “moments”: (1) the housing crisis in cities that can intensify (2) displacement to and growth of the WUI, which leads to (3) a variety of socio-environmental consequences of WUI growth, and (4) WUI and climate-related disasters. This can result in (5) uneven redevelopment and further displacement, which can in turn exacerbate the housing crisis.

Our team is led by faculty and students in the social and natural sciences working alongside community partners in affordable housing, labor, Indigenous land stewardship, prescribed burning, conservation, and emergency response. Over the coming two years, we will host regional gatherings to share and get feedback on our findings from a range of stakeholders, and present our multiple layers of research within an online, interactive WUI Equity Atlas. Our ultimate goal is to inform and inspire new approaches to regional resiliency planning at the nexus of climate, land, and housing justice.

Digital drawing of people conversing in a house, while outside people talk next to trees, a bus, and a book.

Through surveys and interviews with WUI residents, observation of community dialogues, and archival research, we will explore the affordability-desirability nexus motivating people to move to the WUI, uncover emerging obstacles to prescribed burning in WUI areas, and build deeper understanding of the history of fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Research projects in this area of study include: 

  • Housing and habitat survey
  • Living with fire: ethnography
  • Archival history of the Santa Cruz Mountains
Digital drawing of nature and small fires next to several people.

We will carry out pre- and post-fire ecological surveys for prescribed burns, with the specific aim of determining where and when this practice can be most effective for native plant ecology and habitat restoration in the WUI. We will also conduct a fire return interval departure analysis to show the difference in fire frequency in WUI areas before and after development.

Research projects in this area of study include: 

  • Prescribed burn plant surveys
  • Fire return interval departure analysis
Stylized map of no real place, featuring roads, rivers, green areas, and yellow zones. Lines and icons depict transportation routes and landmarks. Several parts of the rural areas are on fire.

We’re conducting statistical and GIS analysis of the 3D’s of WUI growth: the drivers that encourage migration to the WUI, demographics of who’s living in the WUI, and resulting dynamics, like growing commute sheds and vulnerability to climate-related hazards. We’ll also identify distinct socio-environmental typologies for the WUI.

Research projects in this area of study include:

  • 3 D’s analysis 
  • Socio-environmental typologies analysis

Hillary L Angelo

  • Title
    • Associate Professor
  • Department
    • Sociology Department
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Taylor Braswell

  • Title
    • Postdoctoral Scholar in Urban and Environmental Studies
  • Department
    • Sociology Department
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Jeffrey T Bury

  • Title
    • Department Chair and Professor
  • Department
    • Environmental Studies Department
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Christopher Benner

  • Title
    • Professor
  • Department
    • Environmental Studies Department
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Lucy Ferneyhough

  • Title
    • Native Plant Program Project Manager
  • Department
    • Arboretum
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Rick Flores

  • Title
    • Associate Director
  • Department
    • Arboretum
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Kyle Rod Galindez

  • Title
    • Graduate Student
  • Department
    • Sociology Department
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Miriam Greenberg

  • Title
    • Professor and Chair
  • Department
    • Sociology Department
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Alexander Subhash Jones

  • Title
    • UCSC Campus Natural Reserve Manager
  • Department
    • Natural Reserve System
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Andrew S Mathews

  • Title
    • Professor
  • Department
    • Anthropology Department
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Barry Nickel

  • Title
    • Director, Center For Integrated Spatial Research
  • Department
    • Environmental Studies Department
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Juan Pedroza

  • Title
    • Assistant Professor
  • Department
    • Sociology Department
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Colleen Kimberly Stone

  • Title
    • SJRC Manager
  • Department
    • Science & Justice Research Center
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Christopher C Wilmers

  • Title
    • Professor
  • Department
    • Environmental Studies Department
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  • Tatiana Brennan, County of Santa Cruz, Office of Response, Recovery, & Resilience (OR3) Senior Administrative Analyst
  • Ray Cancino, Community Bridges, Chief Executive Officer
  • Jared Childress, Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association (CCPBA) Program Manager.
  • Christy Fischer, Trust for Public Land (TPL) Senior Project Manager
    Cesar Lara, Monterey Bay Central Labor Council (MBCLC) Executive Director
  • Dustin Mulvaney, SJSU Environmental Studies Professor
  • Devii Rao, UC Cooperative Extension Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor serving San Benito, Monterey, and Santa Cruz Counties; Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association (CCPBA)
  • Dave Reid, Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery, & Resilience (SCC OR3) Director
  • Brenda Rubio, Trust for Public Land (TPL) Project Associate
  • Barb Satink Wolfson, UC Cooperative Extension Fire Advisor for Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties
  • Alexandra D. Syphard, Conservation Biology Institute, Senior Research Ecologist
Last modified: Jun 06, 2024