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Baruch Professor Deborah Balk Receives
$1 Million Grant from the
National Science Foundation

Professor's Study Focuses on the Spatial Distribution of
Human Populations

Baruch College Professor of Public Affairs Deborah Balk (pictured top right) meets with research team members (shown clockwise) Bryan Jones, NSF SEES Post-doctoral Fellow, CUNY Institute for Demographic Research (CIDR); Lori Hunter, Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado Boulder Mark Montgomery, Professor of Economics at Stony Brook University and Senior Associate with the Population Council; Brian O’Neill, NCAR Scientist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR); and (not visible in photo) Leiwen Jiang, NCAR Project Scientist with UCAR; and to discuss their research study on spatial distribution.


NEW YORK, NY - December 9, 2014 - Baruch College’s Deborah Balk, a professor in the School of Public Affairs, was recently awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research on the distribution and dynamics of the world’s population, including the modelling of urbanization in the United States, Mexico, and India.

Balk, who is also Associate Director of the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research, is working alongside researchers Bryan Jones, NSF SEES Post-doctoral Fellow, CUNY Institute for Demographic Research (CIDR); Mark Montgomery, Professor of Economics at Stony Brook University and Senior Associate with the Population Council; Brian O’Neill, NCAR Scientist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR); Leiwen Jiang, NCAR Project Scientist with UCAR; and Lori Hunter, Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado Boulder. Not present at their kick-off meeting, here at Baruch, were Fernando Riosmena, and Stefan Leyk, both Associate Professors of Geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The project will employ students, giving them an opportunity to participate in an interdisciplinary multi-scale research project that goes beyond the research skills typically acquired in a classroom. Balk said that while many parts of the team have previously collaborated, this is the first time as a group that they were all working together and that it was a very exciting opportunity for them.

Through the study, the team aims to discover how and why the spatial distribution of the human population changes over time and the effects these changes have on a region’s physical, social, and economic development. Balk said:


This study is giving us an opportunity to look at population growth and distribution more closely. We are looking at population dynamics at the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels.


The research team brings together theoretical perspectives on spatial population distribution and change primarily from demography, geography, and economics. The project will employ multi-scale analysis of spatial population distribution and its determinants in these three study countries. These locations were chosen to represent a range of socioeconomic conditions and behaviors as well as data quality and availability.

“Our project is very interdisciplinary in nature. Its goal is to integrate the frameworks of three previous, more narrowly-focused, projects. “By collaborating,” Balk said, “we will significantly improve our understanding of the dynamics of spatial population change, and determine which factors operate at different scales. In particular, the role of migration has been given short-shrift. We aim to change that here.”



The group’s hypothesis is that spatial population outcomes result from an inter-related set of influences at the national, aggregate urban/rural, city, and local level. Further, they suggest that the relative importance of these influences varies across countries at different levels of economic development and within countries by socio-economic conditions, demographic behaviors, and geographic characteristics. The group will test this hypothesis using several decades of spatial population data from censuses and surveys, merged with other economic and demographic and geophysical data, including those derived from satellite-data products. The multi-scale, interdisciplinary nature of their project is novel. The analysis will be implemented in three tasks using different but interacting approaches focused on the national, city, and local levels:

  • Examine the demographic determinants of national-level urbanization, which influences large-scale patterns of spatial distribution in the broadest sense: natural growth, migration, and reclassification of areas from rural to urban.
  • Explain the growth of individual cities - where the overwhelming proportion of future population growth will occur - using an econometric approach that can incorporate loose constraints from the national-level urbanization results on combined urbanization and migration patterns, in order to understand both which cities are growing fastest and the spatial form of that growth.
  • Model population distribution at the local-area level, using a gravity-type model commonly used in geography but modified to also incorporate demographic, socio-economic, and geographic determinants of spatial distribution that are informed by the results of the above two tasks.


Balk said, as a result of their analysis, the team expects to achieve a far better understanding of different demographic, socio-economic, and geographic factors and processes that drive population outcomes across scales. In this way, policy drivers can sometimes be identified and modified to achieve desired population and other societal outcomes.

“Population distribution and change are key factors in environmental change, land-use/land-cover change, habitat and biodiversity loss, patterns of pollutant emissions and infectious disease, and demands for energy, food, and water,” Balk said. “They are key determinants of the exposure of populations to natural and climate-related hazards, and thus are critical to achieve a better understanding of our changing world.”


The research project is set to be completed by March 2018, with preliminary findings to be reported periodically.



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About Baruch College:

Baruch College is a senior college in the City University of New York (CUNY) with a total enrollment of more than 17,000 students, who represent 160 countries and speak more than 100 languages. Ranked among the top 15% of U.S. colleges and the No. 4 public regional university, Baruch College is regularly recognized as among the most ethnically diverse colleges in the country. As a public institution with a tradition of academic excellence, Baruch College offers accessibility and opportunity for students from every corner of New York City and from around the world. For more about Baruch College, go to



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