UNCG scientist investigates geography’s impact on access to jobs, recreation

Posted on May 01, 2024

A woman stands in a transportation depot.
Dr. Selima Sultana, a fellow of the American Association of Geographers, is an expert on geography and urban transportation research.

When Selima Sultana was a graduate student living in Atlanta, Georgia, she was excited about a potential new job until she faced a hurdle in the application process.

“When I was interviewed, they asked whether I had a car and I said I didn’t. They were very hesitant to hire me,” she says.

This conundrum became the crux of Sultana’s dissertation research. Now, as a professor and the associate department head in UNC Greensboro’s Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability, Dr. Sultana is a leader in transportation and urban research. She has published and authored over 50 peer-reviewed papers, two books, and another book under contract. In 2024, she was named a fellow of the American Association of Geographers – a prestigious recognition for select scholars who have made significant contributions to geography.

Sultana’s research focuses on how the geographic location of jobs and housing significantly impacts people’s access to opportunities, jobs, and recreation – creating consistent barriers for some.

“As a geographer, I work to highlight how space and place matter and give us experiences and opportunities that enhance our overall quality of life, including physical and mental health,” she says.

Commuting to a job

A long commute is not just an annoyance; these daily drives are linked to many downsides.

“Studies suggest that if people are commuting a long distance every day, their productivity goes down,” she says. “Longer commuting is linked to a variety of mental and physical health impacts, including obesity.”

Sultana says the design of a city can leave people with few options, forcing them to either commute extensively or face unemployment if working from home is not an option.

For her dissertation research, Sultana applied geographic information systems to determine the degree to which people are separated from their jobs. She found this job-housing imbalance was prevalent in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

“I was integrating geographic information into urban and transportation planning, which was rare at the time,” she says.

Since this initial study, Sultana has expanded her transportation research, including recent work investigating the accessibility of electric vehicle charging stations. Her goal is for her research to help policymakers and leadership make meaningful changes that foster equal access for all individuals.

“My motivation is always to solve real-world problems and make sure the solution helps the community equally,” Sultana says.

A woman stands in front of an electric vehicle charging station.
Among Sultana’s areas of expertise, she has investigated the accessibility of charging stations for electric vehicles.

Accessing national parks

When Sultana moved to the United States from Bangladesh, she was captivated by the National Parks. She resonated with the parks’ beauty, but also the mission of the National Park to make nature accessible to everyone.

“The concept of National Parks is really an American concept of access for everybody,” she says. “The goal is preservation of the parks from generation to generation.”

Sultana says preserving the parks – and its funding – hinges upon ample visitors. Like Sultana, who took solo trips to the parks as a young adult, sleeping in her car, and soaking up the sights.

“All of a sudden, I looked around and thought, ‘How come the people who visit these National Parks are predominately white?’” she says.

Sultana’s musing sparked a multi-decade long collaboration with Dr. Joe Weber, a professor at the University of Alabama who grew up in Death Valley National Park. Together, they have published multiple papers and books, including their recently published book, “The Parks Belong to the People,” in which they examine park visitation rates, geography, and how the parks are changing over time.

Among their findings, the scientists have found that many Black Americans have the least accessibility to the parks, which Sultana says contributes to lower visitation rates. Sultana has built on this work in a recent study by visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park with UNCG students.

Their goal: better understand why there are fewer Black visitors to the park, despite geographic information indicating many Black individuals live close to Great Smoky National Park.

“We found that Black Americans are seldom mentioned in Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s historical records and only minimally featured in public materials and exhibits,” she says. “This historical pattern might have conveyed to Black Americans that the park is an unwelcoming space for them.”

Sultana shared these findings with the National Park Service. She says working with students, including on this study, is one of the highlights of her job – whether watching their eyes light up when a concept clicks or they publish a paper.

For Sultana, being a faculty member is more than conducting research and mentoring students. She also invests in service – both within the University and for geography organizations – to make a positive dent in the field.

“When you get involved and you have a seat at the table, you can always make an impact,” Sultana says.

Story by Rachel Damiani
Photography by Martin Kane

Two individuals pictured at the transportation depot.

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