2022 Outstanding Thesis Award Winners

Each year, the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) department recognizes a number of student theses with the UEP Outstanding Thesis Award. This year, the committee UEP faculty awarded this prize to four students: Cassandra Bull, Katy Wassam, Drew Merrill, and Maggie Peard. These students have been invited to present their work at a UEP thesis colloquium on February 15, 2023, and will publish blog posts summarizing their research findings in the coming semester.

Review criteria

All of the theses submitted to the Thesis Awards Committee for consideration this year were of excellent quality, and make important contributions to the various intersecting fields associated with the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. To judge among them, each thesis was reviewed against the following five criteria: 

  • Quality of writing: Thesis addresses the problem or question posed and constructs a clear, compelling, well-crafted argument using appropriate supports from own data analysis and/or from literature. 
  • Organization of dissertation: Thesis did what it said it would do in a logical, thorough, complete, and nuanced way.  
  • Use of methods: Thesis used methods in appropriate and/or innovative ways.
  • Potential for impact: Thesis is likely to have an effect, benefit, or contribution to economic, social, cultural, and other aspects of the lives of citizens and society beyond contributions to academic research. 
  • Contribution to the discipline: Thesis advances or extends knowledge in the field. 

Each of the award-winning theses is linked and described below.

Cassandra Bull. Statewide Farm to School Procurement Incentives: Design Thinking and Analysis of the National Policy Landscape. (report based on original thesis).
Advisor: Laurie Goldman. Reader: Sean Cash (Friedman School).
Empirical analysis and cataloguing of a food program within a policy framework.

Cassandra Bull’s thesis is an exemplary practitioner-oriented project. Farm to School incentive policies strive to increase schools’ purchasing of local foods by offsetting the cost of local ingredients through monetary reimbursements. At least 15 states have adopted incentive programs for Farm to School programs since 2001. They have great flexibility but little guidance in designing these policies. The thesis presents a classification system for Farm to School incentives as well as a guide to inform the design of programs that take into account states’ priorities and contexts. The thesis draws on scholarly articles and professional reports for nationwide and  state programs as well as extensive interviews with state officials responsible for designing and reviewing such programs. In addition to the report itself, the thesis project includes a comprehensive digest of state Farm to School Incentive programs. Farm to School policymakers and practitioners have already conveyed their appreciation of these tools to guide their efforts to design, assess, and promote such policies. 

Kary Wassam. Understanding the Passage and Expiration of Massachusetts’ Unprecedented Statewide Eviction Moratorium.
Advisor: Rebecca Shakespeare. Reader: Roz Greenstein.
Analysis of a recent housing policy change through the study of coalitions.

Katy Wassam’s thesis demonstrates a rigorous empirical approach to analyzing the episodic policy changes around the Massachusetts’s eviction moratorium by applying policy change frameworks. In 2020, Massachusetts passed an eviction moratorium that lasted six months and was not renewed. Completed in the immediate aftermath of the policy change, the thesis includes a novel assembled history of the moratorium and its non-extension based on primary and secondary sources. Katy used the advocacy coalition framework and social construction of target populations to explain that the shift occurred because two types of advocacy coalitions – a socially-motivated one and a market-motivated one – aligned in their beliefs about public health and who deserves help. It’s a great example of a detailed thesis about a current event, designed and written while that policy change unfolded. It serves as a great example of applied thematic coding and analysis of interviews to understand and discern coalition beliefs and social construction of an issue.

Drew Merrill. Crisis and Transition: Lessons from the End of Feudalism for the Green New Deal.
Advisor: Christine Cousineau. Reader: Rebecca Shakespeare.
Historical analysis for a climate change topic: the social transformations and policies needed to implement the Green New Deal.

Drew Merrill’s thesis is exemplary in the breadth and depth of the historical lens used to inform the implementation of the Green New Deal. Drew offers the crisis of the Black Death plague in medieval Europe and the transition it caused away from feudalism, as an analogy to the crisis of climate change and the transition it necessitates away from fossil fuels toward new social relations for a green future. The thesis is in two parts. The first part describes the Green New Deal, its roots in the original New Deal, and presents a Theory of History about the development of capitalism and the need to revise its traditional narrative. The second part offers policy recommendations in Housing, Transportation, Energy Democracy, Green Infrastructure, and the Job Guarantee. In addition to discussing the most promising policies to implement the Green New Deal goals, the thesis skillfully addresses the concern that “much of the discourse about the GND assumes away existing antagonistic social relations without understanding their origin or consciously seeking to resolve the underlying tensions.”

Maggie Peard. A Massachusetts-Based Inquiry into the Opportunities and Barriers to Equitable Relocation away from Coastal Flood Risks.
Advisor: Penn Loh. Reader: Kari Hewitt.
Exploration of a topic in climate change and environmental justice: strategies for an equitable managed retreat from coastal areas.

Maggie Peard’s thesis is an exploration of strategies for the managed retreat (planned relocation) away from coastal areas and their implications for environmental justice, through six case studies of coastal cities north of Boston, Massachusetts. The thesis assumes that relocation will be a necessary strategy for many coastal areas but recognizes that it runs the risk of leading to inequitable outcomes for populations that are most at risk from climate change and were subjected to past injustices. Maggie interviewed planners and selected stakeholders in the six coastal cities, and reviewed their municipal coastal plans, to examine barriers to equitable relocation strategies. Her research suggests the need for stronger regional efforts, longer planning horizons, and greater support for municipalities from state and federal governments, all of which would increase local capacity to prioritize equitable outcomes in future relocation planning. Maggie’s excellent literature review of managed retreat / planned relocation is recommended to many first-year students who are interested in the topic.