November 29, 2017—With as many as three billion more people expected to live in cities by 2050, there’s renewed interest in a topic often taken for granted: infrastructure. Many are wondering if there are options better than vast highways, elaborate power grids, and complex underground water systems. And cities are already trying localized, “distributed” systems such as community solar power, rain gardens, bike sharing, and urban farms. But what should such systems look like? How should they work? And how should we measure their impact—on efficiency and cost? What about their impact on people’s health and happiness?
Researchers from across the globe are asking such questions as part of a massive four-year effort to rethink urban infrastructure. Knit together in the sprawling Sustainable Healthy Cities network, they are attempting to provide the analyses needed to understand the effects of decisions cities have already made as well as envision what cities might do in the future. The network, supported by a $12 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, is anchored at the University of Minnesota and led by Anu Ramaswami, the Charles M. Denny Jr. Chair of Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at the Humphrey School.
The researchers are exploring seven components of urban infrastructure—energy, water, food supply, waste management, transportation, buildings, and green space—in an attempt to develop science-based tools that cities can use when making decisions, and identify infrastructure and policy innovations that enhance sustainability. They also are piloting strategies in the real world. The idea is to develop approaches that could be used everywhere, from fast-growing cities like Denver to shrinking cities like Detroit, and from stable cities with aging infrastructure, such as Minneapolis and New York City, to new cities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Southeast Asia alone is expected to have 250 new cities by 2030.
Happiness and social factors, too
Ramaswami says the project, which is slated to end in 2020, is unique not just because of its size but also because of its approach. Researchers are considering how the combination of infrastructure choices, public attitudes, and policy design together shape successful implementation of various strategies.
The work of Yingling Fan, an associate professor in urban and regional planning at the Humphrey School and a co-principal investigator, exemplifies the approach. Fan is looking at happiness and wellbeing in relation to infrastructure. Her research seeks to answer questions such as, What environments encourage people to get out and enjoy public spaces? What kinds of out-of-home activities affect people positively? And, what do cities need to do to encourage people to have happier lives?
To better understand people’s emotional experiences as they move through their days, Fan has developed Daynamica, a smartphone app that captures detailed travel data in real time and provides people with an end-of-the-day summary showing how long and at what times they drove, biked, rode the bus, or used other modes of transportation. The app further asks study participants to enter additional information about how they felt during each logged activity and trip. Was it meaningful? Positive or negative? Did they feel stressed or tired? Happy or sad?
Preliminary analysis of data on travel behavior collected for a little over a year suggests that people are happiest when they are biking. Rail trips and car trips are next, making people a bit less happy but not nearly as unhappy as they are when riding the bus. “Unless the trip is longer than 30 minutes,” Fan says. “That’s probably because it’s intense to drive a car, so if the trip is going to be that long, taking the bus may be more relaxing.”
Fan points out that people who are happier tend to be more successful, have better relationships with family and friends, volunteer more, and live longer. “So since we know happiness relates to daily activity-travel behavior and daily behavior can be shaped by environment, it’s important for urban planners to understand the interconnections between urban environments, activity-travel behavior, and emotions so they can create environments that evoke positive emotions while reducing negative ones,” she says.
At Columbia University, Patricia Culligan, another network co-principal investigator, is looking at people’s attitudes toward green spaces. More specifically, she’s trying to understand why green spaces created to soak up rainwater (called “rain gardens” in this country and “sponge parks” in China) aren’t always well-received. “Part of the problem seems to be that people aren’t invested in rain gardens so they throw trash in them or complain that the plants look untidy or that the gardens are taking up parking space,” Culligan says, adding that this is a classic case of planners not making a connection with residents. “They just assumed, ‘Well, these spaces are good for the environment, so everyone will be happy to get them in their neighborhoods.’ But it’s much more complicated than that because the social connection is such an important part of infrastructure’s performance.” She believes a solution might be to let people customize rain gardens similar to what her neighbors in New York have done with tiny gardens along the sidewalks. “I think that would encourage much more stewardship of those spaces,” she says.
Other researchers are focusing on such things as driverless cars, farmers markets, and wastewater treatment strategies. And they’re partnering with city planners and technical experts as they test approaches, collect data, and measure outcomes.
Tying it all together
Meanwhile, Ramaswami is working to provide analyses that identify linkages among health, wellbeing, equity, and environmental sustainability outcomes of various infrastructure choices, noting that researchers don’t yet have the insights needed to understand the many and complex co-benefits and trade-offs involved. For example, she is working with cities to develop tools to analyze the impact of transformations in the urban food and energy systems on residents’ health and the environment. “We’re developing databases that would enable all U.S. cities and counties to know how much food production is happening locally and its impacts on these diverse outcomes,” she explains. She is also working on ways to track how many people visit farmers markets, and what motivates them to do so.
Although years remain on the project, the network’s research is already yielding results. In July, Ramaswami and other researchers presented some of their findings at the Southeast Asia Mayors Forum in the Philippines. Also in September, the journal Nature Climate Change published a paper by Ramaswami and others on innovative urban infrastructure strategies for reducing use of fossil fuels in Chinese cities. “It’s really significant work because it shows how many air pollution deaths could be avoided if cities switched to different types of infrastructure,” she says. “This could really help city policymakers make a case for reducing carbon emissions, saving money, and improving public health.”
Helping policymakers is the ultimate aim of the researchers. Yet they are not striving to provide cities with a precise road map for infrastructure change. Instead, they are committed to bringing everything they learn together and with their city and industry partners creating models and decision-support tools that cities can adapt based on their needs. “Making cities more sustainable is all about making choices, and we want to understand how to co-develop the science with cities to best inform those choices,” Ramaswami says.
Considering that the move toward localized infrastructure is already underway in many cities, the work is timely. “It’s a historic opportunity because cities and infrastructure are already on a path toward change,” Ramaswami says. “The question is whether that change can be informed such that it provides many positive outcomes to people and the planet, before we get locked into unsustainable infrastructure choices for the next 30 to 40 years.”
Story by Meleah Maynard