PIRE-PEER Project Leads to Commentary in Science 

“We must move beyond data to the systems-level decisions that we as a society must make to transition toward a smart, sustainable, and healthy urban future,” says SRN lead PI Anu Ramaswami, who led a commentary on the subject published in the special urban issue of the journal Science

In January, the University of Minnesota and ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability brought together faculty, students, and policymakers from the U.S., China, and India for a workshop on sustainable cities. Inspiration for this paper was a result of that workshop.

In the commentary, PIRE faculty Ramaswami (University of Minnesota) and Armistead Russell (Georgia Institute of Technology), along with Mr Emani Kumar (ICLEI South Asia) and Patricia Culligan (Columbia University) outline eight basic principles for transforming cities that apply across the world, and resonate with local partners.

One principle focuses on providing basic infrastructure for all, especially in cities where 30-40 percent of the population lives in slums.

The authors cite a few examples already underway: In India, where cities face problems with water scarcity and access in slum areas, ATMs (automatic teller machines) that dispense fresh water are being piloted. Cities in China are exploring “fit-for-purpose” water reuse supply to homes.

It’s not enough for individual cities to develop these smart technologies on their own. Most urban areas get the vast majority of their energy, water, building materials, and food from beyond their boundaries, so developing cleaner and more efficient systems for supplying these goods and services is critical.

SRN PI’s collaborated with ICLEI in the development of footprinting tools that cities can use to measure their energy and water consumption, and then use that data to better understand their impacts on the environment within and outside their boundaries.

Brian Holland (ICLEI USA): “This research is making an important contribution to the growing movement of sustainable and low-carbon cities.  In particular, the emerging approaches to footprinting local environmental and health outcomes across sectors and scales aligns well with the widely-used standards for city-scale GHG accounting we’ve developed with our partners and stakeholders.”

Another guiding principle is to pursue urban health improvements at different scales—from the home, to the neighborhood, to regional pollution, to climate extremes—while recognizing the inequities among residents.  Many U.S. cities are undertaking community-based health planning with a focus on climate events such as extreme heat and cold, and how they might impact vulnerable populations differently.

The authors also recommend the integration of large infrastructure systems with smaller-scale, local systems such as urban farms, community solar gardens, and district energy systems.

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PIRE students and researchers visited India and China to study sustainable, healthy cities

Interdisciplinary and Multi-institution Collaboration

The principles and recommendations are the results of insights developed from two large multi-institution grants supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which are both led by professor Ramaswami.

The Sustainability Research Network (SRN) on Sustainable Healthy Cities is a network of scientists, industry leaders, and policy partners, committed to building better cities of the future through innovations in infrastructure design, technology and policy. The network connects across nine research universities, major metropolitan cities in the U.S. and India, as well as infrastructure firms, and policy groups.

The Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) is a collaboration of the University of Minnesota, Yale, Georgia Tech, and four universities in India and China. The international partners are supported by PEER Science grants awarded by USAID. The project connects study tours with research and outreach, and allows for deep engagement with nonprofit government organizations and policymakers from the U.S., China, and India. The workshop mentioned earlier was the culmination of one such tour of various cities in India and China to study how those cities were transforming their infrastructure to meet future needs.

The special issue of Science can be found here: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/rise-urban-planet

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