More than half of the world’s people now live in cities. In the U.S., the figure is 80 percent. Urbanization is viewed as the primary cause of many problems, but also as the primary stage for more sustainable development in the 21st century. Urban environments, both in the U.S. and abroad, spur economic development and allow for an efficient use of resources. But their size and insatiable appetite for growth also mean cities consume resources at prodigious rates, in concentrated areas. This has raised serious concerns about their environmental impacts. Such concerns now vie with those related to public health and economic and social inequities, which have dominated discussions in the past.
It is worthwhile to consider how this trend of increased urbanization, if inevitable, could be made more sustainable. One fundamental shortcoming of urban research and programs is that they sometimes fail to recognize urban areas as systems. Current institutions and actors are not accustomed to exploring human-environment interactions, particularly at an urban-scale. The fact is that these issues involve complex interactions, many of which are not yet fully understood. Thus a key challenge for the 21st century is this: How can we develop sustainable urban systems that provide healthy, safe and affordable environments for the growing number of Americans living in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas?
Organization of the Workshop
An expert planning committee was appointed by the National Research Council to organize a workshop that would explore the landscape of urban sustainability research programs in the United States. On September 22, 2009, the U.S. National Academies’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability hosted the workshop, and participants examined the research gaps, analytical tools and opportunities for collaboration among R&D programs related to urban sustainability.
While definitions vary widely, for the purposes of this workshop, sustainability referred to the goal of “meeting current human needs while conserving natural life support systems” for future generations (NRC, 1999). When discussing R&D, workshop
participants were asked to focus largely on: activities exploring interactions between human and environmental systems in urban settings, initiatives designed to mitigate the adverse consequences of these interactions, and evaluations of the knowledge generated throughout this process.
The workshop was designed to allow participants to share information about the activities and planning efforts of federal agencies, along with related initiatives by universities, the private sector, nongovernmental groups, state and local agencies, and international organizations (see Appendix A). Information on the workshop, including archived presentations, can be found at the following website: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/sustainability/urban2009/index.htm.
Participants were encouraged to explore how urban sustainability can move beyond analyses devoted to single disciplines and sectors to systems-level thinking and effective interagency cooperation. To do this, participants examined areas of potential coordination among different R&D programs, with special consideration given to how the efforts of federal agencies can best complement and leverage the efforts of other key stakeholders. This document offers a broad contextual summary of workshop presentations and discussions for distribution to federal agencies, regional organizations, academic institutions, think tanks and other groups engaged in urban research.
The planning committee developed an agenda to address topical concerns that cut across the concerns of individual institutions. These topics were intended to be timely and reflect the interests of a variety of stakeholders. Panelists were encouraged to share their perspectives on a given topic. However, each panel was designed to raise critical issues and provoke discussion that took advantage of the broad experience of the participants.
Many participants remarked that there are promising approaches to working beyond the traditional research silos and institutional barriers, but we still have far to go. Many also stated that we need to accelerate our progress in transcending stovepipes and extending evidence-based knowledge to help urban areas develop more sustainably.
Federal agencies are increasingly collaborating with each other, as well as with regional and state agencies, to address urban challenges. The planning committee hoped the workshop would serve as a platform for fostering even greater collaboration among all parties. Indeed the workshop was designed to provide much-needed space for institutions to explore opportunities for more integrated research on urban systems. Participants at the workshop were particularly eager to examine how the recently established federal Office of Urban Affairs could help support urban systems R&D. This workshop summary identifies some of the critical research gaps and necessary analytical tools that could effectively support decision making.
Defining Sustainability in the Context of Urbanization
As discussions since the Brundtland Commission report (WCED, 1987) have shown, it has been much easier to define sustainability as an intellectual concept (despite its vagueness) than as an operational concept (urban sustainability at the local level may differ substantially from urban sustainability at the national and international levels—as many of the discussions at the workshop indicated). These discussions, not surprisingly, have involved tradeoffs as much as idealism and have recognized that perceptions of sustainability are infused with values and expectations that vary from one society and culture to another—and even among different economic and social groups within a
society. It is here where the research community may be able to play a particularly critical role.
Highlighting this responsibility, Xavier de Souza Briggs, Associate Director of the White Office of Management and Budget, who gave the keynote address at the workshop, called on researchers to help the public better understand and assess the tradeoffs by “identifying a more complete set of long-term drivers of sustainability outcomes, clarifying the stakes, and assessing the policy choices.”
It was difficult to separate discussions of urban sustainability from the even wider ranging discussions concerning sustainable development that have been taking place since the early 1970s. The term ‘urban’ does not lend itself to a precise definition either. In the United States it has become increasingly difficult to determine where urban areas ends and suburban or rural areas begin. The American landscape has become, in a significant (and likely an enduring) sense, a single entity—borderless, yet often sharply separated, amalgam of people and places.
Workshop participants did not set out to uncover a precise definition of a sustainable city. Rather, their discussions emphasized the fluid nature of urban sustainability both as an intellectual concept and a strategic building block for policies designed to improve living and working conditions—for today's citizens and future generations. It was this sense of how difficult it is to make sense of urban parameters in the metropolitan expanses of 21st century America that both guided and constrained conversations at the workshop.
A Role for Research
Many participants, especially those working in academia and government agencies, emphasized the need to apply science not only to understand the key issues shaping urban and suburban growth across the country, but also to devise effective solutions. Members of the Obama administration speaking at the conference expressed uncompromising support for “evidence-based decision making” and the importance that research findings should play in shaping policies. “The Obama administration,” Briggs proclaimed, “is dedicated to science.”
But as Briggs also remarked, policy makers and researchers (particularly scientists) tend to work in two different worlds, influenced by different demands, expectations, reward systems and constraints. “The research world,” Briggs quipped, “is one in which a single person spends 600 days on a really hard problem. The policy world is one in which 600 people spend a single day on a really hard problem.”
Other participants noted that researchers and policy makers rarely share the same notion of how much time should be taken and how much information should be gathered and processed before rendering a decision. Researchers work in a world of “insufficient” information; policymakers work in a world of “imperfect” information.
Despite these fundamental differences, many workshop participants made a strong case for nurturing closer ties between policy makers and researchers. For public officials, this means welcoming inputs from the academic community and allowing science-based evidence to drive the discussions and shape the policy options. For the scientific community, this means (among other things) not “being tone deaf,” as Briggs described it, “to the people” who are seeking to “build constituencies” for putting “your ideas” into
practice. A key challenge for scientists, he asserted, “is to love science without hating politics.”
Scholars and scientists who emphasize the need for additional research, Briggs observed, do so for three reasons. First, they maintain that we simply do not have sufficient information to make effective decisions. As Briggs declared, “not everything we need to do has a richly documented base and a long history of documentation.” Second, scholars and scientists agree that research must become more holistic and integrative—that is, there is a need to devise a broader research agenda capable of linking the findings and insights of natural scientists with those of social scientists. For example, it might not be enough to invest greater sums of money in public transportation unless we can devise ways to get people to leave their cars at home and take the bus or train. The latter, in particular, requires more research, measuring such factors as cost, convenience and accessibility, and the relationship between housing, transportation and work locations. And, third, there is a growing consensus that policy makers will need to engage in experimental measures—test cases or field demonstrations—to allow them to distinguish reforms that are likely to succeed from those that are likely to fall short. The work of researchers, he noted, will be essential in both the design and assessment of these demonstrations. This can lead to an adaptive management process in which learning developed through assessment influences future design.
Recurring Themes from the Workshop
Chapters 2-6 of the report summarize the individual panel discussions and breakout group discussions. Each panel and breakout group was designed to discuss a specific subject, such as resilience, but throughout the course of the day there were also several overarching themes that emerged in more than one discussion. These themes were not discussed in any depth, but are nonetheless significant because they reflect some commonalities among different aspects of urban R&D.
Cities as incubators
While many of the presenters were from federal agencies and prominent think tanks and universities, the call for placing the nation's cities on a more sustainable path emphasized the need for place-based solutions and leaned towards bottom-up instead of top-down approaches. Several participants noted that the federal government has started to encourage some of this place-based experimentation, by creating incentives to link housing and transportation planning in urban areas. Other participants pointed out that not all communities will be amenable to, for example, high-density housing and mass transit, but that strengthens the argument for metropolitan areas to examine different approaches to achieving their goals for sustainability. In this regard, they noted that there is an important role for the federal government and research community to facilitate some of these experiments and document the lessons learned.
Integrated research to address complex urban systems
Participants widely expressed their conviction that the United States’ problems are multi-dimensional. That means solutions will require multi-dimensional responses that draw on a variety of disciplines and skills, and that ultimately the urban sustainability
agenda will need more than scientific knowledge and research to be successful. The research enterprise in the United States, broadly defined, is not oriented toward this sort of integrated research, as Jonathan Fink, Director of the Global Institute for Sustainability at Arizona State University, noted during his panel discussion (see Figure 1). To remedy this, many participants expressed the need for integrated research networks that include social scientists, natural and physical scientists, engineers, and planners. Partnerships among governments, NGOs, and research institutes will likely be required to facilitate this. As a corollary, integrated research would improve our understanding of the linkages between the built and human environments, the flows of energy, water, and materials, and the opportunities to design more efficient infrastructure with this in mind. As Fink and others noted, funding for urban systems research is not integrated either. There are promising exceptions, such as NSF’s two urban LTERs and the proposed Urban Long-Term Research Areas (ULTRA) in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. However, these integrated approaches are a relatively recent occurrence and have yet to take hold throughout the U.S. research enterprise.
Better, clearer communication on urban sustainability
While many participants lauded the critical role that science and technology could play in this effort, they also emphasized that successfully meeting the challenges of urban sustainability will depend in large part on social, economic and cultural factors that lie far beyond the range of expertise found in the scientific research community. As a result, science would need to be one of many factors integrated into a multi-pronged strategy to advance urban sustainability principles and practices. For these same reasons, scientists would likely play an advisory and not a lead role in the decision-making process.
Several speakers called for a clearinghouse of successes and failures in urban sustainability. This was not a novel idea, but it did reflect the need that decision makers have for information and knowledge on the topic. Some participants countered that a lot
of useful information exists, but it is not easily accessible or translated for the lay public. Thus, they emphasized that there was a need for researchers to give more thought to how they communicate their findings, and an opportunity for more education around sustainable practices, so that the public sees sustainability as in their best interests. This in turn can empower decision makers to implement innovative practices or experiment with a new approach.