More than 80 percent of the U.S. population now resides in urban areas, a number that is expected to continue to increase. Urban areas account for a far larger proportion of the U.S. economy than their share of population. They have also often been associated with environmental and social inequities, such as disproportionate levels of air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and increased rates of poverty, but urban centers have the potential to be more sustainable than rural areas.
In 2009, the National Research Council’s Science and Technology for Sustainability (STS) Program hosted a public workshop to engage federal, academic, and the private sector in a discussion of emerging research on urban systems, and on how understanding human-environment interactions and the interplay among energy, water, transportation, and other systems could help decision makers address complex sustainability challenges. Recurring themes from the 2009 workshop included that cities can act as incubators of knowledge, and that bottom-up, place-based solutions are important in creating incentives that link housing and transportation planning in urban areas. Also, the federal government and research community have important roles to play by facilitating urban experiments and documenting the outcomes and lessons learned. Urban problems are multi-dimensional and so multidimensional responses drawing on a variety of disciplines and skills are important. Participants discussed how integrated research that includes social scientists, natural and physical scientists, engineers, public health professionals, and planners will be needed to address complex urban systems. Successfully meeting the challenges of urban sustainability will depend on social, economic, and cultural factors, and scientific knowledge will be one of many factors required in advancing urban sustainability principles and practices.
Following the 2009 workshop, STS convened the first of a series of place-based urban sustainability workshops. The first workshop was held in 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia, which provided a compelling case study as the region’s rapid growth has had significant implications for water, land use, and transportation. The region’s economy boomed in the 1980s as it developed into a hub for southern commerce. Today, it is the headquarters of six Fortune 100 companies, including Coca-Cola and UPS, and is a major transportation hub, with the world’s busiest airport. This growth has taken a toll on the city’s environment. Atlanta today faces major traffic congestion and increasingly scarce water supplies. The Atlanta workshop featured presentations and discussions with local, state, and federal officials, academics, and the private sector to examine how the challenges the still-growing region will face in coming years can be addressed within the context of sustainability.
This report is a summary of the second place-based workshop held in Houston, Texas in January 2012. Houston is the nation’s fourth-largest city, and is home to strong oil and gas industries, which helped to make it one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. But as in Atlanta, growth has come at a cost to the region’s environment. Air pollution, especially ozone and particulate matter, has been a persistent threat to human health for decades. And land-use decisions, such as the lack of a formal zoning code in the region, have resulted in a high degree of automobile dependency, traffic congestion, polluted sites (brownfields) close to residential areas, and a heat island effect. Additionally, Houston’s low-lying location near the Gulf of Mexico makes it vulnerable to hurricanes and major flooding.
Recently, Houston has begun to promote some promising sustainability initiatives. It is now one of the country’s largest municipal purchasers of wind-generated power, and has a light rail system that connects downtown with the Texas Medical Center and surrounding neighborhoods. In addition, all new city buildings must be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified. These new and promising initiatives were the starting point for workshop participants to explore additional pathways to urban sustainability.
The workshop was convened to explore the region’s approach to urban sustainability, with an emphasis on building the evidence base upon which new policies and programs might be developed. Participants examined how the interaction of various systems (natural and human systems; energy, water, and transportation systems) affected the region’s social, economic, and environmental conditions.
The objectives of the workshop were as follows:
- Discuss ways that regional actors are approaching sustainability—specifically, how they are attempting to merge environmental, social, and economic objectives.
- Share information about ongoing activities and strategic planning efforts, including lessons learned.
- Examine the role that science, technology, and research can play in supporting efforts to make the region more sustainable.
- Explore how federal agency efforts, particularly interagency partnerships, can complement or leverage the efforts of other key stakeholders.
The workshop was designed to explore the complex challenges facing sustainability efforts in the Houston metropolitan region and innovative approaches to addressing them, as well as performance measures to gauge success and opportunities to link knowledge with action. In developing the agenda, the planning committee chose topics that were timely and cut across the concerns of individual institutions, reflecting the interests of a variety of stakeholders. Panelists were encouraged to share their perspectives on a given topic; however, each panel was designed to provoke discussion that took advantage of the broad experience of the participants.