Current Landscape for Sustainable Urbanization Research and Practice in the United States and China
With the current pace of urban population growth in both the United States and China and the significant challenges cities are facing as a result, it is critically important to support research in sustainability that will inform decision making and practice. This research must be grounded in the interconnections between the natural and built environments. Speakers from both countries provided the framing remarks focused on the current landscape for sustainable urbanization research and practice that set the stage for the workshop.
Deb Niemeier, the Clark Distinguished Chair in Energy and Sustainability in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Maryland, began by noting that taking on the near-term challenge of research related to urbanization as it relates to climate change is critically important. The term “sustainability” has become complicated in meaning; it is often used to define action on things that are clearly not sustainable (e.g., clean coal). She argued that mitigating greenhouse gases (GHGs) should be the primary focus of research on sustainability over the next 5 years. It is nearly universally accepted by scientists that the Earth is moving past a tipping point on climate change with only a few years to act responsibly, Dr. Niemeier said. If we want sustainability, we need to focus on reducing GHGs, she said, and China and the United States produce
the largest share of cumulative GHG emissions. There are approximately 8 to 10 years to determine how a projected 98 million more people, most of whom will be residing in cities, will experience their day-to-day choices and living environment.
Dr. Niemeier discussed the breakdown of GHG emissions by sector in the United States (see Figure 2-1), noting that transportation and energy sectors are currently the most significant producers. To address GHG emissions, technological innovation is needed, but while new technologies are deployed, attention must be paid to the structural inequalities that can be hardened or emerge through policy changes. There are important feedbacks between the design and implementation of new technologies, the way policies are introduced to manage energy, and finally who has access to and at what cost these technologies are available. Dr. Niemeier stated that the urban GHG challenge must tackle three research pillars simultaneously: (1) the vast expansion of renewables; (2) the development of a smarter, more flexible energy grid; and (3) the significant increase in products that use electricity.
It is particularly important as renewable options for energy increase to learn how to manage the energy they generate more nimbly. What is needed, she continued, is more system flexibility, new and modern power systems, and new frameworks that can change the way that energy markets operate.
Centralized facilities and those distributed to the power grid are almost always fossil fuel driven, with a constant supply of fuel and supply lines that requires enormous concentrations of capital. Renewable energy, however, is commercially viable and can be found everywhere. Thirty-one U.S. states could meet their entire energy needs with renewables. With renewables, however, there are questions about power generation and ownership.
Dr. Niemeier discussed examples of innovations in cities. For example, many cities are exploring how to implement net zero districts. One pilot in New York City has its energy technologies linked, in which buildings share and exchange heat and electricity. This type of net zero innovation can drive policies that move toward lower costs and lower energy use management. Policy changes are needed that drive the modernization of power plants and utilities as well, said Dr. Niemeier. Utilities understand this need—a recent Black and Veath survey1 found that 73.7 percent of utilities indicated that distributed energy systems would shape their modernization investments going forward.
Returning to the feedback between new technologies and inequity, Dr. Niemeier added that as new technologies and management strategies emerge, it will be important to attend to issues surrounding inequality and energy policy. Families with the least means pay disproportionally more for their energy use, and most utilities lack data on those who are at the lower income brackets. New research on technologies must concurrently examine mechanisms for addressing current and future structural inequalities as well as ways to integrate more progressive policies around renewals.
Transportation is the least diversified sector and yet produces 28 percent of GHGs, said Dr. Niemeier. As we think about changes to transportation, she urged, we must decarbonize the sector. China has the largest number of electric vehicles on the road today.2 The emphasis in the United States on improved travel behavior modeling is short-sighted, she said. In
1 Black & Veatch. 2019. Strategic Directions: Smart Utilities Report. Available at https://www.bv.com/sites/default/files/2019-11/SDR_SmartUtilities_2019.pdf. Accessed April 28, 2020.
2 In 2018, around 45 percent of electric cars on the road globally were in China, while the U.S. accounted for 22 percent of the global fleet. Although the majority of China’s electricity comes from coal, driving an electric car is still far more environmentally friendly than driving a gasoline-burning vehicle. See International Energy Agency. 2019. Global EV Outlook 2019: Scaling-up the transition to electric mobility. Available at https://www.iea.org/reports/global-ev-outlook-2019; and Smith, R. 2018. The surprising truth behind the world’s electric cars. The World Economic Forum. Available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/electric-cars-are-still-coal-powered. Both accessed March 9, 2020.
the near term, there will be virtually no impact on GHGs without a reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Visionary changes—which occur very rapidly—are needed to reduce VMT, she said.
Dr. Niemeier noted that the need to address GHG is essential, and the transition to a low carbon environment is problem driven and immediate. Theoretical models will not help move the needle on this issue. According to her, research that turns the dial on the street, gets people out of their cars, and pushes society beyond the current depth of renewable technology adoption will be critical. The urban environment is the best chance for changing the energy future of nations, but the focus must be on pathways to reduce GHGs by harnessing collective intellect and wisdom, she concluded.
Wei-Qiang Chen, professor of resources and urban sustainability at the Institute of Urban Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, described urban sustainability challenges in China, including from his personal experience leaving the country and returning to witness the impact of significant growth in cities. China’s urbanization since 1978 was driven by and also drove the growth of almost everything. This included gross domestic product (GDP), city sizes, infrastructure, and urban inhabitants. Dr. Chen noted that nearly 600 cities were developed between 1978 and 2018, and the proportion of Chinese living in cities increased from 18 percent to 59 percent during this same period.3 The scale and size of these cities reflect that of Manhattan versus the smaller and less urbanized character of many other U.S. cities.
In addition to this growth, there are efforts under way to connect cities with modern infrastructures, such as public transportation and high-speed rail, as well as enable the population to achieve a modern lifestyle (air conditioning, refrigeration, e.g.) within three to five decades, said Dr. Chen. However, there are limits to this growth. For example, nearly all economic activities and cities are located in about 40 percent of China’s land area, the ecological-geographical limit, also known as the Hu-Huanyong line, which puts significant environmental pressure on this region (Figure 2-2). China is approaching an environmental limit, as
3 Farrell, K., and H. Westlund. 2018. China’s rapid urban ascent: An examination into the components of urban growth. Asian Geographer 35(1):85–106.
it produces over 50 percent of the global cement, iron, and aluminum. The aging population in China is another key issue and presents different challenges related to urbanization.
Dr. Chen added that the growth over the past three to four decades has resulted in significant negative lock-in effects that must be addressed in the coming decades. These include the over and unnecessary expansion of urban land use; the problem of shrinking and even empty cities; and the inappropriate design of infrastructure. As an example of an infrastructure design challenge, urban surfaces are over cemented, resulting in flooding and the break of biogeochemical cycles in urban and peri-urban areas. Improper decisions around transportation systems, linked mostly to the pursuit of cars plus high density, and a lack of parking spaces, are contributing to these problems.
Dr. Chen added that there are new challenges to the health of both cities themselves and people living in cities due to this unprecedented growth. These challenges include a dramatic increase in solid and plastic waste, higher-calorie diets, and less physical activity, among others. The country is taking steps to address these challenges, including ministries designed to address key sustainability issues and efforts to promote the circular economy.
Linda Blevins, deputy assistant director of the Directorate for Engineering at the National Science Foundation (NSF), described the work of the Foundation on urban sustainability issues, including efforts to collaborate with China. She pointed out that many of today’s urban sustainability research efforts focus on individual cities and communities, often addressing transitions within single infrastructure sectors (for example, water or energy) and individual sustainability outcomes (for example, resilience) in a limited number of case study cities. To answer new, complex research questions about urban sustainability may require some people to take a different approach to fundamental research—an approach that is multiscale, deeply integrates disciplines, and involves collaboration among multiple cultures and stakeholders.
Dr. Blevins said that NSF funded a $4.5 million project for research and education in 2012 on low-carbon sustainable cities, focusing on cities in Asia. This project was distinctive in many ways: its twin focus on research and education; deeply interdisciplinary and complex subject matter; and unique, important, and high-quality international research and education opportunities it provided. All of these features made this project a good fit for NSF investment, she said. Another initiative funded by NSF in 2015 included convening 40 people from various organizations to identify challenges to sustainability, systems-based approaches, and fundamental principles and natural processes in the built environment.
In 2016, NSF and the National Natural Science Foundation of China funded a $1 million project on integrated systems modeling of the food-energy-water nexus. Focusing on Beijing and Detroit, the project included creating a modeling framework to identify areas of research and evaluate the consequences of various technology and policy scenarios with the goal of identifying ways to better manage the food-energy-water nexus.
The above is only one example of the collaboration between NSF and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, who have jointly funded 27 projects. These projects resulted from joint proposals over the past 5 years and Dr. Blevins said she hopes that this important collaboration will continue. In 2020, another competition to identify research projects may be jointly funded, she added.
Dr. Blevins pointed participants to a January 2018 report produced by NSF from its external advisory committee, Sustainable Urban Systems:
Articulating a Long-Term Convergence Research Agenda.4 The report provides a vision for a new interdisciplinary science area on this topic, she said.
During the discussion session, participants asked speakers if and how cities are tracking progress toward urban sustainability goals. Dr. Chen noted that several Chinese ministries or institutions have been trying to set up goals or indicators for monitoring and measuring progress. However, there is no widely acknowledged systemic goal yet. In addition, there have been pilot projects on examining how to reduce emissions. Another participant noted that in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the authors reviewed 100 climate plans from cities, and while many were ambitious, not one had a single measure for tracking emissions.
Participants also highlighted the generational tension or the interest of younger generations to drive change in urban sustainability. How can this energy be harnessed, several participants asked. Several participants also discussed policies that could be used to break out of behavioral lock-in, including how social media can play a role.
4 National Science Foundation. 2018. Sustainable Urban Systems: Articulating A Long-Term Convergence Research Agenda. Available at https://www.nsf.gov/ere/ereweb/ac-ere/sustainable-urban-systems.pdf. Accessed March 9, 2020.
This page intentionally left blank.