The first panel session of the workshop focused on urban sustainability research activities at a university level, moderated by planning committee member Susan Hanson, Distinguished University Professor Emerita at Clark University. Universities are often the primary driver of research around urban sustainability issues. Academic research informs understanding of the extent of these challenges; universities also serve as an incubator for innovation as well as a resource for solutions that can drive change.
Jianming Cai, full professor at the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, reiterated previous speakers by describing the growth in urban areas in China over the past 40 years. Challenges as a result of this growth and urbanization include urban-rural disparity; heavier regional environmental pressure; traffic congestion; land use inefficiency; and higher living cost, particularly impacting socially vulnerable groups. China has also experienced dramatic socioeconomic change during this period.
Dr. Cai said that China tries to address climate change issues as the country is experiencing intensified flooding, heat waves, water shortages, agricultural production in the hinterlands magnified by the high concentration of population, and assets in urban areas. Dominance along China’s
east coast is increasing in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) and in population size. Policy attempts to re-orient the focus of demographic growth to the interior have had limited success, given the overwhelming momentum and advantages seen in eastern cities, particularly the three mega urban clusters of the Greater Bay Area, Yangtze River Delta, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei.
While the urban population in China will reach nearly 80 percent by 2050, it will begin to decline into the 2050s, Dr. Cai stated (see Table 3-1). This population decline will be highly variable across cities. The urban population is also aging rapidly. He pointed to a need to improve demographic forecasting and knowledge of population dynamics to inform an understanding of labor force participation and productivity of older demographic cohorts.
China’s new urban economy is becoming more consumption driven, said Dr. Cai. In response to this, Chinese planners need to ask what new types of urban modules are needed to support China’s economic restructuring, he suggested. This would result in better alignment between city building and rapid economic restructuring. Future cities will be “living platforms,” characterized by mixed land use, a higher proportion of floor space in residential, and lifestyle services.
Dr. Cai added that China has been successful over the last four decades in building urban road and rail infrastructure, but the emphasis needs to
TABLE 3.1 Forecast of Urban Population Increments in China between 2020 and 2050
SOURCE: Jianming Cai, Presentation, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, December 16, 2019, Washington, DC, based on United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2018. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision. File 19: Annual Urban Population at MidYear by Region, Subregion, Country and Area, 1950–2050 (thousands). Available at https://population.un.org/wup/Download. Accessed April 16, 2020.
shift to quality. The country should also adopt a stepwise urban renewal paradigm for creating a more socially inclusive community, said Dr. Cai. For example, there is a need for the organic development of communities with more retrofitting, infilling, and preservation of cultural heritage, vegetation, and other resources as population growth declines and the demand for urban quality increases.
The emphasis should turn to soft infrastructure investment such as portable pensions and health care insurance, improving community livability and urban services delivery, environmental quality, and housing quality, said Dr. Cai. Current funding mechanisms for China’s cities are unsustainable. To encourage cross-jurisdictional integrated investment in urban areas, new mechanisms such as national matching grants should be considered, said Dr. Cai.
Dr. Cai discussed several ongoing research needs that could be driven at the university level, including examining spatial planning; research on urban clusters; big data, including opportunities for data collection through smart cities; socially inclusive community building; precision poverty reduction; and heritage-based tourism, among others.
Luis Bettencourt, inaugural director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation and professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, discussed urban sustainability challenges at the university level in the United States, focusing on the experiences of the University of Chicago. He began by noting that the urban sustainability challenges of today will not be solved through engineering innovation; new science and approaches to these problems are needed. These new approaches are being driven in part by an important generational shift that is pushing change, particularly on climate change issues. The Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation studies the processes that drive, shape, and sustain cities, with the social, natural, and computational sciences, as well as the humanities to support global, sustainable urban development.1
Dr. Bettencourt described scaling effects of urban systems to understand how cities are interrelated, including individuals, neighborhoods, cities, and urban systems. He noted that cities transform at a speed that is unprecedented and unsustainable and are reaching a tipping point. In
October 2019, the C40 Cities announced that 30 of the world’s largest and most influential cities have peaked greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including Chicago.2 These cities are in desperate need to take action. Global partnerships are critical to addressing this challenge, and it is fundamental to have a partnership with China to move forward, he said.
Universities also play an important role in testing and designing solutions to key urban sustainability issues, Dr. Bettencourt said. The University of Chicago developed its Sustainability Plan Baseline Report in 2016 to implement its sustainability strategy in nine key areas and manage GHG emissions.3 Key activities at universities include research, demonstration, education, and partnerships. There is a fundamental need for new research and better data and evidence related to urban sustainability challenges. For example, no good urban sensors exist that can help collect data to inform solutions or research on mixed methods at multiple scales. Also, he said, the issue of equity and its role in all of these issues cannot be underestimated.
Dr. Bettencourt stated that universities provide opportunities for expanding education on urban issues, changing the way to train researchers, and interesting younger children in science. New initiatives, such as Environmental Frontiers, provide University of Chicago students a scientific and practical understanding of urban sustainable development.4 Universities also offer a pipeline of talent for new fields, constantly identifying and promoting the transformation of new ideas, and a network for scholars to engage and develop partnerships globally.
In terms of partnerships, universities offer opportunities to engage on policy and practices related to urban sustainability and can serve as laboratories, providing data collection opportunities. They can inject new ideas into old conversations, contribute to active learning, and are incubators for innovation and research and data collection and design, concluded Dr. Bettencourt.
2 Additional information about C40 cities and greenhouse gas emissions can be found at https://www.c40.org/press_releases/30-of-the-world-s-largest-most-influential-cities-havepeaked-greenhouse-gas-emissions. Accessed March 9, 2020.
Yan Song, director of the Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discussed how universities can contribute to urban sustainability through a synthesis5 of her recent projects related to urban form and travel behavior, air quality, urban vibrancy, and economic value outcomes. Collaboration is key; in just the past 11 years, she has collaborated with over 380 scholars from Chinese universities.
One study assessed the impact of compact development on travel behavior and tailpipe emission in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Examining travel behavior and other factors, such as projections around the number of households and employment, the researchers were able to model emissions in 2050. This research was designed to help inform decision making and represents a method of linking results with practice, a new approach for interdisciplinary research on urban issues.
In another study examining urban air quality, Dr. Song noted that air quality and other population measures were examined in 152 cities, including cities in China. Examining a number of variables, the researchers found that high density and a strong center are associated with fewer air pollutants, while excessive or even chaotic land use mixture is associated with more air pollutants. Dr. Song noted that new approaches to this research included collecting and examining big data through sub-centers to assess exposure to pollutants.
To examine health effects associated with pollutants, Dr. Song explained the researchers used the Disease Surveillance Points (DSP) system, which forms a nationally representative sample of mortality for 2005. The categories are selected from the International Classification of Disease Revision 9 (ICD-9). Cardiorespiratory causes of death are lung cancer, heart diseases, vascular disease, and respiratory diseases. Researchers found that urban form elements (e.g., density, connectedness, and forest/green space) have significant impacts on PM2.5 concentration, thus influencing the incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality at the county level (see Figure 3-1).
To assess urban form, urban vibrancy, and economic values, Dr. Song noted that researchers calculated a composite vibrancy index for 65 down-
5 Relevant material includes Yuan, M., Y. Song, Y. Huang, S. Hong, and L. Huang. 2017. Exploring the Association between Urban Form and Air Quality in China. Journal of Planning Education and Research 38(4):413-426. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739456X17711516.
town areas using standard scores (mean values of zero and scores in standard deviation units) from several measures. With the same unit of measure, researchers were able to create one overall index of vibrancy, retaining standard deviation as the unit of measure. For example, Portland has high live and work, walk and bike scores, public transit use, good street pattern, and smaller block size, while Los Angeles’ main contributors to its vibrancy are job density and social diversity with a high percentage of non-English speaking households.
Dr. Song added that collaborative research with China has been vital to understanding and assessing these key urban sustainability issues, developing data, and asking the difficult questions around whether cities are really vibrant and sustainable. Linking policy to research is critical to making decisions about urban issues. Smart governance will require an examination around how to link policy to research in urban areas and examine how effective those policies are, including around communication.
Speakers discussed the role of academia in inspiring change around urban sustainability issues. They also discussed the idea that large and small cities face different problems; for example, large cities have sophisticated economies but less space capita, while small cities have less severe environmental problems. As both face a spectrum of problems, what universities are doing to help address these issues must also be fluid and flexible, a participant suggested.
The need for and use of big data were discussed. One participant noted that researchers are collecting panels of data to examine how sustainability interventions are working and to see if they can isolate the effects. There are, however, concerns with big data, and a need to use caution in terms of how these data are used and being validated.
Participants also discussed the role of urban sustainability in addressing inequality, noting that almost every city has a sustainability plan in place that mentions this issue. While data exist that can help assess inequities in the United States, one participant commented, this remains a significant challenge for researchers working on urban sustainability.
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