Category Archives: Media


NSF Funds $12M Research Network to Build the Healthy, Sustainable, Livable Cities of the Future

Co-directors, left to right, Patricia Culligan, Anu Ramaswami, and Ted Russell. The four-year, $12 million project they're leading aims to create the cities of the future — cities that are environmentally sustainable, healthy for their citizens, and places people want to live. They network includes nine universities, public policy groups, industry partners and major metropolitan areas across the United States and India.
August 11, 2015

Ted Russell will help lead a new Sustainability Research Network anchored at Georgia Tech, University of Minnesota and Columbia University

How will we build the cities of the future in a sustainable way?

A new National Science Foundation-funded research network will connect scientists at nine universities with infrastructure groups, public policy experts, and industry partners to reimagine cities. Georgia Tech will be an anchor of the $12 million network, which will be led by the University of Minnesota, and School of Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Ted Russell will serve as a co-director.

“We’re bringing some very different communities together more than past projects have done,” Russell said. “We are getting the engineering community, the health community, the atmospheric sciences community, the economics communities, the policy communities in the same virtual room to look to the future.”

“We’re looking at real-life cities and figuring out how to make these cities work better and how to help cities [in general] evolve.”

The idea is to reimagine infrastructure — energy grids, road networks, green spaces, and food and water systems — to create cities that are highly functional, that promote the health of residents and the environment, and that have that intangible “vibe” that makes them desirable places to live and work.

“We have to think in new ways about a city’s physical infrastructure to develop sustainable solutions,” said Anu Ramaswami, the project’s director and a professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “Understanding that these physical systems are interconnected serves as a foundation for this work. For example, urban farms wouldn’t work very well without thinking about water, energy and transportation infrastructure as well as people, markets and policies.”

The network will use cities across the United States and in India as “test beds” for its work, a unique approach that Russell said means the outcome of the network’s studies will have significant impact. Atlanta is one of those cities.

“One of the points we made with this proposal is that it’s action-oriented, with the idea that the output of this project is not papers, it’s actually actions,” he said. “[We will] not only specify what actions might be taken but actually help realize those actions.”

The project, called a Sustainability Research Network in NSF parlance, runs for four years.

“Real success at the end of those four years would be one or more cities — having worked with us from the beginning — take actions that will lead to improving the livability of their city,” Russell said. “That could come in multiple ways: improved transit options, improved plans for water usage, effective urban farming, or strategies to improve air quality that they’ve actually implemented and to inform their citizenry of how to reduce their exposures to harmful chemicals and lead more healthy lives.”

The network stretches beyond civil and environmental engineering at Tech: Nisha Botchwey, an associate professor in the School of City and Regional Planning, and Peter Webster, a professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, will have significant roles, as will Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (better known as CEISMC).

In fact, Botchwey will lead the education component of the project, which includes outreach to K-12 students, college graduate students and Native American communities. Those efforts will include an innovative interdisciplinary summer school at the network’s nine partner schools.

Russell said Tech’s wide-ranging involvement in the project fits in perfectly with the Institute-wide focus in the coming decade on sustainability and community. Officials announced the Serve•Learn•Sustain initiative earlier this year as part of the Institute’s reaccreditation process.

“This fits in extremely well with that, because we are hitting all of those pieces in [the project],” Russell said.

Learn more about the project in the University of Minnesota news release and on the project’s website.

This story was originally posted by the Georgia Institute of Technology.


The Big City Scaled Down for Sustainability

August 11, 2015

Columbia To Co-Lead $12 Million Livable Cities Research Project.

Two-thirds of people on the planet will live in cities by 2050 but few cities are prepared for the coming population boom. A $12 million research project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) will explore a new model for urban infrastructure—the roads, pipes and grids that move around people, food, water and energy—to make cities cleaner, healthier and more enjoyable places to live.

A consortium of cities, companies and universities, led by University of Minnesota, Columbia University and Georgia Institute of Technology, will form a Sustainability Research Network to carry out the research, titled “Integrated Urban Infrastructure Solutions for Environmentally Sustainable, Healthy, and Livable Cities.” By 2045, cities will be home to 6 billion people, the United Nations estimates, creating an unprecedented demand for food, water, energy, transportation and housing.

In the past, governments built massive infrastructure projects to meet the public’s needs—interstate highways, regional power plants and centralized sewage treatment systems. But concerns about climate change and the hefty costs of such monumental projects, in dollars, pollution, efficiency and vulnerability during natural disasters, have caused many to reconsider.

The city of the future may well favor small, local and decentralized solutions—what some planners call “distributed” infrastructure. Think roads geared towards bicycles instead of cars; Houses powered by a neighborhood solar grid instead of a distant power plant; Food grown on rooftops instead of shipped cross-country; and waste composted locally rather than piped to a sewage treatment plant.

By studying the infrastructure of cities in the United States and India, the Sustainability Research Network will identify the best mix of local and regional systems to meet city dwellers’ needs. The team will also explore the community attitudes and public policies that allow cities to evolve and adapt. Over the next four years, it will develop a framework for change based on new technologies and trends already underway, including district energy systems, community solar energy, light-rail, bike share systems and urban farms.

The cities to be analyzed include, among others, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit and Atlanta, as well as cities in India with minimal infrastructure. The university researchers, in collaboration with their partners in the public, private and nonprofit sector, will focus on developing practical solutions that can be scaled and immediately put into action.

In New York City, Columbia has worked with City Hall, property owners and local community groups to measure the impact of city initiatives to green the urban landscape by planting more trees and vegetation, including on rooftops and roadways. Trees and plants absorb rain and snow, reducing the amount of stormwater runoff that sewage treatment plants need to process. They also cool the air, helping to bring down temperatures on hot days. In addition to measuring the benefits of green infrastructure, Columbia researchers are studying the psychological factors that lead communities to care for city-planted trees and vegetation in their midst, protecting the public’s investment.

The research is still in progress, but initial results highlight the importance of involving neighbors in the stewardship of green infrastructure. Tree-pits, for example, can absorb more stormwater if soils remain loose and uncompacted. Planting flowers in the tree-pits and putting up guards have proven effective at keeping foot traffic away.

Columbia’s role in the Sustainability Research Network will be to look at the potential for designated cities to scale various sustainability solutions, be it planting rooftop farms or rewiring buildings for solar. How much capacity is there, and how big are the benefits? The Columbia researchers involved are: Patricia Culligan, a civil engineer who is deputy director of Columbia’s Data Science Institute; Upmanu Lall, a civil engineer who heads the Columbia Water Center; Vijay Modi, a mechanical engineer who heads Columbia’s Sustainable Engineering Lab; Ben Orlove, an anthropologist who heads Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions; and Richard Plunz, an architect who heads Columbia’s Urban Design Lab.

The shift to a city with local and decentralized services will require technology—sensors to pull in data from solar panels, weather stations and so on—and systems to analyze it, make decisions and coordinate with other systems. “The internet-of-things, where sensors talk to sensors, and make decisions without any human involvement, is going to be key for the city of the future,” said Culligan. “Sensors on green roofs will tell sensors controlling irrigation when plants are thirsty and need to be watered.”

“When it rains, green roof sensors will tell stormwater pipe sensors how much rainfall has left the rooftop so flows can be redirected to prevent flooding,” she added. “Big data and data science will be central to all of this.”

The Sustainability Research Network’s “Integrated Urban Infrastructure Solutions for Environmentally Sustainable, Healthy, and Livable Cities” project includes researchers in academia, industry and policy organizations that work with more than 29,000 cities in the U.S. and globally. They are: the University of Texas at Austin, Florida State University, University of Michigan, Colorado State University, Ohio State University and Indian Institute of Technology-Madras; Ecolab, Xcel Energy, ICF International; and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association.

Directing the project is Anu Ramaswami, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Science, Technology & Environmental Policy Program at the Humphrey School. Her co-investigators are Culligan, at Columbia, and Amistead Russell, an environmental engineer at Georgia Tech who specializes in air quality and health.

Please see Sustainable Healthy Cities for a full list of project partners.

— Kim Martineau

This article was originally posted by Columbia University.


National Science Foundation Grant Aims To Build More Livable Cities

August 11, 2015

Florida State University is among nine universities that will share a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a unique network of scientists, industry leaders and policy partners committed to building better cities.

The network will include major metropolitan cities in the United States and India, infrastructure firms, and policy groups that will focus on ways to re-imagine energy grids, road networks, green spaces and food and water systems. The research seeks to determine how cities can become more highly functional, better promote the health of residents and the environment, and be more desirable places to live and work — that intangible “vibe” known as livability.

“This is an exciting opportunity for Florida State University to partner with scholars from other leading research institutions and with community, industry and policy partners to create meaningful urban infrastructure solutions for the next generation of cities,” said Gary K. Ostrander, vice president for Research at Florida State.

Funded by the NSF Sustainability Research Network program, the project, “Integrated Urban Infrastructure Solutions for Environmentally Sustainable, Healthy and Livable Cities,” will be anchored at the University of Minnesota and directed by Professor Anu Ramaswami. Florida State University’s lead investigator is Richard Feiock, the Jerry Collins Eminent Scholar of Public Administration and Policy in the Askew School within the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.

Feiock received $500,000 of the total to conduct national-scale surveys of city governments, investigate energy and transportation collaboration to promote sustainability within urban regions, and support research on the innovative energy efficiency programs that have been implemented by the city of Tallahassee.

“We look forward to working with FSU and others in the network to better understand how cities can support actions by their residents to reduce energy consumption,” said Cynthia Barber, director of Environmental Policy and Energy Resources for the city of Tallahassee, one of the network’s city partners.

Feiock also will lead local government outreach efforts with city partners, the National League of Cities and the International City Managers Association. The project is unique in that it focuses on linking research with concrete actions in partner cities to translate the network’s findings well beyond a research setting, enabling real-world impact and paving the way for future research endeavors in urban sustainability, according to Feiock.

“We have to think in new ways about a city’s physical infrastructure to develop sustainable solutions,” Feiock said. “Understanding that these systems are interconnected serves as a foundation. We also need solutions that connect individuals to neighborhoods to cities and beyond.”

Until now, development trends have resulted in very large infrastructure systems — large power grids and roadway networks and complex systems that pipe water from distant rivers and supply food from faraway states and countries. Emerging trends suggest cities may be better off building more local systems — urban farms, local solar generation, bike share systems and more. This project network will work to identify the best mix of local systems and large infrastructures to achieve urban sustainability, health and livability. The research also will explore the public attitudes and policies that can help achieve such urban transitions.

Each of the nine universities — Florida State, the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, Georgia Tech, Colorado State University, the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Ohio State University, the University of Michigan and the University of Texas-Austin — is working with their local city and industry partners. The network’s policy partners will disseminate the findings to more than 29,000 cities across the nation and around the globe.

For more information and a complete list of network partners, visit

-Rob Nixon

This story was originally posted by Florida State.