CSU Joins Network to Research Sustainable, Livable Cities

August 17, 2015

Colorado State University researchers will be part of a unique network of scientists, industry leaders and policy partners committed to building better cities of the future.

The consortium, supported by a $12 million Sustainability Research Network award from the National Science Foundation and led by the University of Minnesota, Columbia University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, includes nine universities, major metropolitan areas in the U.S. and India, infrastructure firms and policy groups, all focused on creating cities that are highly functional, promote the health of residents and the environment, and have that intangible “vibe” called livability that makes cities desirable places to live and work.

SRN_livable_cityThe network is the first of its size to focus on ways to reimagine our infrastructure — our energy grids, road networks, green spaces, and food and water systems.

Daniel Zimmerle, senior research associate at Colorado State, will bring his expertise in distributed energy grids to the project. He has been instrumental in the research that has created Fort ZED, the net-zero energy district in Fort Collins and is currently researching micro-grid technology designed to bring energy to rural villages in Rwanda.

“We have to think in new ways about a city’s physical infrastructure to develop sustainable solutions,” said Anu Ramaswami of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, who is the lead investigator and director for the project. “Understanding that these 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.”

Interconnected energy systems

The CSU team will study energy systems interconnected with transportation, water and other systems. The team will utilize data from multiple communities, including Fort Collins, to create simulation models for innovating new methods of optimizing systems.

“Many energy problems have interesting interconnections with social systems or other technical systems. This center will bring together all of the necessary expertise to truly study these interconnections,” said Zimmerle.

Patricia Culligan of Columbia University and Armistead Russell from Georgia Technology are co-directors of the project.

Estimates indicate that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Such growth will exert tremendous pressure on water, energy, and land resources, creating traffic congestion, air pollution, and urban inequity that already affects the health of millions of urban residents today. A majority of the infrastructure required to accommodate that future growth has yet to be built, or will need to be rehabilitated from existing systems.

Until now, development trends have resulted in very large infrastructure systems — large power grids, large roadway networks, 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 network will try to identify the best mix of local and large to achieve urban sustainability, health and livability goals, by examining infrastructure in diverse cities in the US and India. The team will also explore the public attitudes and policies that can help achieve such urban transitions.

Three themes

The work of the network is organized into three themes.

Theme 1 will develop science-based methods to track the environmental sustainability, health and livability of cities. The various teams will measure the water and energy footprints of cities, the emotional well-being of people in-the-moment as they experience the city, the influence of urban design on air pollution and health, the impact of cities on natural ecosystems, and modeling extreme climate events such as extreme heat and flooding, that impact the livability of cities.

Theme 2 will identify the innovations needed in infrastructure design and in our social institutions to advance environment, health and livability outcomes in cities. In this thematic area, researchers will draw upon new technologies being incubated in university laboratories, as well as infrastructure innovations being piloted in real-world test-beds in our partner cities. Each university in this network is partnering with their local city to explore innovative infrastructure solutions – the network’s test-beds span energy, water, transportation, green infrastructure and food system innovations being piloted in cities in the US and in India.

In Theme 3 the new knowledge created in Themes 1 and 2 will be used to model various policy and technology scenarios in diverse world cities – ranging from small fast-growing cities like Fort Collins to shrinking cities like Detroit, from stable cities with aging infrastructure cities like New York and Minneapolis to young emerging cites in India trying to leap-frog into next generation infrastructure systems.

Working with diverse cities provides rich learning experiences to students, to faculty and to policymakers, as they compare and contrast infrastructure solutions on the ground.

One strength of this network is that each of the nine universities – University of Minnesota, Columbia University, Georgia Tech, Colorado State University, Florida State University, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, and University of Texas-Austin — is working with its local city, as well as with industry partners such as Ecolab, Xcel Energy, and ICF International. In addition, the network’s policy partners such as ICLEI USA, the National League of Cities and the International City Managers Association bring immense capacity to disseminate the findings of the network to more than 29,000 communities in the U.S. and globally.

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

– Kate Jeracki

This article was originally posted by Colorado State University.