Helping Cities Navigate a Climate-Changed Future

A Q&A with Anu Ramaswami, an urban sustainability expert at the University of Minnesota, about a new program to make cities sustainable.

A new group of scientists are tackling making cities more sustainable
A new group, led by the University of Minnesota's Anu Ramaswami (second from right), is tackling making cities more sustainable. Credit: University of Minnesota

Share this article

As cities across the globe wrestle with population growth and how to adapt their infrastructure to the realities of climate change, a new coalition of scientists is aiming to help.

The group, which includes scientists, policymakers and urban planners at nine universities, is armed with a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation. They will work with cities across the United States and India figure out how to lower their environmental impacts as populations continue to grow.

And populations will grow: an extra 3 billion will crowd into urban centers by 2050, experts believe, as climate change begins to take an even bigger toll.

InsideClimate News spoke with Anu Ramaswami, an expert on sustainable urban infrastructure at the University of Minnesota and head of the new project, about why cities play such an important role in the fight against climate change and how there is no one-size-fits-all sustainability plan.

Ed. Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

InsideClimate News: What is the major goal of the research project, titled Integrated Urban Infrastructure Solutions for Environmentally Sustainable, Healthy, and Livable Cities?

Anu Ramaswami: We’re looking at how to develop environmentally sustainable, healthy and livable cities. How do you get energy, water, wastewater treatment, transportation, and waste management systems, as well as food systems and green places to work seamlessly together with as low an impact as possible. We’re focusing on traditional infrastructure issues, emerging technologies like driverless vehicles, as well as behavior, financing and policy.

We’ve got researchers at nine universities collaborating on the project, and will also be working with cities to study what makes initiatives like car sharing an effective enterprise in one place, but not another. We’re looking at things like district energy [where a city has a central heating or cooling system for multiple buildings].

Anu Ramaswami is an urban sustainability expert at the University of Minnesota
Anu Ramaswami. Credit: University of Minnesota

ICN: What cities will you be working with and what exactly will you be studying?

AR: There is a general trend toward more local solar generation, community solar, distributed energy, bicycle sharing, car sharing, locally produced food, more decentralized wastewater treatment for energy recovery. But we don’t really know whether initiatives like these are better from a sustainability perspective, from a livability perspective, from a health perspective, in every single community. What are the tradeoffs?

So we are studying diverse cities. Minneapolis, where I live, is an example of a stable city, meaning it isn’t growing very fast, and it is a medium-moderate density. New York City is another stable city, but it extremely dense. Detroit is a shrinking city and it has different challenges. Fort Collins in Colorado is a very fast growing. Atlanta is another diverse city. We then want to compare these communities to cities in India where they have very little existing infrastructure and they have this big opportunity to leapfrog.

ICN: In the proposal, you talk about moving cities toward a more “distributed” system. What does that mean, and what are the pros and cons?

AR: It means more local elements. We don’t think that all the food needed in a city can be produced locally, but we want to look at what the advantages are to having more of the food produced nearby. Same with having more energy generated within city limits. What are the benefits, what are the drawbacks? Urban farms may offer livability and networking opportunities, but there may be water issues or environmental concerns. By using the term “distributed,” we’re not saying that cities should become an island, but there should be some mix of local and larger supply chains.

ICN: How much of your work will incorporate not just mitigating greenhouse gases, but also climate resiliency work, protecting communities from the impacts of global warming?

AR: We’re including climate resiliency as an aspect of livability. Can you live in an extremely hot city, can you deal with extreme coastal storms or sea level rise? But we want to use the word livability because we want to broadly measure what makes people actually say, “wow, this is a great experience living in this city.” One of my colleagues has a smartphone app that she’s developed that measures happiness in the moment as people experience green spaces or urban farms, for example.

ICN: Why do you think a program like yours is necessary? Are most cities not doing sustainability work themselves?

AR: Cities want to be sustainable, but they are smaller than these big energy grids, these big food and water supply networks. If you drive an electric car within a city, you could say I’m zero-emitting. But depending on where your energy is coming from, there are emissions, they are just coming from somewhere else. Actually studying cities is quite challenging. It isn’t that they aren’t already doing these things, but we can measure it in ways that can account for confounding effects and explain why one initiative might work in one community, but not another.

ICN: With Congress in a stalemate over climate change, how important of a role do cities play in fighting and preparing for global warming?

AR: Cities play a huge role. Most people are living in cities. The biggest cities are larger than some countries.

ICN: Are there any cities right now that are doing innovative work on sustainability and climate change, programs that could be useful elsewhere?

AR: I wouldn’t want to pick one or two. There are a tremendous number doing great work. Minneapolis has one of the largest numbers of urban farms. St. Paul has the largest hot water district energy system in the world. They’ve also changed policy on food supply to the school district to allow more local produce to be consumed. New York City is doing amazing things, especially with green roofs.

Cities are doing amazing, interesting, tremendously creative experiments. I think the question of which of those can we learn from and translate to other cities, that’s what we’re looking at.

ICN: What are some of the technologies or programs that cities could be using more of right now but aren’t?

AR: I would say most are in transit. Car sharing and bike sharing are really exciting possibilities in transportation. But there are actually institutional and social constraints, and those are what we’re going to uncover by looking at successes and where some of these strategies didn’t quite catch on.

ICN: Much of the work on sustainability and climate resiliency has been by big cities. What about mid-size cities? Is it harder for them to tackle an issue like this with limited financial or staffing resources?  

AR: Smaller cities often lack staff and financial resources—true. Yet this does not have to limit their capacity. In many cases, universities partner with cities, including smaller cities, to serve these needs. For example, at the University of Minnesota, we have a resilient cities program where several university courses take on a city and its needs as a client. In my class, we worked with the City of Rosemount (a very small city) and developed its greenhouse gas inventory and identified priority action items. In Colorado, we worked with the Colorado Municipal league to specifically develop a program that had a cohort of 5-6 cities each year (we did this for 2 years) where my students and I worked to develop the GHG inventory and a simplified analysis of actions. As a new network, these are the types of ideas we are also exploring.