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.
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.”