Transforming urban spaces and natural places
Home to over half the world’s population, cities churn out pollution and climate-altering greenhouse gases. Urban studies and planning professor Vivek Shandas studies how these urban spaces and their inhabitants impact the natural environment—and how innovative approaches through design, policy, and community involvement can actually improve a city’s environmental and social conditions.
A century ago, only one in ten people lived in a city. Today, over half the world’s population—some three billion and counting—lives in urban areas. With this urbanization comes increased pollution and health hazards—and a bad reputation. But some people have begun to reconsider cities’ role in the health of the planet, and its inhabitants
“The old story is that cities are the problem,” says urban studies and planning professor Vivek Shandas. “Our thinking now is that we can use cities as a means to solving global challenges like greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
Cities function like complex organisms comprised of buildings and infrastructure, residents and livelihoods, and natural resources. Understanding how these elements of the “urban ecosystem” interact may help alleviate—or exacerbate—harmful byproducts such as greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is an emerging concept of “ecodistricts”—neighborhood-scale approaches to climate action and sustainability.
In Portland, five ecodistricts have been designated, including one that will overlay the PSU campus. These “distributed” approaches to sustainability hold promise in meeting climate and resource use targets, but require further evaluation, says Shandas. Researchers will map and track various neighborhood assets— everything from tree canopy cover and air quality to stormwater systems and residents' engagement in improving conditions where they live.
“Once we can describe it, we can begin evaluating it,” says Shandas.
Other projects underway follow this effort to connect data to policy. Using residential water usage data from the Portland Water Bureau, Shandas developed a model that predicted water consumption based on land use patterns. This type of research gives policy makers a clearer understanding of the implications of new development on infrastructure and the environment before the first foundation is poured.
Shandas is now expanding his water usage model to other cities in the U.S., as well as in rapidly urbanizing parts of Asia. Expanding work to booming megacities, in nations like China and India, is critical if cities are to be part of the climate solution.
“In Asia we’re seeing the future of our cities—super water- and resource-hungry, intense population pressure on infrastructure, public health and housing challenges,” says Shandas.
Strategies for moderating expansion, such as urban growth boundaries, may temper development in more established cities, such as Beijing—but only long enough to allow upstart satellite cities to spill into available areas. Those rapidly urbanizing areas require different approaches, but share a common need: increased recognition of the roles, or services, that ecosystems provide to support these metro areas.
PSU’s new Ecosystem Services for Urbanizing Regions fellowship program is designed to do just that. Beginning in fall 2011, faculty in the program (including Shandas) will train doctoral students from more than half a dozen disciplines to develop solutions that balance rising resource demands of urban areas with the declining capacity of natural systems to support urban populations. (The National Science Foundation’s prestigious Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program provided $3 million to launch the program.)
Shandas is a faculty member of the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning; a fellow of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions; and founder of the Sustainable Urban Places Research (SUPR) Lab, working to connect environmental impacts and human behavior to improve decision-making.
Read more about outstanding Portland State faculty.