The city in future focus
Author: John Kirkland; illustrations Justin Wood
Posted: February 6, 2019

New research centers search for urban solutions.

PORTLAND State’s motto is Let Knowledge Serve the City, and in October, President Rahmat Shoureshi launched two centers of excellence—the first in the University’s history—to do just that in multifaceted ways.

“Creating these two university research centers was a high priority for me to fulfill our mission,” he said at the announcement. “Both centers will expand upon the existing research and scholarship our renowned faculty have produced in these areas to find innovative and effective solutions for the future.”

The PSU Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative will harness the power of faculty expertise to understand the root causes of the homelessness epidemic and find solutions to reduce it. The work by PSU faculty and students across multiple disciplines will help empower community leaders, elected officials, service providers and advocates to make informed choices.

Meanwhile, the Digital City Testbed Center will explore how “smart city” technology can make cities more safe, accessible, economically viable, healthy and climate-friendly.

Mark McLellan, PSU’s vice president of research, summed up their importance: “Both of these centers have the potential for literally changing the world, and I don’t say that casually.” 

Creating smarter cities

IMAGINE installing sensors along busy Portland streets to track near misses between pedestrians and cars. That kind of data could go a long way to reducing fatalities. Or imagine sensors set up throughout the city to come up with better and cheaper ways to monitor air pollution.

Those are just two projects in which researchers at Portland State are already working with government officials to make the city safer, cleaner and more efficient.

Smart city technology is the use of computerized sensors to measure, track and observe myriad aspects of busy city life in order to improve efficiencies and help the people who live there. 

It’s no wonder this was chosen as a focus for one of PSU’s centers for excellence. In 2016, Portland—in part because of PSU—was one of seven national finalists in a $50 million federal grant competition called the Smart Cities Challenge. Columbus, Ohio, was named the winner. And then what happened? “After they won, they flew out to Portland to see what we do,” says Jonathan Fink, professor of geology and PSU’s first vice president of research and strategic partnerships.

PSU has a nearly six-year history of partnering with the city of Portland on smart city projects, and now Fink heads the new Digital City Testbed Center. Like the homelessness collaborative, the Center will draw on support  from multiple departments across campus, with an emphasis on computer science and engineering.

As the name indicates, the center will create testbeds for new applications of sensor technology. They will be located on college, corporate and nonprofit campuses throughout the Pacific Northwest.

PERFECTING new technologies is one of the goals, but another is educating the public on their benefits. That’s part of the center’s mission, and it’s a reason why much of the research will be done away from neighborhoods where sensor technology will eventually be installed. It will eliminate feelings of intrusion that residents might have about computer sensors being installed nearby, Fink says.

One of the testbeds will be the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where Fink is a visiting professor of urban analytics. There, student projects have spawned startup companies such as Sensible Building Science, which mines the information generated by commonly used WiFi routers to measure building occupancy. The more users on a router system, the more people are occupying that building at a given time. That data is used to adjust heating and cooling, saving money and energy. It’s also used to assign janitorial staff.

“Having multiple campuses is part of the novelty of the Center,” Fink says. “It lets us do comparative studies in different settings, and also learn from other places that are farther down the path than we are.”

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is the other campus currently involved with the Center. In the future, Fink says Intel, the Oregon Zoo and the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, may join the fold. Collaborators will work on issues such as making transportation and other city services accessible to people with physical limitations, and even helping the Northwest prepare for the long-anticipated Cascadia earthquake. But the possibilities of smart city technologies are virtually limitless.

“This is the next step in the evolution of PSU’s connections to the city of Portland,” Fink says. “There’s so much expertise across campus. This is an opportunity for all of us.”

The many facets of homelessness

PSYCHOLOGY professor Greg Townley, research director of the new Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, says understanding homelessness requires getting away from the assumptions many people have about the homeless population—that addiction and mental illness are the root causes. It’s much more complicated than that.

Other parts of the country have addiction and mental illness rates at least as high as in Portland, but have less of a problem with homelessness. What sets Portland and other West Coast cities apart is the combination of high cost of living, steep increases in home and rental values, and wages that have not kept pace with those costs that, when combined with other factors such as addiction, make it harder to obtain and keep stable housing. 

Racism is also a factor; a disproportionate number of adults experiencing homelessness are people of color.
It affects people of all ages, from millennials who were hit with the Great Recession just as they were trying to enter the job market, to baby boomers who, despite a lifetime of working, have found themselves without a safety net. 

HOMELESSNESS is more than tent cities. It’s people living in their cars or couch surfing. It includes the working poor—people who work two or three minimum wage jobs, yet can’t afford rent. It’s people who are just one traumatic event away from losing shelter altogether. And they include students at PSU. Townley’s office is one of many clustered in a part of Cramer Hall that has a central lounge area. It’s not unusual for Townley to come to work and see a student sleeping on one of the couches. These students are routinely asked to move along, but that just means they'll find some other public area to sleep. 

“There’s a study by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab that shows that 9 to 14 percent of college students nationally are experiencing homelessness,” he says. “We want to do a study of students who are literally homeless and those who are in doubled-up or other precarious housing situations. From that, we want to help support community organizing to make the issue known and to push for more affordable student housing.”

That’s the kind of practical approach the new collaborative will take in the broader community. Faculty are already working with state and local governments, including contracts with Clackamas and Multnomah counties to identify who’s homeless and why in an effort to find ways to help. The collaborative also has attracted the attention of philanthropic leaders, who have pledged nearly $1 million to support the center’s activities. 

As a psychologist, Townley has done lots of work examining the mental health side of homelessness, but the center's focus as a whole is much broader. Its director, Marisa Zapata, is an urban planner who specializes in using land in socially just ways. Other faculty include Sergio Palleroni and Todd Ferry from the School of Architecture, who have designed alternative shelter communities; English professor Maude Hines, who is looking into ways to combat negative narratives about homelessness; Lisa Hawash from the School of Social Work, who is researching ways to improve hygiene facilities for people experiencing homelessness; Paula Carder from the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, whose work focuses on housing for older adults; and Jacen Greene, director of Impact Entrepreneurs at The School of Business, who specializes in social enterprise approaches to job training and employment.

“We’re all very collaborative,” Townley says. “Hopefully, the solution to homelessness is nearer than we think.”

John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.