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ResearchNews

01.22.2020

Major NSF-sponsored grant will help researchers discover ways to improve urban sustainability

By Fred Love, Iowa State University News Service

Dense urban areas use up more energy, water and food resources than they can produce themselves, forcing them to rely on external sources. But a team of researchers is imagining bold new ways to make Midwestern cities more self-reliant.

The Sustainable Cities Research Team recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a framework for analysis of food, energy and water systems for greater Des Moines, which includes the city and the surrounding six-county area, and to formulate scenarios that could result in a more sustainable city. The team includes scientists from a wide range of disciplines at Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa and University of Texas at Arlington.

The group intends for its results to inform decisions about food production, energy use, environmental outcomes and related policies that would apply to a large number of cities in rain-fed climates similar to Des Moines. Their innovative approach could help cities conserve building and transportation energy, reduce environmental impacts and improve city sustainability.

“Urban areas use a disproportionate amount of resources that have to come from far away, and they also tend to produce a disproportionate amount of waste,” said Jan Thompson, Morrill Professor of natural resource ecology and management and principal investigator for the grant. “Our team is going to look at ways we can make food, energy and water systems more sustainable.”

‘Holistic’ approach to urban sustainability

The project will compile and analyze large quantities of data on current and future climate conditions, food production, energy use and associated environmental impacts in Des Moines and the surrounding area. An effort led by Nick Schwab, an associate professor of psychology  at  Northern Iowa, will conduct focus groups and surveys to gather input from a wide range of additional stakeholders, including consumers, farmers and business owners who produce, distribute and sell food in the area. The team is also working with a group of community leaders and members of local organizations who will serve as an advisory board to the investigators.

Team member Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State, will lead efforts to run complex computer simulations for scenarios in which more food is produced locally in order to forecast environmental, nutritional and economic impacts for each scenario. The project will take a “holistic” approach to urban sustainability that will “account for a range of systems and how they interact with one another,” said Ulrike Passe, an associate professor of architecture and project coordinator for the research team.

“A city has complex problems with many factors and sources, so we need complex models to provide some clarity,” Passe said. “These systems are all connected.”

Given current and future urban climate conditions/scenarios researchers will analyze the potential for increased urban agriculture, community gardens and other green space within city limits. Passe said such approaches can contribute to urban food security as well as improve energy efficiency in urban buildings. Strategically placed plants near buildings can provide shade and help dissipate heat, thus reducing energy use for cooling and at the same time diminishing the severity of flooding in the area.

“What if we could turn vacant lots into gardens and orchards?” Passe asked.

The research team will identify opportunities and challenges related to making Des Moines, and similarly sized cities in rain-fed Midwestern landscapes, more sustainable. For instance, asking farmers what they would need to consider for producing locally sourced fruits, vegetables and meat will likely uncover potential concerns about equipment purchases and profitable marketing opportunities, said Matt Liebman, Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture and professor of agronomy. All those considerations will factor into the team’s work, Liebman said.