U of M secures $2.5 million grant to improve quality of life in cities

city at nightPhoto: Shutterstock The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $2.5 million grant to a multidisciplinary team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota for a new project to advance access, well-being, health, and sustainability in cities. The project will focus on multiple “smart” infrastructure sectors—water, energy, food, shelter, transportation, waste management—that converge in cities.

The grant is part of the NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities initiative, which is investing $19.5 million nationwide to develop interdisciplinary and community-engaged research to revolutionize the nation’s cities and communities with more responsive and adaptive infrastructures, technologies, and services.

The research effort will be led by Shashi Shekhar, a computer science and engineering professor and CTS Scholar, and Anu Ramaswami, a professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The project spans four academic institutions and includes co-investigators at Florida State University, the University of Washington, and Purdue University. CTS Scholars Jason Cao, Frank Douma, and Robert Johns at the Humphrey School will also participate on the U of M team.  

With transformative new infrastructures coming on the horizon—such as autonomous vehicles, smart and distributed energy systems, novel green infrastructure, and urban farms—the physical fabric of our future cities will be very different from what exists today. The research team will provide new insight on how the future spatial deployment of these new infrastructures in cities will shape access, well-being, health, and environmental sustainability in different neighborhoods in the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul as well as Tallahassee, Florida.

The new project will advance basic research in multiple disciplines including environmental and civil engineering, computer science, urban planning, and public policy. It will create a unique public database, establish citizen science protocols, and advance the science of smart sustainable urban systems with cities engaged in infrastructure planning.

The research team will also engage K-12 students, university researchers, and citizen scientists to develop the first comprehensive public database on infrastructure, environment, health, and well-being at the neighborhood level in cities. Researchers will use innovative techniques such as crowdsourcing campaigns using low-cost sensors to characterize air pollution and flooding risks, K-12 engagement in mapping well-being and infrastructure satisfaction at the neighborhood level, and the development of related cyber-infrastructure.

The database will then be analyzed to identify novel, interesting, and useful spatial patterns and to develop urban models. Researchers will work with city partners to help better plan future cities considering emerging smart grid, mobility, and food system transitions.

The project’s educational activities will also connect graduate students from the fields of engineering, urban planning, policy, and sustainability with K-12 teachers and students, with particular attention to underserved populations. Research insights will be broadly disseminated to U.S. cities through partnerships with ICLEI-USA, the National League of Cities, and the MetroLab Network and through the NSF’s Sustainable Healthy Cities Network.

NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities initiative is part of a multipronged strategy for investing in foundational research and education on smart and connected communities. 

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