Research develops roadmap

Humphrey School researchers recently traveled to India and China to collect urban data.

Keaton Schmitt

After conducting research while visiting cities in Asia, University of Minnesota researchers hope to create a template for better environmental planning worldwide.
Last month, a group of Humphrey School of Public Affairs professors and graduate students returned from a trip to India and China, where they met government officials and collected data in some of the world’s largest cities. They were joined by other students and researchers from universities around the globe.
The team plans to use this new data to more efficiently plan a city and to learn how to fight pollution while still increasing quality of life.
The researchers measured the flow of resources in and out of major cities such as Delhi to see how much is produced locally and how much is imported, said Anu Ramaswami, the principle investigator of the trip and a Humphrey professor.
They found cities usually only create about 25 percent of the resources they use.
“Cities can never produce everything that they use,” she said, adding they import basic goods such as food, electricity and construction materials.
The group wanted to find better models for city planning, she said. For example, American cities are spread out, causing commuters to use more fuel, while Asian cities are more compact with high rises that sap electricity.
The group visited several high-population cities and some with only about a million residents to investigate whether government intervention can improve a city’s layout before it gets “locked in,” Ramaswami said.
Now that the group is back in the United States, they’re using data from 237 Chinese cities for one of their ongoing projects to determine which city layouts work best, Ramaswami said.
Using the data, the researchers are working on a model to create individualized plans to help any city decide how to grow, she said. 
The graduate students who gathered data on the trip said the scale of the cities they studied added to the difficulty of problem-solving.
“You can’t understand [the cities] through pictures or videos,” said Victoria Fiorentino, a graduate student who went on the trip.
In Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, the group looked for ways to fight air pollution that is yellowing the surface of the world wonder. 
The Indian government in Agra had banned the burning of cow dung for heat and fuel, believing it was yellowing the Taj Mahal, but the researchers found it was actually the burning of human waste that was more of a problem.
Ramaswami said the group also looked at the effects government has on city growth, comparing China’s “top-down” planning with a more politically divided India. 
India is in many ways over-regulated, said Peter Nixon, a graduate student who went on the trip. 
“There has to be alignment [between levels of government,]” Ramaswami said. “Or the laws aren’t followed and goals fall short.”