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ASU, Chinese Academy address urban sustainability

November 08, 2006

Arizona and China are experiencing the growing pains of rapid urbanization. Drought, air pollution and degradation of natural resources, to name a few, are common problems both countries face in an attempt to balance economic prosperity with environmental and human health.

In an unprecedented effort to confront and conquer these critical issues together, ASU, centered in the rapidly growing Phoenix metropolitan area, has partnered with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to form a joint center on urban sustainability.

The goal is to promote collaboration on various aspects of urban ecology, geography, planning and economics. Faculty and students at both institutions will seek joint large-scale funding opportunities to support research and conduct comparative studies in U.S. and Chinese cities.

ASU has made rapid urbanization a primary focus of interdisciplinary research through its Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS). Many of the issues being studied in Phoenix are common to fast-growing cities around the world, and no country is experiencing greater transformation of its urban character than China .

“Sustainability is a top priority at our university, and we are integrating different programs across the disciplines to create lasting solutions for planning and growing urban areas in balance with the natural environment,” says ASU President Michael Crow. “The Chinese Academy of Sciences is equally committed to sustainable development, and this new center provides the opportunity to bring sustainability research on both sides to a higher level.”

As the science and technology research arm of the central government of the People's Republic of China , CAS is a leading academic institution and comprehensive research and development center in natural science, technological science and high-tech innovation in China . CAS also promotes high-tech enterprises in China ; it includes 91 research institutes and educational units, as well as 490 high-tech enterprises and tech-supporting units.

“As China is faced with great challenges in environment, ecology and urbanization, we are strongly committed to sustainable development,” says Jiayang Li, vice president of CAS. “I believe the CAS-ASU joint center on urban sustainability will build upon each other's strengths, seek solutions to these challenges and make fruitful progress.”

CAS deals with similar issues, as do ASU's ecologists, geographers, planners and others, according to Jonathan Fink, vice president for research and economic affairs. The Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Research, for instance, oversees the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research program. Its scientists study the impact of fast-growing cities on their underlying ecosystems, as well as the effects of the ecosystems on the growth of those cities.

“On the ecological front, we hope to advance understanding of the functioning of urban ecosystems using comparative studies in China and the United States ,” says Nancy Grimm, ASU professor in the School of Life Sciences and principal investigator of the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research program. “We want methods and experiments to be comparable between the urban research projects in the U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research program and similar programs in the Chinese network.”

Some of the research questions will address how water, air, food, construction materials, vehicular traffic and wildlife move in and out of urban ecosystems. Other projects will look at the role that cities play in global climate change, how cities influence the preservation of biodiversity and how urban policy decisions are made.

The objective is for both sides to learn from each other's experience.

“Transforming urban systems is complicated when there is already a great deal of existing infrastructure,” Fink says. “Newer cities have fewer of these legacy features that have to be retrofitted and replaced, and that is one of the reasons that Phoenix is a better laboratory for studying rapid urbanization in the U.S. context than cities in the Northeast or Midwest .”

Similarly, China is experiencing a massive increase in its urban population, which is expected to continue over the next 50 years – some estimates say 400 million new urban residents between now and 2040. This will require a great deal of planning and construction.

“We know that metropolitan Phoenix is among the fastest-growing cities in the United States, meanwhile cities in China are growing at unprecedented rates and to huge scale,” says Mariko Silver, ASU director of strategic projects, Office of the President. “The information our research teams can share about the lessons, challenges and opportunities of rapid urbanization are enormous and will significantly advance our understanding of globally relevant phenomena.”

According to Fink and Grimm, new infrastructure in Chinese cities and the Phoenix metropolitan area can be designed to be inherently more energy efficient and sustainable – conserving water, generating less air pollution, using fewer materials, and incorporating ecologically-based mitigation strategies into design and construction. Lessons learned and technologies developed in these new cities or suburbs can inform new urban construction in other older areas, too.

There are two laboratories that comprise the Chinese part of the joint center for urban sustainability: the Urbanization Process & Sustainability Laboratory and the Urban Ecosystem Studies Laboratory. These two labs have parallel groups in Arizona, though not specially designated laboratories.

At ASU, the joint center for urban sustainability is housed administratively within the Global Institute of Sustainability and in the School of Global Studies . While a director has not yet been named, key players besides Grimm include Jianguo Wu, professor in the School of Life Sciences; Charles (Chuck) Redman, director of GIOS; and Doug Webster, professor in the School of Global Studies.

In China, directors have been appointed. Jie Fan, a geographer with economic expertise, is overall director of the center. Jianming Cai is director of the Urbanization Process & Sustainability Laboratory, and Ziyun Ouyang is director of the Urban Ecosystem Studies laboratory.

Fink says the effort will be considered successful if growth in Phoenix , Beijing and other rapidly expanding cities in China and the United States has been influenced by the scientific and policy studies and recommendations coming out of the joint center.

“We also can measure success through the extent to which there is a lively and real connection between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and ASU in terms of training students, conducting joint and comparative research projects and collaborative publication,” Grimm says.