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New NSF-funded initiative tackles urban challenges, supports smart cities

December 20, 2017

Xuegang Ban

Xuegang Ban

Sagal Das

Sajal Das

Andrew Clark

Andrew Clark

Thaisa Way

Thaisa Way

Scott Allard

Scott Allard

Radha Poovendran

Radha Poovendran

In many urban environments throughout the U.S., growing economic and public health problems scourge communities. Population growth, aging and resource scarcity are among the top challenges.

In Seattle, for example, booming house prices cater to only a small group, the upper echelon of potential homebuyers. These soaring housing costs and rock-bottom vacancy rates shed light onto abject poverty and the underpinnings of a community that struggles to cope.

Washington State homeless counts record approximately 22,000 individuals. The annual Count Us In report last January recorded more than 11,000 homeless people in King County, a 10 percent increase in the past year of which almost 1,500 were between the ages of 18 and 24, living alone or with a family member.

In order to address these challenges, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the Smart & Connected Communities (SCC) initiative. The SCC aims to advance our understanding of our cities and communities to improve functionality and quality of life within them.

The NSF called for a tour de force of researchers from an array of academic disciplines to come together and inform advances in areas such as economic development, education, energy, environmental quality, public health and many others.

As a part of this initiative, the University of Washington Department of Electrical Engineering (UW EE) builds a research coordination network (RCN), MOHERE. The effort aims to build a multi-disciplinary research community consisting of experts in social, behavior, economic, and learning sciences, design, built environments, computer science and engineering in partnership with local communities.

“This project emphasizes collaboration for discovery,” UW EE Professor and Chair and MOHERE PI Radha Poovendran said. “It includes a set of structured workshops and analysis activities that are cross-disciplinary in nature. At the annual workshops we will assess the ways to best achieve our vision of expanding strong smart and connected communities. It is incredibly valuable to have top leaders in the field come together for this goal.”

Partnering with communities, the researchers will identify how at-risk populations including the homeless, recently incarcerated, adolescents, and First Nations tribes are directly impacted by mobility through public transportation, health as shaped by access to services, food, and housing, and community capacity for infrastructural resilience.

“The connection between jobs, food, health and housing is at the core of strong transportation and transit systems,” Poovendran said. “Next to housing, transportation is often the second highest household cost for families. For many, increases in the cost of gas, insurance and maintenance can be the difference between stable housing and homelessness. Additionally, longer commute times can impact mental and physical health.”

According to UW College of Build Environments Professor and co-PI Thaisa Way, an equitable transportation system would provide reliable and affordable transit systems. For those who rely on it most – youth, seniors, low-income workers and those without access to a car – a strong, stable and reliable public transportation offers access to education, jobs and healthcare. Nearly 20 percent of African American households, 14 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian households live without a car. Public investments in improving mobility infrastructure are necessary to building an equitable transportation system.

Additional co-PIs on the grant include Missouri University of Science and Technology Professor and Chair Sajal Das, Worcester Polytechnic University Professor Andrew Clark, UW Evans School of Public Policy Professor Scott Allard and UW Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Xuegang Ban.

Other team members include UW Electrical Engineering Professor Baosen Zhang, UW Electrical Engineering Professor Lillian Ratliff, UW Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Cynthia Chen and UW Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Jeff Berman.

Addressing SCC-based efforts is not new to UW researchers. In 2016, the NSF Visioning Workshop for Smart and Connected Communities was held at the University of Washington. The workshop brought 13 program directors from five different divisions of the NSF. Building international partnership was a significant component of this Visioning Workshop, where SCC researchers and government agency leaders from Japan, Taiwan, Netherlands, China and Spain participated.

For UW researchers, MOHERE is one step towards a larger goal.

“In an equitable city, all residents can afford safe, quality housing, have access to stable jobs with living wages, live and work in a healthy environment, depend on a reliable transportation system, enjoy easy access to parks and recreation and can learn in a school system that gives all residents the tools they need to thrive,” Way said.