Sustainability – One city block at a time

The mission to make the concrete jungles of California more sustainable is a formidable task—and one that will impact the state’s 37 million-plus population. One of the Institute’s most active research units—The Center for Sustainable Urban Systems (CSUS)—aims to improve our urban dwellings and safeguard the natural environment.

Adjunct Professor and Researcher Stephanie Pincetl, CSUS’ director, explained that as the center evolved, the original name, Urban Center for People and the Environment, was changed to Center for Sustainable Urban Systems to more accurately reflect the research being conducted. 

stephanie pincetlDr. Pincetl, a UCLA alumnus, teaches for the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and has published extensively on issues related to environmental policy and regulation.

The Center has two main focuses that overlap: urban metabolism and ecosystem services.

Urban metabolism is defined as a model to facilitate the description and analysis of the flow of materials and energy within cities. The concept of an urban metabolism provides a means of understanding the sustainable development of cities by drawing an analogy with the metabolic processes of organisms.  CSUS works to advance theory and method in this field.  These studies are funded by the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research Program.

Ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces resources for human beings—these natural assets include air, water, soil, plants, animals, etc. CSUS focuses on long-term water use in Los Angeles and reconstructing the city’s urban biogeography. Biogeography is the science that attempts to document and understand patterns of biodiversity. Research in this area is funded by the National Science Foundation.

CSUS researchers collaborate with experts across disciplines and sectors. Dr. Pincetl notes that this is “to ensure our research is both methodologically sound and practically applicable to real world problems.”

Zoe Elizabeth, a project manager with CSUS, stated, "This model of interdisciplinary solutions-driven research is cutting edge.  No one discipline in isolation can solve the environmental problems we are facing. Academic research removed from practice will fail to achieve real world results.”

The Center’s network of partners includes regional public officials through the Los Angeles Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability, ecologists and economists from UC Irvine and UC Riverside, UCLA colleagues from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Geography, and fellow academics at Arizona State University, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis.

CSUS works with non-profits organizations such as Environment Now, TreePeople, the Council for Watershed Health, Urban Semillas, the Sierra Club, Generation Water, and LAANE.  They also collaborate with governmental organizations such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, and the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation.  CSUS has working relationships with L.A. County’s Office of Sustainability, a number of state-level elected officials, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The research CSUS is undertaking is incredibly relevant.  The data and analysis collected for the urban metabolism project will inform efforts to develop a plan to respond to climate change and advance sustainability in Southern California. The Center is also finalizing a tool that local governments can use to quantify the life cycle impacts of new public transit infrastructure projects. Additionally, the LADWP will use CSUS studies to help inform rate structures and water efficiency programs.

Elizabeth added, “Los Angeles, and megacities across the world, are at the forefront of sustainable urban development.  While it is always the case that today’s decisions influence the future, this is particularly relevant today as the ecological, environmental, and social challenges we face are coming together to force us to transition from linear patters of urban development that have inputs and outputs (e.g., electricity and air pollution) to circular patterns that do not negatively impact the urban ecosystem and may, in fact, remediate it."

She concluded, “Los Angeles’ pattern of development is similar to how cities are developing across the world. What we can do here—if we do it right—is create a model that other cities can replicate in the quest for sustainability.”