Sustainable Cities: Building an Integrative Research Network to Incorporate Natural Capital Into Design of Urban Systems

For the first time in history, more people globally now live in cities than in rural areas. In the United States, more than 80 percent of people live in urban areas, and the growth of cities is projected to continue well into the future. Urbanization has profound impacts on the way people live and how we interact with the environment.

Cities offer distinct advantages: They are centers of creativity and innovation and engines of economic growth. Increased density can lead to efficient production through economies of scale along with reduced land pressure outside of cities.

But increased urbanization also poses unique sustainability challenges. Increased density within cities concentrates waste streams with impacts on air and water quality and creates novel problems such as formation of urban heat islands. Increased density also makes cities more reliant on rural areas for food supply and other necessities. Though cities will always be highly engineered places, there are opportunities for designing cities that also use natural processes to solve urban sustainability challenges. Examples of green infrastructure that benefits urban residents include watersheds that provide drinking water, systems that allow precipitation to percolate through pavement and wetlands that remove pollutants from water.

With the goal of advancing understanding of the role of green infrastructure in sustainable cities and positioning the University to be a leader in the field of urban sustainability and environmental science, this project will:

  • stimulate new collaborative research on urban ecosystem services through short‐term, high-impact research activities
  • identify key knowledge gaps and barriers to sustainability and develop proposals to address those gaps
  • support integration of research and practice through partnerships, educational opportunities and stakeholder engagement.

Project Leads

  • Steven Polasky (, Professor, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences
  • Sarah Hobbie (, Professor, College of Biological Sciences
  • Bonnie Keeler (, Lead Scientist, Institute on the Environment