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Shaping the
Cities of the Future

UTA tackles the complex challenges facing today’s swelling urban communities

By Nancy B. Strini • Illustration by Neil Webb

By 2017 more than half the world’s population will live in large urban regions. That may not sound like an urgent problem until you learn that these megacities of 10 million or more people occupy only about 4 percent of our land. This population migration has generated enormous 21st-century challenges: traffic miasmas, toxic air and water, crumbling infrastructure, and environmental devastation, not to mention the human toll from living in overly tight quarters divorced from nature.

Creating more sustainable urban communities is a pillar of UTA’s Bold Solutions|Global Impact strategic plan. Through a focus on the natural, built, economic, cultural, and social environments, University researchers and urbanists are shaping the future of emerging megacities like Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington.

PREPARING TOMORROW’S URBAN PLANNERS

Nan Ellin

Nan Ellin, dean of UTA’s College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs explains how the College is ideally positioned to develop sustainable urban communities, carrying out a crucial part of the University’s Strategic Plan 2020.

Established in May, the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs (CAPPA) unites the School of Architecture and the School of Urban and Public Affairs. The college brings six professions—architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, urban planning, public policy, and public administration—into one academic home, expanding opportunities to improve urban vitality.

Founding Dean Nan Ellin considers North Texas an ideal place to study urbanism. It’s the nation’s fourth-largest urban area—growing from 3 million people in 1985 to more than 7 million today—and is projected to top 12 million by 2050. In her most recent book, Good Urbanism, she describes how urban growth and development can “restore connections that have been severed over the past century between body and soul, between people and nature, and among people.”

One way CAPPA practices this approach is through its Urban Farming Project. “We are prototyping an urban farm and farmer’s market in downtown Arlington,” Dr. Ellin says, “converting an underutilized site into a productive landscape and vibrant public space for the community.”

Students will design and build a large shade structure, a greenhouse for aquaponics, a chicken coop, toolshed, and raised beds. Crafted from recycled plastics, these portable, lightweight, and durable structures are easily assembled and stored to aid in the relocation of urban farms and farmer’s markets.

“We are prototyping an urban farm and farmer’s market in downtown Arlington, converting an underutilized site into a productive landscape and vibrant public space for the community
—Dean Nan Ellin

“Ideally, this farm-in-a-box prototype can help urban farmers anywhere and contribute to alleviating world hunger, poverty, and conflict,” Ellin says. “The Urban Farming Project aims to demonstrate best practices in sustainable urban living right here in our own backyards and across the globe.”

Beyond the farm, CAPPA and the College of Engineering this fall began offering a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering—the first in North Texas. Housed in the Civil Engineering Department, the degree prepares students for high-demand jobs in the architecture, engineering, and construction sectors.

Another academic offering—a construction management master’s degree—began in fall 2014 and also addresses the North Texas region’s burgeoning construction industry.

“There are highway projects, new malls and schools, pipelines and trenchless technology, and industrial construction,” says civil engineering Professor Mo Najafi, who directs the program. “The degree basically cuts across all construction management sectors.”

SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS NEAR AND FAR

Two new centers—the Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact (ISGI) and the Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability—focus on spreading UTA’s expertise in sustainability to communities locally and worldwide.

Launched in February, ISGI brings together innovative researchers and local leaders to tackle urban challenges such as poor air quality, constrained water supplies, energy demand, and lack of transportation options. As executive director, Meghna Tare ensures that the institute’s mission of addressing these challenges builds upon the four cornerstones of education and outreach, strategic planning, research, and operations.

“The institute was created to support growth in North Texas in a very sustainable manner,” she says. “The goal is to collaborate with businesses, government, and nonprofits to offer solutions to these problems. We are the place for people outside UTA to come and collaborate on projects of sustainability, broadly speaking, but also specifics like water management, energy, or transportation.”

ISGI is collaborating with faculty on projects, with government organizations like the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and with other nonprofits. The institute also supports UTA’s academic offerings.

“It will naturally connect to the undergraduate minor in environmental and sustainability studies and the graduate program in earth and environmental sciences, preparing students for success in a complex and changing global environment by giving them hands-on experience through experiential learning and capstone projects,” Tare says.

architecture building

Established in June, the Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability helps countries and cities around the globe improve their waste management and make landfills more efficient and sustainable. The center stems from Director Sahadat Hossain’s work in waste management and bioreactor landfill technology and his research with the city of Denton and in Ghana, Africa.

In Denton, Dr. Hossain and civil engineering Associate Professor Melanie Sattler developed and implemented a sensor system designed to boost methane production in landfills as an alternative energy source. The Denton landfill system generates enough methane gas to power 3,000 homes.

“Our mission on the worldwide front would be one of training and education,” says Hossain, a civil engineering professor. “You have some countries that don’t even know what a landfill is. They just dump their solid waste in open space or water streams. That spreads disease and creates serious public health concerns.”

The Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability is housed in the Civil Engineering Lab Building, and the city of Denton has agreed to give the center 10,000 square feet of space at its landfill for training and research. Training also will be conducted at the UTA Research Institute (UTARI) in Fort Worth.

Hossain says many developed and developing countries are realizing the benefits of landfill management as an alternative energy source.

“We have to get people to understand that solid waste management is not a liability but an asset. It can mean supplementing electricity generation in more progressive countries and cities. It can mean providing electricity in less developed countries where there is no electricity now.”

MANAGING WATER, IMPROVING INFRASTRUCTURE

Transforming water-related challenges into opportunities is the mission of the Urban Water Institute and its 80 researchers. They are creating computer models that can track and predict flooding and water movement, shining light on our leaky infrastructure, and assessing how climate change may impact our water supply.

Recent research by institute faculty reveals that decrepit water systems in the United States annually leak, on average, enough water to supply the nation’s 10 largest cities for a year. Another team led by civil engineering Associate Professor D.J. Seo is expanding the potential and use of the Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) radar system in North Texas, which Dr. Seo helped create in 2012 to address an array of urban water challenges.

National Science Foundation funding will allow the researchers to integrate data from the CASA system, wireless sensors, and the public by crowdsourcing data via cellphone applications for high-resolution modeling of urban water systems. The result: more accurate warnings for flash floods and better forecasting that can improve water supply and quality as well as infrastructure management.

“Every moment matters when a flash flood occurs. You have very limited time to respond,” Seo says. “This prototype will provide timely, accurate information that will help emergency managers make the most informed decisions.”

UTA researchers are also pursuing solutions to a range of infrastructure issues. The new Center for Integration of Composites into Infrastructure (CICI) examines how best to use composite materials to extend the life cycle of civil infrastructure, resulting in less maintenance and lower costs to taxpayers. CICI is a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center.

Anand Puppala, associate dean for research in UTA’s College of Engineering and the center’s director, says the center will highlight the sustainable benefits of using composites in infrastructure construction because traditional methods of repairing roads, bridges, and other structures aren’t working.

“Our hope is that research conducted by CICI will lead to better structures with less maintenance over the next three years,” says Dr. Puppala, a Distinguished Scholar Professor in the Civil Engineering Department. “Sustainability is highly important, and although building the structures may be more expensive, the hope is that the extra money will be recouped through lower maintenance costs.”

Armed with a Texas Department of Transportation grant, Puppala also leads a team that is using giant geofoam blocks to bolster the earth beneath roads and bridges. The researchers installed the blocks near a bridge at U.S. Highway 67 and State Highway 174 in Johnson County, slowing settling dramatically.

“Several methods were used previously to try to stop the settling, but none worked,” he says. “We are encouraged by the results of using the geofoam so far.”

Taken together, the work of UTA urban planners, architects, engineers, and scientists is equally encouraging. By developing more sustainable communities, they are strengthening the economy, enhancing everyday life, and providing a foundation for lasting prosperity.

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