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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne’s Science of Cities program enables the development of more resilient, sustainable and equitable communities

The Laboratory is using systems science to reimagine urban planning, providing decision-makers with analyses and tools to develop the cities of the future.

At its core, a city is an intricate web of essential systems. Social, economic, environmental, infrastructure and governance systems work together to serve the needs of residents. The ways these systems are designed and managed directly affect quality of life.  

For more than two decades, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory has been closely studying the complex interdependencies among these systems. Now, drawing upon that wealth of research, the lab has launched the Science of Cities program, an innovative framework for re-imagining urban planning that aims to guide the development of communities for the next century. Through a science-based approach to understanding the systems that underlie cities, the program will inform the creation of more resilient, sustainable and equitable communities.

We see, worldwide, a big need to rethink the way communities are designed and operated. But you need a scientific basis to guide the rethinking. And at Argonne, with the collaboration of research partners across the national laboratory complex and academic institutions, we have the capabilities to do that.” — Frederic Petit, principal infrastructure analyst with Argonne’s Decision and Infrastructure Sciences division 

It’s critical for us to start thinking about the sustainability of our communities — planning now so our systems are adapted for the future,” said Lawrence Paul Lewis, the program lead for community resilience and sustainable development in Argonne’s Decision and Infrastructure Sciences (DIS) division, which heads the effort. It’s about the longer-term stewardship of our systems, so that our communities are set up to grow and develop in a healthy way.”

(Video by Argonne National Laboratory.)

The Science of Cities program provides decision-makers with analyses and tools to inform the design, management and technology implementation of the systems that support their communities.

When it comes to design, we’re talking about the architecture of community development — thinking about the proximity of people to resources that they need,” Lewis said. Management is about accountability, making sure that if a piece of local infrastructure breaks, there’s an equitable understanding about how that infrastructure needs to be turned back on based on community needs. Technology is about how emerging engineering and applied science solutions can be implemented to fill gaps and result in a more sustainable future for communities that might not have historically been invested in at the same rate as some of their affluent neighbors.”

One of the project’s objectives is to bake equity into system design — specifically, a healthy density, diversity and proximity of people to the resources and services they need to help meet their immediate needs and the community’s future growth. Meanwhile, the aim of justice relates to the notion that when something breaks, such as a critical piece of infrastructure, the entity responsible will make a repair efficiently and equitably.

(Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

We see, worldwide, a big need to rethink the way communities are designed and operated,” said Frederic Petit, principal infrastructure analyst at DIS. But you need a scientific basis to guide the rethinking. And at Argonne, with the collaboration of research partners across the national laboratory complex and academic institutions, we have the capabilities to do that.”

Those capabilities include deep analyses of infrastructure systems and supply chains, economic and environmental modeling, and advanced social science and behavioral analytics. Typically applied on larger scales for regional and national projects, these tools are now being adapted for use on the level of cities and neighborhoods. 

Argonne developed one of those tools over the past several years while aiding federal agencies during Hurricane Maria recovery and rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico. Web-based data collection and management architecture allowed DIS researchers to assess and visualize infrastructure dependencies and interdependencies at a hyperlocal level; identify and prioritize communities for targeted investments in critical systems such as energy, water, communications and transportation; and frame key findings to inform recovery investment decision making.

Part of what our project does,” Lewis said, is take what has predominantly been a civil engineering question when it comes to infrastructure resilience and sustainability and to start to weave in the human dimension of both the immediate needs of people and the long-term aspirations of a neighborhood or city.”

Argonne further honed the methodology while aiding COVID-19 response and recovery efforts in Chicago. As part of that effort — which helped support decisions around reopening the economy and the prioritization of vaccine distribution — DIS conducted a series of assessments across the city to understand the ways the pandemic affected critical infrastructure systems, such as food and health care supply, and how different areas exhibited disparities in impact. Lower-income neighborhoods, the researchers found, generally had less access to resources such as grocery stores and pharmacies. When you’re designing new infrastructure systems or when you’re rethinking the way that the community is designed and operated,” Petit said, you need to integrate these social indicators.” 

When we do supply-chain projects historically at Argonne,” Lewis added, we tend to think of the infrastructure and logistical arrangements necessary to facilitate freight mobility. But we don’t tend to think about underserved communities in a food desert or health care desert, the additional burden they are under to meet their basic needs.” This project adds to that past work by incorporating social science elements.

Argonne is planning a city as a laboratory” pilot project, with a desire to build on its proximity to Chicago and preexisting relationships with government agencies and universities to test the framework. The city,” Lewis said, could essentially become the model for new design practices, management practices and technology implementation.” And Chicago happens to be in the midst of updating its citywide plan for the first time since 1966, with the stated goal of addressing social and economic inequities. 

We see people starting to look at the connections between infrastructure and how it has affected people historically, starting to contemplate what they really want out of their communities moving forward,” Lewis said. This is an incredible opportunity to help support some of these decisions, being reflective of the priorities of equity and justice for how the community system of systems all operate together.”

Funding for this research was provided by the DOE Office of Science through the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory, a consortium of DOE national laboratories focused on response to COVID-19, with funding provided by the Coronavirus CARES Act.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.