By Charles Buchanan • Photos by Steve Wood • Videos by Jeff Myers and Carson Young
A visit to Birmingham nearly requires a hard hat these days. Cranes have joined Vulcan as fixtures on the skyline, hovering above new apartment buildings and renovated historic landmarks. All of this construction is paving the way for an influx of new residents eager to live in Alabama’s largest city.
Birmingham’s buzz of activity reflects a global trend: Cities are booming. A 2014 United Nations report notes that more than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and that by 2045, urban dwellers could number more than six billion. (Just for comparison, Earth’s entire current population is estimated at 7.4 billion people.) In the United States, urban areas account for 80.7 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Starting to feel claustrophobic? The shift toward cities raises challenges that will define the 21st century—including questions about health and environmental impacts, infrastructure, transportation, and access to basic services. Discover how some UAB researchers and students are developing creative solutions to help Birmingham and other cities grow smarter.
How does a city become sustainable? Expanding access to fresh, healthy food, cultivating urban gardens, and providing green transportation options are a good start for Birmingham, say experts in UAB's Sustainable Smart Cities Research Center.
Could the University that Ate Birmingham become the University that Fed Birmingham? That may be the case once city buses start rolling on a new route—one specifically designed to transport people living in local food deserts to markets where they can buy fruits, vegetables, and other fresh, healthy foods.
Developments such as the Rotary Trail, a railroad cut transformed into recreational space, are breathing new life into Birmingham's urban core.
The buses are one result of the unique partnership between the city of Birmingham and UAB’s Sustainable Smart Cities Research Center (SSCRC). Launched in 2012, the center brings together UAB experts in engineering, health care, science, and business to figure out how to make communities more livable—anything from improving energy and water efficiency to developing greener transportation models, construction materials, and urban development plans, for example. Ultimately, such innovations will lead to a healthier population, a boost for economic development, and a quality of life that encourages more people to live and work in the city, says Fouad Fouad, Ph.D., SSCRC director and chair of the UAB School of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering.
“This is the age of cities,” Fouad says. “The focus is on New York, San Francisco, or London rather than America, England, or Europe.” Those that succeed will have earned a reputation for being sustainable, green, and healthy—and those that don’t face the danger of withering away, he says.
In Birmingham, the SSCRC and city government address a wide variety of sustainability issues together, a partnership that Fouad says is rare. In 2014, this special relationship helped Birmingham win a prestigious IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant—one of only 16 awarded worldwide. The prize included a visit by IBM experts in strategy development, technology, and data analysis to assess the area’s critical issues, particularly food insecurity. The market buses were a key recommendation. As the city retrofits the buses, UAB engineering students are using GIS (geographic information system) technology to map the city’s food deserts and identify potential routes, which neighborhood residents will be able to access via smartphone.
The SSCRC also played a role in planning REV Birmingham’s popular Zyp BikeShare system, currently with 40 stations and 400 bicycles, and is part of efforts to develop a robust technology-based economy in the city. In the future, Fouad would like to see SSCRC scientists mine data highlighting urban schools and access to medical care, with an eye toward identifying opportunities for creative changes. “We are a hands-on, practical university,” Fouad says. That, combined with UAB’s city-center location, creates “the perfect environment to test sustainable solutions.”
“The work that we’re doing to make cities healthier and more sustainable also applies to rural towns and suburbs,” Fouad Fouad says. But he cautions that one sustainability model won’t fit every community. “You can’t take San Francisco’s sustainability plan and make it work in Alabama,” he says. “Every plan is different, but we all can learn a lot from one another.”
Can the state of your neighborhood affect your state of health? Yes, say UAB researchers studying chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. While lifestyle changes—good nutrition, regular physical activity, appropriate screenings and medical care—can reduce the risk, some neighborhoods are missing out, says Monica Baskin, Ph.D., a professor in the UAB School of Medicine’s Division of Preventive Medicine.
She serves on the Jefferson County Collaborative for Health Equity team, which brings together academic researchers, public health practitioners, and community leaders to identify the complex root causes of health disparities and develop strategies to address them. “We have shown in a series of maps that concentrated poverty exists in the same places where we see poorer health outcomes,” she says. These areas also have a higher proportion of minorities, particularly African-American and Latino populations, along with higher unemployment. “Living in a certain part of a city might predispose you to a higher risk of shortened life expectancy, infant mortality, or other negative outcomes compared to another area just a few miles away,” Baskin adds.
These neighborhoods also suffer from a lack of resources that promote good health behaviors. That typically means no grocery stores selling nutritious food, but also no place to walk or play, explains Mona Fouad, Ph.D., UAB School of Medicine senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion, Division of Preventive Medicine director, and director of the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center. “There may not be parks or sidewalks. People might not feel safe spending time outside because of crime, stray dogs, no street lights, or empty homes where people might be doing drugs.”
Revitalization efforts in neighborhoods such as Woodlawn (left) and downtown Birmingham (top and bottom right) offer opportunities to implement sustainable solutions. Woodlawn photo by Brian Gunn.
Mona Fouad, Baskin, and their UAB colleagues have developed outreach strategies to work around these obstacles and help reduce health disparities. One initiative—Birmingham REACH for Better Health—won a $3-million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will impact more than 116,000 people. The project partners UAB with the Jefferson County Department of Health, United Way, Freshwater Land Trust, YMCA, REV Birmingham, Safe Routes to School, and the city to improve nutrition and physical activity. Just recently, the group launched Parks Rx, a program in which physicians prescribe exercise; a companion website then helps patients locate parks and trails close to home. Work also is under way to bring farm-fresh produce to convenience stores and to help Zyp BikeShare—which can serve as both exercise and transportation—broaden its appeal to lower-income residents.
Other plans call for staffing the SSCRC’s market buses with “tour guides” who can discuss nutrition and healthy cooking techniques, and adding stops at medical clinics. In the future, Mona Fouad hopes to provide riders on these and other city buses with free diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol checks. “We’re all working toward a common goal,” Baskin says. “That collective impact will move the needle.”
Birmingham’s revitalization has boosted these efforts, leading to new parks, trails, and recreation centers and the resurgence of some older neighborhoods. Baskin says that city planners locally and nationally now take health into account when making decisions about everything from zoning to the placement of streets and sidewalks. “We have to think about what needs to be in each community to help people be healthy across the lifespan,” she says. However, planners also need to ensure that growth, which should improve residents’ connection to resources and infrastructure, doesn’t end up pushing them further away due to rising costs or redevelopment, Baskin says. Encouraging planners and developers to talk with people living in the community is key to finding out what residents want in their neighborhood and what they need for good health. “It’s important to respect that community voice when making decisions and create opportunities for them to continue to contribute after changes happen,” Baskin says.
Baskin and Mona Fouad agree that the Birmingham area seems to be making progress on health disparities—even scoring praise in a recent New York Times article—though there is still much work to do. “We are engaging the community in the solution,” Fouad says. “When I started here, there were no programs or partnerships to address disparities. Now the community is more aware and is ready; they want programs. I’m optimistic that we are moving forward.”
Help Reduce Health Disparities
• Volunteer: UAB’s outreach programs and projects always need additional people to help out, Mona Fouad says. For details, send a message to the Department of Preventive Medicine. Groups wanting to get involved can join the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership, a coalition of more than 80 organizations and agencies.
• Be part of the plan: Baskin encourages residents to become active in the local political process, attend planning meetings, talk to policy makers about what’s happening in their neighborhoods, and be vocal about the future of their communities. “Every citizen can help make this a better place to live,” she says.
A chemical engineer who teaches courses on renewable energy resources and energy conservation, Robert Peters, Ph.D., could be mistaken for a gardener these days. His green research actually involves leaves and roots, from vertical mini farms to rooftop oases that could reduce both energy use and water runoff.
Peters’s tower gardens (top), and a close look at a UAB rooftop garden (bottom).
The tower gardens could help city dwellers rise above two pressing problems: urban sprawl that cuts into agricultural land and the presence of food deserts. Because the slim cylinders, about five feet tall with numerous pockets for plants, take up very little room, they could bring fresh food closer to the people who need it.
The hydroponic towers—requiring only water and air with no soil—can grow just about any kind of fruit, melons, and herbs, but no root crops. “You have faster maturation and better insect control,” says Peters, UAB professor of environmental engineering. “It uses about 90 percent less water because it’s being recirculated; it trickles down. When you water a typical garden, most of it evaporates.”
While some tower gardens already are available commercially, Peters is studying how they perform on a large scale, especially compared with more familiar community gardens. His work has taken an interdisciplinary approach, involving a sociologist, the UAB School of Education’s Center for Urban Education, a nutritionist, and Birmingham’s K-12 schools. Ultimately, the tower gardens, placed at the schools, could not only help feed local neighborhoods, but also help teach children about science and math.
Up on the roof of UAB’s Business-Engineering Complex, Peters and his students also tend more horizontal gardens—more than two dozen of them, each one 12 feet long by four feet wide. Over several years, UAB researchers have learned that native grasses, phlox, and sedum can handle the hot, often dry rooftop environment like a champ.
The greenery helps insulate the building below, potentially reducing energy use, but it also helps soak up storm water, Peters says. In a project with the Alabama Water Resources Research Institute, Peters and his team found that “we could handle up to about a two-year storm and keep it within the roof.” Keeping that runoff out of storm drains is important, he continues, because otherwise it flows directly into local creeks and rivers without any treatment for pollutants picked up along the way. Mitigating or eliminating runoff could also reduce the threat of flooding. Next, Peters and colleagues at Auburn University want to test a water recovery system that would capture extra runoff in cisterns. Solar-powered pumps would then hoist it back up to water rooftop gardens.
On the ground, Peters and company are working with UAB Occupational Health and Safety to put electrochemical sensors on campus storm drains. They want to know exactly what’s in the runoff—everything from automobile oil and grease to detergents, restaurant waste, and even nicotine from cigarettes—Peters says.
All of these efforts are part of a “holistic approach” to sustainability, one encouraging better use of natural resources, whether that’s petroleum, hydrocarbons, solar energy, or storm water, Peters says. “As cities grow, we have to address these environmental concerns,” he adds. “We must try to make our world a better place to live.”
Power and Water
Working with UAB Facilities and the UAB Sustainability office, Peters and his students conducted light surveys in campus buildings. That led to energy-efficient upgrades, including the replacement of more than 3,500 bulbs and the switch to LED-lit exit signs. The partners also figured out how to collect the cold water that naturally condenses on exterior air handlers and reuse it in the air conditioning system. The initiative has saved millions of gallons of water and saved UAB tens of thousands of dollars.
With about 19,500 students, more than 20,000 employees, and countless patients, families, and visitors, UAB is a city embedded within a city. And both cities are full of cars. To better understand the ways in which people get to and from the university, transportation expert Virginia Sisiopiku, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UAB Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, has launched a research initiative that could help shape future development of the campus.
The goal is to create a database that Sisiopiku and her colleagues can analyze to identify transportation patterns and trends. The team, which includes undergraduate and graduate engineering students, began with a campuswide survey of commuters, asking them how they travel to and around UAB. More than 10,000 respondents also gave reasons why they choose their particular transportation modes—whether safety or other factors play a role.
The information provides benchmarks for current practices and preferences that will help researchers develop engineering and education initiatives to improve traffic flow and safety. Sisiopiku expects the database to be in demand as UAB’s student population grows and the campus continues to expand. “By understanding employee and student commuting patterns and user preferences, UAB administrators can make well-informed decisions regarding land use, transportation system improvements, and promotion of alternative transportation options in order to provide a balance between supply and demand and to serve accessibility and mobility needs,” Sisiopiku says.
UAB has unveiled a new campus master plan that emphasizes accessibility, sustainability, and connections with the surrounding city. New buildings and additions will cluster together, while streets and intersections may become more “complete,” meaning that they can accommodate all modes of transportation. “We need to continue our transition away from being such an auto-oriented campus to one that’s also pedestrian-, transit-, and bicycle-friendly,” says James Fowler, UAB’s director of planning, design, and construction, who helped to create the plan following months of campus and community input. “When they have a large tree canopy, safe pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, and nice sidewalks, streets can almost act like linear parks and tie the campus together.” Other components include enhancements to 15th Street to connect UAB to the Parkside district to the north, along with a proposed green space to serve as a transition to residential neighborhoods on the south edge of campus. Physically improving the links between UAB and the city will encourage partnerships, connectivity, and a culture of innovation in the area, say planners. See the complete campus master plan.
New research and planning could lead to a campus that better accommodates multiple modes of transportation.
Sustainability isn’t a fad or short-term fix, says associate professor of engineering Jason Kirby, Ph.D. “It’s not something that’s going to be addressed in 10 or 20 years. We’ve been digging this hole of pollution for 100 years, and we have to get more responsible about it.” With that in mind, the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering has infused sustainability into every course, whether the topic is energy and water use, infrastructure, or transportation.
This year, the department took a bolder step, unveiling a new master’s program specifically focused on developing sustainable smart cities—one of only a handful of such programs in the United States. The two-year program pairs UAB with the United Kingdom’s Staffordshire University, known for its work in technology, sustainable development, environmental management, green infrastructure, and renewable energy systems. Courses, all taught online, are split between faculty at the two universities.
The curriculum goes far beyond engineering and will attract a wide range of students, says Kirby, who directs the new master’s program. “We want to teach a cross-disciplinary mix of stakeholders”—everyone from public policy makers and business leaders to architects and urban planners, he says—“so that they’re more quickly able to adapt policies and enforce rules and regulations; to bring the latest, greatest techniques and technologies into cities; to promote smart transportation; and to improve human health, welfare, and connectivity.”
A new master's degree targets planners and leaders who can shape the future growth of cities.
“Sustainability crosses boundaries,” Fouad Fouad adds. “It’s engineering, it’s medicine, it’s public health, it’s urban planning, it’s biology, it’s data and computer science.” Here are a few other ways for students and the community to get smart about cities:
• Through the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experiences for Students program, UAB students have visited the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Egypt to compare sustainability needs and solutions—such as construction materials, green roofs, or urban design—in both developed and developing countries.
• The SSCRC has partnered with Birmingham middle schools and state colleges to introduce students to the topic of sustainability and related careers.
• UAB also hosts the Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium, which attracts experts from around the world to discuss solutions for innovative urban development.
“We’re trying to train professionals who can help move this mission forward,” Kirby says. Recently, he led a group of UAB undergraduate engineering students who designed and built a rainwater cistern that Hoover schoolchildren use to grow their fruit and vegetable garden. He also takes all of his students to Railroad Park to show them how repurposing former industrial sites can spark economic development. “When I get my students out there, applying what they have learned, they see that sustainable solutions can have a wide, meaningful impact,” he says.
Reaching for the Sun
UAB students are preparing to build a house powered completely by solar energy as part of a prestigious competition—the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon—that pits them against 15 other collegiate teams from around the world. The UAB team will design, construct, and test their house on campus before reassembling it at the competition site, where it will be open to the public. Judges will check to see if the house produces enough energy to power all appliances—even checking to see if clothes come out of the dryer damp. Houses must also be able to charge an electric car enough to drive 25 miles. “We want to fight the misconception that a house using renewable energy means compromising on performance,” says assistant professor of mechanical engineering Hessam Taherian, Ph.D., a project adviser. The 20 UAB students, representing majors across the campus, will collaborate with the School of Engineering, Collat School of Business, UAB Sustainability, UAB Facilities, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and Calhoun Community College for the competition. Get the latest updates on the Solar Decathlon project, and discover how you can take part.