New Center Focuses on Smart, Sustainable Growth

By Grant Martin

sp2013 treeUrbanization brings economic growth, but it can also add to racial inequity and increased pollution. UAB’s new Sustainable Smart Cities Research Center seeks to find a new formula for growth that doesn’t leave people—or the environment—out of the equation.

“Cities are responsible for about 75 percent of energy use, 60 percent of water consumed, and 80 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide,” says Fouad Fouad, Ph.D., director of the center and chair of the UAB Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. “Sustainable, smart cities on a global scale will increase quality of life and provide ways for future generations to meet all of their needs.”

“Smart” and “sustainable” refer to different but related concepts, Fouad explains. “Sustainability refers to methods and materials that are energy-efficient, low-cost, and use recyclable materials,” he says. “Smart buildings use technology to help save energy and reduce pollution. Our goal through this center is to connect all the disciplines across campus so that we can take a more comprehensive approach that looks at all these considerations.”

Global Scope

In 2012, the center hosted the inaugural UAB Sustainable Smart Cities Symposium, attracting design and planning experts from around the world and an audience of local leaders. It followed with another well-attended symposium in 2013. Center members have also initiated activities with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham in an effort to find ways to improve the quality of life locally.

“Our goal is to use this cross-disciplinary approach to attract funding on a national level,” Fouad says. “Another goal is to educate the community. One problem with sustainable or ‘green’ technology is that there is some resistance to those types of initiatives. So educating the public on how sustainability can positively affect their lives will be a key part of our mission.”

J. Iwan Alexander, Ph.D., the incoming dean of the UAB School of Engineering, has a long-term research interest in sustainable energy solutions and is excited about the center’s potential. “Through its emerging activities in sustainability, the School of Engineering aims to provide education programs that will meet 21st century challenges in sustainable living,” Alexander says.

Building Better Health

The center’s researchers are particularly interested in the intersection of engineering and public health. One current project, led by civil engineering graduate student Sarah Bettinger in collaboration with the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine, is investigating whether or not the built environment of two nearby cities contributes to obesity rates. “We are interested in how things like outdoor air quality, municipal water quality, housing conditions, and transportation options and livability might impact obesity rates,” Bettinger says.

Fouad says this multidisciplinary approach is key to the center’s work. “We have always focused on questions of sustainability in civil engineering, but this study calls for expertise in a variety of areas,” he notes—“not just engineering disciplines, but medicine, public health, business, and many others.”