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Interview with Prof. Anu Ramaswami – An insight into a sustainable model in urban planning

think-06-05-Interview with Prof Anu Ramaswami-Featured Image

What initially triggered your decision to focus your research on sustainable urban systems (SUS)?

I am a civil and environmental engineer by training. Years ago, I was involved with Engineers Without Borders. We did a few projects on water supply, power supply and sanitation in rural areas in India and Sri Lanka. It dawned upon me then that the things we were doing there, we need them in the US cities as well.


In 2004 or 2005, I applied for a grant. At that time, I could see that urbanisation was just tipping over 50%, so I started thinking ahead and became one of the forerunners to look at urban infrastructures. I brought them together in my studies because I found that many people were studying them in silos. Eventually, I got the grant from the US Department of Education when I was at the University of Colorado, Denver to study Sustainable Urban Infrastructure. The City of Denver was drafting their Climate Action Plan then, and I thought it was a really good match to connect the science with the policies. So, that’s how this journey on SUS started.


Can you tell us more about SUS?

A lot of urban planning activities only look within the boundary. Hence we use the word “systems” to distinguish our concept from that – we look at how cities get things from outside the boundary, and what the teleconnections between activities within the city and their dependencies outside of the city are like.


For example, when we were doing carbon accounting for Denver, we found that their electricity actually comes from outside, which the city accounted for. But they were not accounting for many other things, for example, the energy consumed by the refineries that produce the gasoline they burn in transportation. Under the SUS concept, we started to bring multiple sectors together and work with the City of Denver, and articulated these transboundary relationships between the city and the outside.


So, the idea of SUS was birthed through the recognition that all these infrastructures come together in cities, at a time when urbanisation is fast becoming a major trend. It is also recognising that cities are open systems that are connected to the outside. That is the system we want to look at.


You have recently been named the inaugural director of the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India. Can you tell us more about the centre and its work?

The focus of the centre is to study the interactions between India and the rest of the world. This has potential to be very transformative, in the areas of human health, planetary health, social well-being, and even art and music. One of our focus areas is going to be sustainable Indian urbanisation. For example, we look at how Indian urbanisation can affect global greenhouse gases. India is expecting 400 million new urbanites. Most of that urbanisation will not happen in the megacities but in smaller cities. So we are talking about 400 new cities coming up. That is a huge opportunity to put the principles we already know into practice, and see what is going to work. So we have to understand how to preserve the good things in cities while we develop, and how to streamline all of them. We need to think through development in ways that such learning can happen.


Let’s talk about urbanisation. Even if we develop in a more systematic way from now, we probably won’t see the impact of the new solution until much later. Meanwhile, urbanisation continues to happen as we learn from experience. Are there any irreversible consequences that we will have to face as a result of that?

I don’t think urbanisation is a bad thing. What happens is that we are accelerating innovation. People have an opportunity to get wealthier faster, and potentially improve their quality of life, access to healthcare, education and entrepreneurship opportunities. So I think the key lies in designing cities to reduce inequality so that people who are migrating have equal access to infrastructures.


The challenge in many cities is also that migration is happening faster than the planners are able to keep up with. So, firstly, the ability to think ahead so that you can plan better is important – some cities have done that. Secondly, urban areas have opportunities for resource efficiency, but cities have to work to achieve that. Our work shows that for the same amount of wealth, if you compare living in urban and rural areas, living in urban areas can be more efficient due to the high density. In our report, we mentioned “articulated density”, which says we don’t want mega blocks that are very tall either, because that stops people from walking or biking. Liveable and inclusive cities do not have to be super dense. Buildings can just be about four to eight storeys.

“So i think the key lies in designing cities to reduce inequality so that people who are migrating have equal access to infrastructures.”

Is it true that most cities are not well planned ahead, and they just grow organically?

It is true. But I think it is also true that we are now catching up to that. We don’t have to plan the whole economy, but it’s important that we think through the eight key physical provisioning systems that are essential for homes and businesses to function in any city, i.e. water, energy, buildings, mobility, waste management, green spaces, food and communications.


One good example is the city of Ahmedabad in India. Compared with other cities that have grown fast, Ahmedabad was able to plan ahead and design their infrastructures in ways that are inclusive. For example, setting aside housing for lower income groups to try to prevent slums that are ubiquitous in many developing cities.


The truth is, we could save a considerable amount of resources if we really planned ahead well. And I can describe examples from all over Asia in which designs and technologies are instrumental. Asia already has a sharing culture – we are already sharing cars. So, to me, the biggest challenge for Asia’s urbanisation is to not lose the good lifestyle habits that we already have, and then build on structural designs that are more efficient.


I believe these are important messages for city planners and engineers. How do you get these messages out from Princeton to cities elsewhere, and translate them into policies and regulations?

Other than being a professor at Princeton, I also direct the Center for Global India. I am also the lead Principal Investigator of a NSF grant called Sustainable Healthy Cities, involving a Sustainable Healthy Cities Network. We have both practitioners and researchers in this network. So, we are actually co-producing research with our collaborators, who are city engineers, city planners, city managers and so on.


Besides, I am also serving on the International Resource Panel. There are multiple channels through which I can get these messages across to policymakers, and build capacity internationally through collaborations. For example, the ASEAN report1 was one way of showing different countries how they could urbanise in the ASEAN nations.

Noida, India

A planned city under the management of the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (NOIDA). Noida was set up as part of an urbanisation thrust during the mid-1970s.

Bandung, Indonesia

The city carries out a sustainable urban mobility policy that has successfully reduced carbon emission from transport and improved air quality.

Nowadays, our researchers work with the cities. The cities convene communities. Together we develop research metrics for progress, designs that are helpful, and prioritise actions altogether. Some examples are Denver’s Climate Action Plan that I mentioned earlier, and the more recent Food Action Plan with the city of Minneapolis. Such efforts were institutionalised and became action agendas for the respective cities. As the participating university, we also play our role in evaluation. For Denver, once in every two years for ten years, we assessed how far the action plan went. That’s where these connections are very exciting. Our research was used since day one, because the questions that drive the research were produced in collaboration with the city.


What about the private sector? Are there many opportunities available in the private sector to bring about changes that matter?

Definitely. There are actually many business opportunities in this field. In fact, my first five students established their own company which was so successful that it was acquired by a large engineering consulting firm. The company adopted a consultancy model, but of course, you can actually start a similar enterprise as a social entrepreneurship, too. I think the linkage between sustainability science and social entrepreneurship can be very strong.


In some of your reports, you mentioned that you believe cities in the developing countries have a window of opportunity to leapfrog and become more sustainable than their counterparts in the developed nations. Have you seen any example of this actually having happened or happening?

Cell phones in India. Most of the Indian population now have cell phones, including farmers. They basically just skipped over landlines and leapfrogged into the cell phone era. Hence, in the same way, the real potential would be to jump ahead of centralised infrastructure like in the Western and Singaporean models. We could leapfrog to smaller, more decentralised systems with major new technologies and smarter solutions such as sensors.

The question is: how do we do that? These are all new, even in the US. So we have to begin to think now. In ASEAN countries, we will have more than 200 new cities coming up. India itself is expecting up to 400 new cities, depending on the size. By starting to think now, you could plan infrastructure and conduct some pilot experiments in a few communities to see how you could leapfrog further. This will be one of the Global India Center’s key research themes, which I call “smart urbanisation”. We’re going to partner with a few cities where the research will be very people- and practice-oriented.


In some big cities the poor make up the majority of the population. The sustainability message is unlikely to appeal to those who are having problems making ends meet. How do you deal with this?

I don’t think we should ask people below the poverty line to consume less because their health and well-being need a minimum level of consumption. I think the challenge is that there is high inequality in cities. One of our papers shows that the richest 20% of the population contribute about 50% of the consumption of the entire population. So I think the lifestyle questions should be targeted towards the high-consuming population instead.


Nonetheless, the message to them need not be a negative one. It should be about the rethinking of what a good life is. For instance, many assume that houses in the suburbs give you more space. However, our research found that the per capita floor area in the US cities and suburbs is actually almost the same on average. The millennials are recognising it and saying “I can have quite a nice life in the city and reduce my transportation needs.” They live in cities, they are more social and they do not own cars.


So, rather than saying they should consume less, I would flip the question and ask, “Can the richest 20% of the population give us an example of a good life without jeopardizing the stability and resilience of the Earth?” I see this as an opportunity for a new type of well-being that does not have to be resource intensive, and the top 20% or 30% of the population can be the forerunners who redefine that.

“And so, the real message is, if you can do it just marginally – even a 10% improvement in efficiency among the wealthier people and businesses will result in plenty of resources for the people who are underserved.”

Is moving the poor above the poverty line part of the equation?

Yes, definitely. We are not just talking about income poverty, but also people’s access to basic needs such as electricity, water, food, etc. The threshold for basic needs is relatively low, so if we were to get them above that threshold, the extra resource consumption is very small compared to what the whole city is consuming. And so, the real message is, with just a 10% improvement in efficiency among the wealthier people and businesses, there will be plenty of resources for the people who are underserved. It’s not a resource constraint. It’s really about thinking through the distribution, and what our understanding of a good life is.


What are some of the roles of cities in promoting this change in lifestyle?

People are now walking more. Even for me personally, I prefer to live nearby and walk, rather than live far away from work and drive, because it’s good for health and for avoiding congestion. So cities should, for instance, provide walkable sidewalks on the streets. Parks have to be nice and make people feel safe. This lifestyle decision has to be enabled by good urban designs and planning. So I think that’s why our network is called the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, because if you combine health with sustainability you get some really good wins that can yield a better life.


Many people want a liveable city, but positive motivations are often nullified easily by corruption and various vested interests in the system. How can we account for this in a sustainability model?

This is an interesting question. I think there is a limit to how much a government can say “have this” or “have that”, because consumers will demand the things they want. For instance, we now see a market and demand for electric vehicles that are renewably powered. While renewables are becoming so much cheaper than coal, some countries, like what we wrote in the ASEAN report, also have a coal industry in their economy. That’s going to be challenging, but that’s where the choice has to be made.


In the end, companies are also going to make those decisions based on profit. If I were an investor, I would not invest in more coal power plants because it requires large investment, unlike a distributed solar facility in which I can invest small amounts. So things are shifting faster than we thought. Who would have thought solar energy would become so cheap, or that cities would ban plastic bags? These movements are happening and they will continue to happen. But both sides have a role to play. It’s not only about the producers; the consumers would have to also demand those better products and services.


What about driverless cars? When that becomes feasible, it is estimated that the number of cars in the world will be reduced by half. What, in your opinion, is going to happen to the automobile industry and the people working in the industry?

I think the question is: do we need a robot driving the car, or can we have human beings do the job? For a country like India with high population and unemployment, I think autonomous cars are not needed yet. India could, instead, focus on building better car-sharing services, particularly in ways that support public transit and not private car ownership. Think about this: on the one hand, car sharing might actually increase traffic – people who would otherwise be walking or biking would have more incentive now to use a vehicle. On top of that, people would now be choosing between using shared cars and riding the bus. Can we make the bus as attractive as the shared car? I think the nexus between shared vehicles and public transit is very key in Asia. We need to really think through what public transit would look like when it can potentially compete with shared vehicles, even in the US. Car sharing can be implemented to reduce automobiles only when we have a good understanding of its dynamics with other commute options.

“I think the real trick is to maintain a low consuming yet elevated lifestyle that people aspire to. It’s not going to be easy but there’s a pathway.”

We have been talking about big countries like India and the US. Does a small country like Singapore have a role to play in global sustainability?

There are two ways. Firstly, the ASEAN bloc of nations is the biggest urbanising population after India and China, and their middle class is growing. Singapore could target to develop an ASEAN-focused sustainability centre, helping to serve other countries like Vietnam that are on the cusp of urbanisation.


Secondly, Singapore could be an exemplar city in some contexts. It’s small but also has been experimenting with a lot of technologies and policies, some of which may translate to cities with similar typologies in other Asian countries. At the same time, Singapore could also learn from practices in other cities and recognise that its models may not translate everywhere.


From all that we discussed today, it definitely sounds like there is a lot of work to be done before we can achieve the desired state of sustainability. Are you optimistic that we are going to eventually get there?

This is a 20- to 30-year agenda. I don’t know if I’m optimistic. I’m just saying there are pathways for a low carbon future, and cities are the core of this pathway. We have an opportunity because at least 400 cities have not yet been built. In other words, 66% of the cities that will exist by 2050 do not yet exist. It also means we have a responsibility in the next 10 years to really get efficient urbanisation at scale: not just one city, but to really do it at scale. And so it is about lifestyle. I think the real trick is to maintain a low consuming yet elevated lifestyle that people aspire to. It’s not going to be easy but there’s a pathway.

Indore, India

The 2019 ranking by Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (“Clean India Mission”) announced Indore as the cleanest city in India for the third consecutive year.


Professor Anu Ramaswami is an interdisciplinary environmental engineer who pioneers the study of Sustainable Urban Systems (SUS). She has recently been named Princeton University’s Sanjay Swani ’87 Professor of India Studies, and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, and the Princeton Environmental Institute; as well as the inaugural director of the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India. Prior to this, Professor Ramaswami was a Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineer at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Professor Ramaswami’s research spans environmental modelling, environmental technologies, industrial ecology, sustainable infrastructure design, urban systems analysis, and integration of science and technology with policy and planning for real-world implementation in communities. She is currently the lead Principal Investigator of several major projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. This includes the multi-million dollar S
Sustainable Healthy Cities Network and a new project on sustainable urban food systems in the US and India.

JUNE 2020 | ISSUE 6

Sustainability in a Time of Crisis

  1. The ASEAN report refers to the “Sustainable Infrastructure Transitions in the ASEAN Region: A Resource Perspective” co-authored by Dr. Ramaswami for the United Nations Environment Programme in 2018. 


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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