Logo: University of Southern California

Megacities: 'A New Dynamic Organism'

Astani Department conference addresses mega issues facing large urban centers around the world
Diane Ainsworth
November 17, 2008 —

Los Angeles is one of three "megacities" in the United States and 15 worldwide that wlll continue to grow at unprecedented rates well into the 21st century. With a population soon to exceed 20 million people, the metropolitan region faces increasingly complex urban problems that impact its health, vitality, security and economic prosperity.   

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Workshop participants, left to right: CE Prof. Geoff Martin, CE Research Assistant Prof. Hanh Dam Le-Griffin, Astani Dept. Chair Prof. J. P. Bardet, RAND Corp.'s Dr. Martin Wachs and Epstein Dept. Chair James E. Moore, II.

That prospect brought together more than 80 experts from academia, industry and government in downtown L.A. Nov. 10-11 for a "Megacities Workshop," hosted by Viterbi School's Sonny Astani Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering.  The two-day conference was supported by the  international engineering firm MWH, "a leading global provider of consulting, engineering, construction and management services in water, natural resources, and infrastructure sectors," according to the firm's website.

"Today, human activity affects the world in ways never before experienced: from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the energy we consume, the waste we generate, and the atmosphere that surrounds us, whether in the microclimate of cities or the global climate itself," said Yannis C. Yortsos, a professor of chemical engineering and dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering.  "Megacities are a new dynamic organism, with unparalleled complexity and immense vitality. But they also pose major challenges: complex infrastructure, congested highways, environmental quality, energy and water resources that must be imported, which makes them particularly vulnerable to adverse events, be they natural catastrophes or human-driven."

With 50 percent of the world's population now living in cities, these large urban areas "must evolve to ensure an adequate quality of life for their residents," said the Astani Department Chair, Professor Jean-Pierre Bardet.

Bardet has done extensive work in earthquake engineering in quake-vulnerable cities around the world, including California, Japan, Turkey, Taiwan, India and China. With a major megacities initiative under way at USC, he has proposed establishing a new Viterbi School Research Center for Megacities, which would be designed “to promote the renaissance of these large urban areas by rallying innovations in research, technology, planning, private sector initiatives and public management.” 

The center's core theme would be to develop the new concept of “cyber information,” which would effectively integrate all of the critical components of megacity systems. USC’s location in the heart of L.A. makes  it a perfect site for such a multidisciplinary research center, Bardet said.
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USC School of Policy, Planning and Development Research Professor Adam Rose, left, and Donald Paul, former chief technology officer for Chevron, who is senior advisor to the Provost, helping to shape USC's efforts in the areas of energy and technology.

The conference included presentations on a variety of topics, ranging from infrastructure, urban populations, energy and water resources, environmental quality and public health to transportation, freight mobility and port security, and mitigating disasters in very large cities. Featured speakers included Mark Bernstein, managing director of the USC Energy Institute; Dongxiao Zhang, a Viterbi School energy expert who specializes in CO2 sequestration; and Nancy Sutley, deputy mayor for energy and the environment, City of Los Angeles.

Also presenting were Martin Wachs, director of the RAND Corporation's Transportation, Space and Technology Program and former director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies; T. John Kim, endowed professor of urban and regional systems at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Qingyan Ma, dean of the USC School of Architecture; and Constantinos Sioutas, a Viterbi School civil engineer and prominent authority on air pollution.

Overall, megacities are sprouting up at alarming rates, especially in the developing world, said Paul Torrens, assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at Arizona State University.  The United States is now home to three megacities: New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, which recently joined the list. Because of their size and the complexity of the interrelations in their support and infrastructure systems, megacities need new geosimulation models and geocomputational tools to improve planning and more accurately predict future growth.  

James Moore, II, chair of the Viterbi School Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and a faculty member in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, reported that megacities in the U.S. have advantages relative to many other megacities worldwide because U.S. megacities are not characterized by high levels of social fragmentation and poverty.  

“We have our share of urban problems, such as the large environmental and congestion costs resulting from global freight flows through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, but we also have the fiscal, technological and human capital resources necessary to solve these problems,” he said.
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Craig Davis, an engineer at the L.A. Department of Water and Power, right, looks on as CEE Research Professor Maria Todorovska explains data on her laptop. At left, facing away from the camera, is Professor Edward Avol of the USC Keck School of Medicine.

The global era of megacities actually emerged two decades ago, said Mark Pisano, a senior fellow at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development and former executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), but models of global trade and global economies have not addressed the spatial effects of megacities on the planet until quite recently.

“We always talk about global trade and global economics, but what we don’t talk about is what trade and economics have done spatially to the globe,” he said.  “Ports, airports, information systems, finance centers, communications centers, those are key building blocks forming these massive conglomerations of people.  What formed Southern California was the logistics system we built, which was comprised of railways and highways. In the developing world, the agricultural revolution is forming mega regions.

“This massive movement of humanity to these large urban areas is truly the threat of the globe,” he said.  “It’s not terrorism, not nuclear [threats], not a financial crisis, but having massive numbers of people moving into these urban areas, which then become  totally unmanageable.”

The rapid influx of people to urban centers is adding untold impacts on the physical environment and accelerating global warming, he said.  A megacity consumes an enormous amount of energy, other natural resources and imported goods, and releases production, exports, ordinary and toxic wastes, not to mention greenhouse gases.  Very little that feeds and builds a megacity comes from the city itself, and even less of the waste stays there. Thousands of square kilometers are required outside the city limits to feed a megacity and absorb its discards.  Thus, megacities have large ecological footprints that threaten not only their own sustainability but that of many other areas.   

Given that context, Pisano cited five overarching challenges that mega regions are facing collectively: climate and climate change; spatial considerations, which dictate how city systems are integrated; air pollution and transformational technologies that will reduce CO2 emissions; drought; and policies to manage population growth.  Information systems, he added, will be one of the most important forces connecting people in these mega regions.

At the city scale, much can be done around the world in the area of design, engineering, construction and facilities management to curb the impact of buildings on the environment.  Global construction spending is expected to total $4.8 trillion in 2008 alone and the biggest source of emissions and energy consumption will be the buildings, said Burcin Becerik-Gerber, a Viterbi School assistant professor.  The challenge is to reduce the fossil and fuel energy in building construction and operation.  That includes all new construction and an equal amount of existing building area to be remodeled, she added.  Advanced 3D geospatial decision support and monitoring tools could support the long-term management of megacities.
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Left to right: Astani Department Chair J. P. Bardet, Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, CE Assistant Professor Burcin Becerik-Gerber and Sonny Astani, Los Angeles developer and namesake of the Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Qingyun Ma, dean of the USC Architecture School, showed examples of high-rise residential complexes in China that capitalize on vertical rather than horizontal construction.  Some green solutions for healthy buildings should include structures that maximize sunlight and generate much of their own energy requirements through solar and photovoltaic power, added Karen Kensek, assistant professor of architecture at USC. Citing a Tufts University study, "in the U.S., buildings use 36 percent of total energy and 65 percent of electricity consumption.  Thirty percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings." These are critical concerns in the design of megacities, she said.

Kensek also proposed transit-oriented designs that encourage people to avoid driving conventional automobiles, creating pedestrian friendly zones and investigating a new type of "pattern language" that addresses concerns about social dynamics in environments.  Pattern language becomes particularly important in environments that are more populous but provide fewer opportunities for social interaction. She mentioned Los Angeles’ Pershing Square as an example. 

“During redesign of the park," she said, "the question was how do you design city parks for people who don’t get out of their cars?”

The Megacities Initiative at USC will continue to work alongside city agencies, policy planners and industry representatives to help develop a more effective long-term plan for some of L.A.’s most immediate challenges, Bardet said.  Faculty will contribute, for instance, to the Green Port plan, which is intended to make Los Angeles Harbor more resilient to disasters. Similarly, with the establishment of a new Megacities Research Center, faculty at USC hope they will be able to apply their academic strengths to other city projects, such as Los Angeles’s Green L.A. plan.