Making Science Actionable

There are few precedents for understanding the current pandemic; it’s not exactly the kind of disaster we’ve been expecting. But long immersed in the city’s interconnected ecologies and infrastructures, the New School’s Urban Systems Lab is exploring how many of the key indicators of vulnerability to this crisis overlap with those of another: climate change. With the approach of summer’s heat, continued efforts to contain the virus will place particular pressures on the city’s most vulnerable. We heard from the Lab’s Timon McPhearson, Christopher Kennedy, and Luis Ortiz about their efforts to gather the information that matters most now, and make it useful to policymakers and communities trying to find solutions in a complex and ever-shifting situation.

Combining the New York City Department of Health’s COVID-19 case data (broken down by zip code and plotted along the y-axes in the graphs below) with demographics from the 2017 American Community Survey (represented along the x-axes and in the maps to the right), the Urban Systems Lab has developed a series of visualizations that help illustrate the pandemic’s impact across various indicators of social vulnerability, such as median income and population density.

The Lab has also been measuring other impacts of the virus along with efforts to contain it, including the availability of testing kits and the efficacy of social distancing measures. You can explore their ongoing research into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic here.

A plot graph comparing the electric load of recent years to that of 2020 in New York City. Electric loads are currently lower than normal, suggesting that city’s energy peaks are driven by office, commercial and industrial uses.

A screenshot from an interactive map highlighting heat risk across New York City. The map incorporates several other layers of social, ecological and technical factors relevant to both the climate and COVID-19 crises.

Timon McPhearson (TM): What are the overlapping social vulnerabilities and risks to COVID and climate impacts? Who tends to be most affected by both? And this is not just about pandemics, but in general: How do we understand the different kinds of hazards and the way developing a solution to one may create additional vulnerability or risk to another?

TM: I’m Timon McPhearson, and I direct the Urban Systems Lab at the New School.

Luis Ortiz (LO): I am Luis Ortiz, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Urban Systems Lab.

Christopher Kennedy (CK): I’m Christopher Kennedy, assistant director for the Urban Systems Lab.

TM: The Urban Systems Lab is a research and design space that’s working across the research-practice divide to advance resilience and sustainability in urban contexts. We have a lot of different projects going on. A central theme in them is certainly the impacts and solutions for building resilience and adaptation to climate change in cities. We contextualize cities as complex systems, and as a way to think about solutions, we think about the way in which solutions need to interact across social, ecological and infrastructural spaces. How do you look at those together — which means that, beyond climate, we also work on the complexities of cities, and we work on conceptual and theoretical approaches to advancing urban science. And there’s a strong focus on the role of design and data visualization in terms of making science actionable.

CK: I will say that I think this is making clear the real importance of science communication. For a lot of the data sets and the maps that we’ve created, we’ve had to change the legends, we’ve had to make them more legible. That accessibility becomes incredibly important, right? We are looking at these resources, like, how do we influence policy makers and decision makers in a very clear way? And I think all the really amazing research coming out of the Times and the Guardian and other sources, and our lab, is making very visible these historic and systemic racial inequalities and injustices that have been plaguing the city for many decades.

TM: As soon as the COVID crisis emerged, we started talking about the way in which pandemics is a novel direction for us as a lab: to be considering natural disasters and the way we think about solutions, resilience planning, disaster response. But we also immediately realized there’s a lot of overlaps between the ways in which climate impacts vulnerable populations in particular ways, the way in which it’s inequitable in its impacts, the way in which solutions or strategies — that might be city or state level or federal level — often reinforce the status quo. And so those overlaps for us were pretty obvious, that we could and should be looking at who’s impacted and how do we develop solutions to decrease that structural problem of certain populations being much more impacted than others, both by COVID but also by climate change.

LO: There’s also the component of how the way cities and government at different levels have been trying to slow the transmission rates and slow the impacts. But at the same time there’s these interactions between what these actions from governments (for example, shelter-in-place) might have as we, for example, go into the warm season and everyone’s indoors. How will that play out when not everyone has air conditioning or any kind of cooling capacity? We have all these shared vulnerabilities from the disease itself, but we also have the ways that the actions that we take to decrease risks from the disease transmission interact with other vulnerabilities that we have here in the city. We’re very interested in how the current shift in where people are and how they work or not work is changing how we consume energy, and what we found is that we’re actually in some kind of historical lows in energy usage right now in the city, because commercial and office space consumes so much more electricity than residential spaces. We’re seeing this sort of shift, that, although it looks like it’s such a decrease in the amount of energy that we use, it’s also a shift in the sense that it’s now people in their homes that are burdened by this energetic use. So that’s something that we’re really interested in. Not just the bulk decrease, but also who’s now paying for the energy, and who’s now burdened by the energy.

TM: If you put that in a little bit broader context, the kinds of questions we’re looking at and we think are important are to really understand how these shifts in human behaviors driven by the policies are shifting infrastructure use and demands for urban services. Transit use is dramatically down and yet up in other kinds of areas. Energy use is dramatically down in some sectors but up in others. In some ways, we can think of these as really positive impacts of the COVID crisis. There’s less air pollution, decreased carbon emissions, all things that I think we’ll be documenting over the coming months. And yet, as Luis is describing, this shift in terms of who’s burdened most by needing to pay for this increased energy use in the homes, that maybe was not being used because they weren’t home as much, or how that will change as the seasons change. This is an important factor to really try to understand what the natures of the policies that are intended to decrease transmission and cases and death of COVID actually mean for people’s lives, the livability of the city, and what that means in terms of potential heat that’s coming our way in just the next couple months.

LO: I think what we believe is that, by pointing out the locations of higher risk and populations that are at higher risk, we can inform policy makers to, first, know where to deploy or make the best use of their resources. We know very well that resources are very limited in terms of hospital beds, ventilators, etcetera. Even though we’re looking at New York City for the most part here, some of these inequities are present in many other cities throughout the US. So we can inform where in other cities we might see similar surges in infections and hospitalizations.

CK: Something that I’ve been thinking about, and that’s been a conversation among the lab team, is really thinking about the future of cities. There’s been an assumption for a long time, in both a good and a bad way, that density defines an urban system. Having people closely together is efficient. But people are kind of rethinking the idea of density as this is emerging, and I guess the bigger question for me is how do we move forward, given the vulnerability of density, but also the opportunity. What are the future of cities and architectural spaces and moving through the urban core, given that this is now a precedent? How we think about green space differently, and access to green space and parks, and the importance of that for well-being and health, is something that we’re really thinking about, and I think we need to have a larger conversation city-wide about that right now too.

TM: We have been critiquing the sustainable city agenda around densification for years. I first started critiquing it because it’s kind of easy to put up these dense, Manhattan-esque images, and you ask the question, “Where’s the nature?” and “How do you actually expect to have a livable city, people that have strong health and mental health, if they’re so disconnected from the natural environment?” One of the things we’re seeing anecdotally — and we’re working on documenting this more rigorously — is the importance of outdoor and even indoor green spaces for people to deal with this crisis, from a mental health therapy perspective, to a physical health need for recreation. And I think this is exactly the kind of experience that people are having that should call into question: How dense should our cities be? And is the kind of agenda we’ve had with sustainable city agendas that are focused on efficiency, focused on densification, actually going to work for us in the Anthropocene? Is it actually going to work for us as we move into a period of serious climate upheaval, where we need redundancy and back-up systems and ways in which to soothe ourselves, to take care of ourselves, that require, during some crises, places for people to get together, and in other crises, places for people to separate? I think this is a serious challenge for us.

The Urban Systems Lab is an interdisciplinary research, design, and practice space at The New School that examines the social, ecological, and technological systems (SETs) that drive persistent patterns and challenges in cities. The Lab’s work spans the globe, from Beijing to Berlin, Valdivia and San Juan, New York, Lisbon, Melbourne and Oslo, advancing cutting edge science, data visualization, and science communication to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and decision-making from local neighborhood to city, regional, and global scales. Timon McPhearson is the Director of the Urban Systems Lab. Christopher Kennedy is the Assistant Director of the Urban Systems Lab. Luis Ortiz is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Urban Systems Lab.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.



In short audio features, we check in with urbanists of various stripes to hear what they are doing and how they are learning from the entangled crises of 2020.