Planning greener and happier cities

McGill Bieler School of Environment funding interdisciplinary solutions to complex environmental challenges
Projects by Raja Sengupta (left) and Christopher Barrington-Leigh are being funded by the McGill Bieler School of Environment

The McGill Bieler School of Environment (BSE) has announced its first annual round of “Spark” and “Ignite” funded research projects. Spark and Ignite are ongoing funding programs designed to help the BSE continue its important work to find interdisciplinary solutions to complex environmental challenges. Among the projects are two that carefully look at how we can improve our cities here in Canada, and make our urban environments greener, healthier, and even happier, worldwide.

Little green spaces

Bieler School and Geography Associate Professor Raja Sengupta’s Spark project (with a grant up to $7500) “Can Greenspace Composition and Placement Ameliorate Urban Heat Islands?” conducted with Civil Engineering Professor Laxmi Sushama, examines the urban phenomenon of heat-related mortality in Montreal, due to the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. UHI is a growing problem in cities across the world, exacerbated in expanding urban regions due to higher night-time temperatures and increased energy for air conditioning. UHI is typically associated with city centres and densely-packed, less affluent neighbourhoods.

“The temperatures in the heart of the city can be up to about 6-7 degrees higher,” explains Sengupta. “If you go to the dense parts of the city, say the East Side, if there’s a heat wave ongoing where there’s a lot of stifling heat, people can have mortality related to this urban heat effect. So it’s a climatic problem that we’ve created which is beginning to have serious human-related consequences.”

Urban greenspaces (such as parks, woodlands, or Montreal’s “ruelles vertes” – green alleyways) can ameliorate UHI and reduce temperature in their immediate vicinity, but the relationship between the size of a greenspace and its ability to reduce UHI is still debated. This collaboration, combining Sengupta and Sushama’s strengths in geographic information science (GIScience), high-resolution climate modeling and environmental injustice, will gather data from humidity sensors at and around McGill’s Downtown and MacDonald campuses and mobile devices, and then use a micro-scale Urban climate model. Ultimately it would like to demonstrate the importance of “little green spaces” when it comes improving quality of life in urban, densely built-up environments.

“My research is trying to prove that little green spaces have an impact,” says Sengupta. “They are easier than buying up large tracts of land and converting them. A little bit more greenery around us could have multiple benefits, not just for urban heat. Eventually I’d like policy in the city of Montreal that advocates for small green spaces. I want to be able to quantitively prove it, because everybody asks ‘what’s the value of the greenspace?’ Well, here it is. If you have a lot of little green spaces, a one-degree temperature reduction is quite a bit.”

Creating new standards for building resilient neighbourhoods

Christopher Barrington-Leigh, Associate Professor in the Bieler School of Environment and McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy, is an economist who studies the topic of happiness relating to social, economic, and environmental factors. His Ignite project (with a grant up to $25,000) “Street Network Sprawl and Environmental and Social Outcomes in Canada” examines the long-term consequences of city planning at the street network level, and its impact on our daily lives.

“What are humanity’s most critical long-run climate-relevant investments?” asks Barrington-Leigh. “Energy infrastructure? Residential and commercial buildings? A mostly overlooked contender of enormous scale are the street networks that are laid down during urban expansion. Buildings come and go, but the local residential street layout is generally permanent over centuries, not decades.”

The pace of worldwide urbanization is so high as to make the decisions about how urban streets are configured one of the largest, most permanent and far-reaching investments humans are making.

“Humanity is building new city developments not only faster than it ever has before, but also faster than it ever will again,” says Barrington-Leigh. “The planet’s population is undergoing the last phase of becoming urbanized, a once-only process resulting from technological advance and centralization of resources.” The scale of this process is unprecedented, and the year prior to the pandemic, the movement of humans to urban regions likely reached the highest it ever will – just under 80 million people per year moving to cities. This means designing and building the equivalent of an entire Canada of new city roads, homes, and infrastructure every five months.

This Ignite project will see Barrington-Leigh collaborate with Bieler School of Environment and Department of Geography Associate Professor Kevin Manaugh, a specialist in transport equity: both will co-supervise incoming master’s student Fajle Rabbi Ashik, to use high-resolution data and evaluate the long-term effects of street network style on human lives and happiness.

“The hope is to create new standards for building future-proof, resilient neighbourhoods, favouring high street connectivity and adaptability,” explains Barrington-Leigh, “so that future cities can offer mixed use, walkable, and diverse neighbourhoods. For all the reasons we care about urban form – health, environment, social capital, and happiness – this simple constraint on developers would allow future communities the most options.”