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Urban science centre born in the Big Apple

What better birthplace for an institute of urban science than a soot-stained edifice in downtown Brooklyn? New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced yesterday that the mainly vacant building will house a world-class research institute, to be led by theoretical physicist Steven Koonin, former undersecretary for science at the US Department of Energy.

At the future Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), researchers will crunch data on aspects of the city to solve problems related to energy and health-care, among others. Koonin says that urban science means “understanding and modelling the city as a totality — its system of systems, its infrastructure, its condition and its operation.”

For winning a bid, government officials will rent the city-owned space to New York University (NYU) for US$1 a year, in addition to granting the private university $15 million in the form of reduced costs on energy and other expenses. The Polytechnic Institute of New York University; the City University of New York; Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the University of Warwick, UK; the University of Toronto in Canada and the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay are also involved with the centre.

Creating a hi-tech scene

CUSP is the second science institution supported by Mayor Bloomberg’s Applied Sciences NYC initiative, in which three pieces of city-owned land are being exchanged for research centres. Last year, Cornell University of Ithaca, New York, and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa won an applied-science campus on Roosevelt Island.

NYU’s new property is not at one of Mayor Bloomberg’s originally planned locales. Instead, CUSP takes over a dreary 61-year old building at 370 Jay Street (pictured), which no one appeared to know how to handle. At the public announcement of CUSP yesterday, Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz said,  “370 Jay Street — an eyesore in Downtown Brooklyn for far too long — will be the ideal site for an applied-science campus.”

Before a gut renovation, NYU and their partners will need to usher out the New York City Police Department and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which occupy a small section of the building. The first CUSP class will probably be held in a rented space in September 2013. In five years, the facility is expected to be complete with a green roof for heating and cooling efficiency, and lower-energy lighting systems. These and other sustainable building choices illustrate the centre’s purpose — making a gritty urban environment healthier. The centre will house 50 full-time faculty and hundreds of graduate and post-doctoral researchers.

Living laboratory

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and according to the United Nations Population Fund, almost 5 billion people will live in cities by 2030. “We anticipate a huge rise in the urban population, and clearly that will put a lot of stress on urban systems from transportation to energy efficiency,” says Katepalli Sreenivasan, provost of the Polytechnic Institute of NYU.

To propose solutions, Sreenivasan says that scientists first need to understand how people exist in urban habitats. New York provides a grand example, with some 8.2 million people living on 790 square kilometres (305 square miles) of land. By partnering with various city agencies and organizations, CUSP researchers will be able to glean a wealth of data on how people move and act within the city. Officials involved with CUSP call New York a “living laboratory.”

Koonin says that problems in energy, transportation, water use and public health will be top priorities for CUSP. “One of our partners is the MTA, and we are interested in helping them figure out how to extract greater value from their operation,” Koonin says. “If we can make the trains run more efficiently, CUSP will be a big winner.”

 Photo:  Amy Maxmen

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