Published: Sept. 19, 2019

Partnering an Innovative Boulder

Members of the "Partnering in an Innovative Boulder" panel at the MetroLab Summit share a funny moment on the CU Boulder Campus, Sept. 19, 2019. Photo by Nicole Leon-Molina

CU Boulder researchers and faculty, and the city of Boulder discussed how innovative partnerships between university researchers and cities are critical to mitigating climate change during a panel at the national MetroLab Summit, held at the University of Colorado Boulder campus Thursday. The city of Boulder and a group from CU Boulder led by the Community Engagement, Design and Research Center (CEDaR) are hosting the high-profile conference, focusing on technology, data and design partnerships. The two-day conference ends today.

"We know climate change is accelerating," said Jonathan Koehn, regional sustainability coordinator with the city of Boulder, during the the panel, Climate Change and Research Needs of Local Governments: CU Boulder & Colorado Cases. "We can dispute whether or not there is this cliff edge that we are heading towards, but there is consensus that we need to front load our strategies to make sure we are being as effective as we can."

The Summit is the annual conference of MetroLab, a national network of 40 city-university partnerships focused on urban innovation, launched in 2015 as part of the Obama administration’s Smart Cities Initiative.  Approximately 200 people are attending from across the US, Canada and the United Kingdom, and the national event has attracted leading policy-makers, academics and relevant industry and nonprofit professionals. Terri Fiez, CU Boulder's vice chancellor for research & innovation opened the conference, and Gov. Jared Polis gave the keynote remarks. 

Paul Chinowsky and Jonathan Koehn share a moment during the climate change panel.

Paul Chinowsky, director of CU Boulder's Program in Environmental Design, left, and Jonathan Koehn, regional sustainability coordinator with the city of Boulder, right, interact during the climate change panel. Photo by Sarah Manning

The summit provides an opportunity for researchers and city staff from across the country and world to explore city-university partnerships similar to those developed between CU Boulder and surrounding cities and counties, said Brian Muller, associate professor of environmental design and CEDaR's director. As part of the Colorado partnerships, the university serves as a research and development arm while the city serves as a test bed for technologies and policies, and students benefit from a real-world experience.

"At the heart of CU Boulder's MetroLab initiative is a relationship-building philosophy," he said. "University researchers and local policymakers learn about each other’s priorities, which helps faculty tailor their research around tangible, urban issues, current policy discussions and benefits to Colorado citizens. At the same time MetroLab projects are designed to inspire student research through seminars, thesis projects and sponsored internships, which simultaneously strengthens the University's teaching mission.

With the support of CEDaR, CU Boulder has entered into MetroLab memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with the cities of Denver, Boulder, and Longmont as well as Boulder County, and a number of research projects have been initiated under these MoUs. Local governments collaborate with students and faculty to do research, develop and deploy technologies and design policy approaches to address challenges within urban areas. 

Colorado MetroLab's projects are diverse, ranging from innovations in policy and spatial analysis to new uses of building materials and design. All focus on building vital and efficient cities and addressing issues of equity, affordability and community involvement. Seed funding for these projects comes from the city of Boulder, CU Boulder's Office for Outreach and Engagement, the Research & Innovation Office and the Program in Environmental Design. These efforts have led to two National Science Foundation proposals and a major foundation grant, submitted in collaboration with local governments, engineering and business faculty, Boulder Housing Partners and others.

During the climate change session, Paul Chinowsky, director of CU Boulder's Program in Environmental Design, said it's not feasible to expand infrastructures, such as storm sewers, to absorb and divert water from the increasingly intense storms experienced worldwide. He instead recommends adding green infrastructures, such as installing rain gardens, to naturally reduce excess runoff from roads and parking lots and remove pollutants. Rain gardens are one of more than 20 Colorado MetroLab projects organized by CEDaR.

"We can’t build our way out of this," Chinowky said. "Nobody can afford to tear up all of their storm sewers. We have to rethink infrastructure so its complementing the environment."

Steve Voida, assistant professor in information science, spoke about the importance of scientists sharing data and the need for citizens to get involved to fill in data gaps.

"Even if we have really good scientists with really good analytical tools–until they exchange data in ways that are meaningful–there’s information trapped in silos," he said. 

"In climate change we all have a role to play."