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Smart Solutions for Cities

By Alex Piazza
apiazza@umich.edu

Todd Shurn

Todd Shurn acknowledges he sounds like a community ambassador.

Born and raised in Benton Harbor, Mich., Shurn spent his summers playing on the sand dunes along Lake Michigan. He traded his bicycle for a sled during the winters so he could race kids in the neighborhood.

“I had a great time growing up in Benton Harbor,” said Shurn, who is closely associated with the city’s economic development efforts.

But in the 1970s, manufacturing plants began to close across Benton Harbor, sparking an economic downturn that continues to impede prosperity in the city of 9,900 residents.

Benton Harbor

Downtown Benton Harbor, Mich.

“Those closures eliminated some really good, middle-class jobs for folks throughout the city,” said Shurn, an associate professor of computer science at Howard University who spends his summers in Benton Harbor. “From there, things kind of went south. Unemployment eroded the city’s tax base to a point where it required a takeover on the part of the state just to remain solvent.”

City leaders regained control in 2014, and their strategic plan aims to enhance Benton Harbor’s economy and restore the community’s reputation. Benton Harbor residents now are working with researchers at the University of Michigan as part of a new Urban Collaboratory initiative that embraces smart city technologies and urban design to address targeted challenges that impact the livability of communities.

As part of the initiative, interdisciplinary faculty teams work closely with city stakeholders to identify specific challenges, develop an effective approach and then implement smart city solutions guided by novel urban design methods. Beyond Benton Harbor, U-M researchers are working on projects in Grand Rapids and Detroit as part of the collaboratory. They also are working to identify specific projects in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.

DaiggerLoveThunLynch

Jerome Lynch, Geoffrey Thün, Nancy Love and Glen Daigger
are leading the university's new Urban Collaboratory initiative.

“We’re not researchers looking to apply solutions, and through that process, trying to find problems—we’re the complete opposite,” said Professor Jerome Lynch, co-director of the Urban Collaboratory. “We’re working with stakeholders to identify problems, and then we come forward with new solutions that are structured around our ability and intellectual capacity. It’s very intentional for us to get faculty members out of their labs and out of their classrooms to work directly in the community. That’s where we can have the most impact.”

‘Huge Detriment’

Mobility

About 51 percent of Benton Harbor households have zero
vehicle ownership, meaning jobs and resources in neighboring
cities are inaccessible to many residents.

Unemployment remains a major hurdle impeding prosperity in Benton Harbor.

The city has yet to fully rebound from the 1970s when Benton Harbor’s manufacturing sector dissolved. A number of jobs and training resources are available in neighboring cities, but therein lies the problem.

About 51 percent of Benton Harbor households have zero vehicle ownership, which means those jobs and resources in neighboring cities are inaccessible to many residents.

“When someone from Benton Harbor applies for a job, some employers may ask whether they own personal transportation,” said Shurn, who is working with U-M researchers and city officials as part of the collaboratory. “If their answer is no, and they’re going to rely on public transit, there’s a chance they won’t get hired. Employers in the area have their own experience with public transit, and it’s not always good. Anyway you slice it, the mobility issue is a huge detriment in progress for the community.”

As part of the Urban Collaboratory, the university recently funded seven research projects that address issues in Benton Harbor—four focus specifically on mobility.

That decision stems from an initial workshop with city stakeholders and U-M researchers, where the conversation quickly turned to mobility. With campus-wide expertise in this field, Lynch and co-Director Geoffrey Thün solicited research proposals tied to mobility.

One project, led by Professor Pascal Van Hentenryck, explores ways to build affordable and convenient mobility services for Benton Harbor, thus improving accessibility to jobs, as well as health care, education and grocery stores. Meanwhile, assistant Professor Tierra Bills will generate travel data and modeling tools to better understand the travel needs of Benton Harbor residents who are dependent on public transit. 

“Through the efforts of the Urban Collaboratory, researchers in fields ranging from social sciences to engineering, urban planning and design are working with city stakeholders to prioritize access to fundamental human needs. That’s what is most important here.”

A separate project, led by Lynch, aims to develop a wireless sensor network in Benton Harbor that could monitor air quality, noise levels and the location of public transit assets. City leaders then could use data from those sensors to develop strategies for increasing foot traffic in downtown Benton Harbor.

“Mobility is a wicked problem, but it’s challenging for singular disciplines alone to make a meaningful contribution that spans research and implementation,” said Thün, associate professor of architecture. “Through the efforts of the Urban Collaboratory, researchers in fields ranging from social sciences to engineering, urban planning and design are working with city stakeholders to prioritize access to fundamental human needs. That’s what is most important here.”

‘Livable City’

Water

Improving water distribution is an utmost
concern for Benton Harbor city officials.

Benton Harbor’s infrastructure used to supply water to nearby cities.

Those nearby cities have since developed their own water supply systems, leaving Benton Harbor’s structure oversized and inefficient. The system is aged and has deteriorated, making it difficult to maintain consistent water pressure, which can have a direct impact on public health and safety.

The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich. has prompted municipalities nationwide to revisit their policies and procedures regarding water quality, and Benton Harbor is no different.

Improving water distribution is an utmost concern for Benton Harbor city officials. For that reason, one research project focuses on issues with water pressure throughout the distribution network and their associated risks, while another project focuses on controlling harmful contaminants in runoff from rain events.

Professors Glen Daigger, Nancy Love, Seth Guikema and Joseph Eisenberg are working with Benton Harbor officials to assess the city’s current water supply system. Benton Harbor officials manage a $4 million water budget, so U-M researchers and city stakeholders are working together to ensure funds are being used effectively to upgrade service and ensure public health.

A robust water supply system, combined with reliable public transportation, has potential to reignite prosperity across Benton Harbor.

“This collaboration is an example that both the city and the university are very serious about making progress, and as we move forward, it will provide investors with confidence about not just investing in Benton Harbor, but also shed light on what the future holds for our community,” Shurn said. “We’re seeking to deploy smart technology to improve livability for Benton Harbor residents, thus making the city more attractive to business and visitors.”

References and Resources

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