August 27, 2018

New Ideas in Urban Research 2018: Research Questions and Findings from Penn IUR’s Emerging Scholars and 2018 Urban Doctoral Recipients

By: Penn IUR
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Penn IUR is invested in supporting and encouraging a new generation of urban scholars who are identifying and pursuing research questions related to urbanization. For this month’s issue of Urban Link, we interviewed recent PhDs—Emerging Scholars, who are a few years into their careers, as well as Spring 2018 degree recipients—on issues they are pursuing in their research.

Penn IUR Emerging Scholars

Penn IUR 2018 Doctoral Recipients


Better Housing Market Information for Better Household Location

Arthur Acolin, Assistant Professor of Real Estate, University of Washington

How can better information about local housing markets improve household location outcomes? Deciding where to locate is a momentous decision for households and, as a growing body of evidence has shown, has implications for a household’s welfare as well as for intergenerational mobility. My current research aims to identify information barriers that limit access to housing in areas that would best suit household’s needs, including rental market information can be leveraged to improve locational outcomes of households. Improved locational outcomes recognize the priorities of a given household and might include access to quality schools, employment opportunities, lower levels of crime or environmental quality. In an effort to make information about different locations available to households during their housing search, my University of Washington colleagues Rebecca Walter and Gregg Colburn and I along with a number of partners are looking at developing data and tools in partnership with Public Housing Authorities. These efforts have the potential to improve location outcomes. Further work is needed to understand the most effective ways to ensure that households can access the locations that best suit their specific needs.

In addition, I am engaged in two research projects that analyze the implementation of HUD’s Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) initiative. SAFMR aims to enable access to a broader choice of housing options for low-income Housing Choice Voucher recipients by calculating the payments standards used for the voucher calculation at the zip code rather than at the metropolitan level. Existing research has shown that voucher recipients tend to be concentrated in high poverty neighborhoods with limited access to opportunity. The SAFMR enables households to find and receive subsidies for housing in neighborhoods with higher rents that would also have higher levels of opportunity. The first project, an analysis of the outcomes of a pilot project of the SAFMR in six housing authorities conducted with Penn IUR Fellow, Professor Vincent Reina and Penn IUR Scholar and Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank President, Raphael Bostic, finds some locations experience substantial improvements following the implementation of the SAFMR while other locations exhibit limited or no changes. In the second project with Rebecca Walter at the University of Washington, we further analyze the measure of local rent provided by HUD and compare it to other measures to identify whether it adequately captures local housing conditions and how it can be improved to effectively enable households to use their vouchers in more desirable locations.  


Skills, Opportunities, and Growth

Stuart Andreason, Director, Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Since the Great Recession, the vast majority of new jobs require some level of postsecondary training, but this is not a completely new phenomenon – the recession exacerbated, and potentially sped up, decades long secular changes in the labor market driven by technological change.

In recent recovery years, particularly 2011-2014, the number of jobs that did not require a bachelor’s degree and paid above regional median wage, jobs that my coauthors and I have titled, “opportunity occupations,” declined by 1.7 million positions despite overall job growth of 5 million positions during the time period. We studied these trends using a dataset of over 80 million individual job ads developed by Burning Glass Technologies and were able to see employer educational expectations (such as a statement saying “Bachelor’s Required”) as well as the specific skills in the ad. Many opportunity occupations showed signs of increasing educational expectations—driving down opportunities for workers who do not hold the requisite credentials, but may have the skills to do the work. We also launched the Opportunity Occupations Monitor – an online data tool where you can explore opportunity occupations and the labor market more broadly in metro areas and states.

More broadly, the labor market is changing rapidly: technology is transforming work and employer-employee relationships, and creating deep challenges for workers affected by shifts in the economy. Despite these conditions, great numbers of opportunities remain for workers. However, policies and practices need to align better with today’s labor market to create employment through building skills that are in demand, helping people engage in work and the economy, and developing human capital and assets. Doing this can materially affect economic growth. As such, we launched the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta last year to conduct research on the link between economic opportunity and growth and to identify and support policies and practices that enhance opportunity, particularly by supporting education and employment.

Catherine Brinkley, Assistant Professor, Department of Human Ecology, University of California, Davis

Building on my dissertation at Penn, I am challenging nearly two centuries of conventional theory that guides urban development. Namely, many planners and plans maintain that concentric growth with low-density edges is the preferable metropolitan form. Instead, I argue that cities may work more like coral reefs. The complex topography of urban places supports a diversity of niches and uses that correlate with increased vitality and resilience. I have labeled this phenomenon, “rugosity.” After all, while coral reefs occupy only 0.2% of the ocean, they are home to a quarter of all marine species and play an important role in stocking the ocean with fish. Correspondingly, over half the human population now lives in cities, occupying less than 3% of the total land area. And surrounding farms account for significant food production on minimal land.

My research seeks to answer how rugosity relates to productivity in both urban and farmland systems. In a new study published in Land Use Policy I provide evidence that longer urban edges (high rugosity) are associated with some of the fastest growing areas of the country as well as places with significant farmland holdings. The National Science Foundation is supporting this work with a CAREER Award.  In addition, in summer 2018 I joined the Santa Fe Institute’s program to explore how this research might add to ongoing multidisciplinary efforts to form “a new science of cities.”


Great Public Spaces through Urban Design: Art Districts and Science Parks in China

Sisi Liang, Assistant Professor in Urban Planning, School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, China

My research is concentrated on urban design and drivers of  development. Chinese cities are entering a new phase characterized by specialization of districts, greater emphasis on consumption and services, and shifts to cultural production. A paper I co-authored on the liveliest cultural spots in Beijing and other cities in China identifies [HYPERLINK] at least three approaches of development: conversion of the Danweis (places of employment in China), arts and real estate development, and township-based creative districts. Another element of my research focused on the 798 Arts District in Beijing, a former factory and surrounding industrial district which is now the epicenter of an emerging arts community.

There is a shift in the mode of development from previously GDP-oriented development toward emphasis on spatial quality of built environment and public spaces. Thus physical planning strategies play an increasing role in urban development, especially in specific zones. Besides art districts, place-making via science parks has drawn more attention than six years ago when I finished my dissertation on science park design and development. For example, in 2017, Zhongguancun Science Park Committee, one of the fastest-developed science parks in China, asked me to conduct a research project on a detailed public place-making survey. Based on information gleaned from big data and environmental behavior approaches, this research identified the needs for place-making in terms of street safety, green infrastructure, and vitality.

The research also finds that post-occupancy evaluation can provide effective feedback to place-making and its programming, which is prevalent in architectural research but is still lacking in the current urban design field in China. Thus, since 2017, I have published two books, titled Post-Occupancy Evaluation in China and Architectural Programming and Post-Occupancy Evaluation, (the latter is now the textbook for registered-architectural training courses) in order to introduce the paradigm of “programming-design-evaluation” to the field.

Eliza D. Whiteman, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Built Environment and Health Lab, Department of Epidemiology, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

My research centers on the social, policy and built environment determinants of health, particularly within vulnerable, urban populations. Over the past year, I have focused on two primary projects. The first project, my dissertation research, examined the relationship between the monthly SNAP (food stamp) benefit distribution cycle and the food insecurity and diet quality of program recipients. The second project, part of the Healthy Library Initiative (HLI) at Penn’s Center for Public Health Initiatives, explored the role of public libraries as places for promoting population health.

To understand better how a once monthly benefit distribution schedule impacts health, I analyzed the USDA’s national food purchasing dataset (FoodAPS) and found that overall diet quality for SNAP households was low throughout the month with a small, but significant decline in the healthfulness of food purchases in the final 10 days of the benefit cycle. My findings suggest that as benefits are depleted, households change their food purchasing strategies, often with negative consequences for health.

To elaborate on these strategies, I interviewed Philadelphia SNAP households, nearly two thirds of which reported having or caring for a household member with a diet-related chronic disease (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, food allergy, Crohn’s disease). Among these participants, end-of-month shifts in food purchasing were often accompanied by difficulty affording foods necessary for chronic disease management and reliance on social support. For many households, seeking out medically appropriate foods at the end of the month often required traveling to physically distant (non-neighborhood) resource centers, such as food pantries or health clinics that provided acceptable food items. For low-income households, many of whom do not have a car, the time and financial burden of traveling throughout the city for food are significant. These research findings highlight avenues for improvement in social benefit policy and are particularly relevant in today’s political climate.

Libraries are trusted and heavily utilized community institutions, making them an ideal venue for promoting population health. My recent statewide survey of Pennsylvania public libraries builds on research in Philadelphia by the HLI and further demonstrates the critical role that libraries play as public health sentinels in their communities.2 The majority of the 621 public librarians we surveyed in Pennsylvania routinely address social and health needs within their patron populations, including employment, immigration, and applying for social welfare benefits. However, most feel underprepared by their professional training to meet these patron concerns. This research illuminates the potential, with improved capacity training, for health promotion within community institutions not traditionally associated with health.

Nour Halabi, Doctoral Recipient 2018, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania

Against the background of contemporary discussions of border walls in the United States, I have been researching the lasting impact of ancient walls on cultural identity and social movements.

In a recent article entitled “The Ancient Walls of Damascus and the Siege of Mouaddamiyya: A Historical and Spatial Analysis of Bounded Place and Cultural Identity” (2017) I provide a historical spatial analysis of urban space in Damascus, illustrating how the construction of fortifying walls surrounding the city influenced cultural identity long after the walls were materially depleted.

In a recently published book chapter, “If These Walls Could Speak,” I consider the lack of public protest in Damascus in response to sieges on towns in the city's environs, arguing that the spatial ordering of Damascus impacted contemporary mobilization. This ongoing research project illustrates the communicative role played by walls and borders, conveying protection and cohesion to inhabitants within and threatening othering and violence to those residing outside of their bounds. In so doing, the chapter presents a spatially-grounded perspective to understanding the dynamics of social movements in the Arab Spring.

In light of the proliferation of new walls from Israel to Hungary to the United States, these projects aim to bring a historical and spatial lens to discussions of the lasting impact of walls and bordering practices on collective identity and social movements.  


Hidden Cities: Reinventing the Non-Space Between Street and Subway 

Jae Min Lee, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, University of Ulsa, Korea

Hundreds of people rush out to the subway platform, liberated from the cramped cabins. Legions of commuters march down the labyrinth of dark and soggy tunnels to find their way to the bright morning sun. Few put on a smile as they prepare for a sprint or advance step-by-step toward the exits. If you hesitate, someone might step past or step on you. This is how New Yorkers, Parisians, Muscovites, Hong Kongers, and Londoners commute in exchange for their vibrant cosmopolitan lifestyles. Over thirty-two million urbanites navigate these underground labyrinths in New York City, Hong Kong, London, Moscow, and Paris every day. These in-between spaces have evolved from simple stairwells to networked corridors, to transit concourses, to transit malls, and to the financial engines for affordable public transit.

The connections leading to underground transit lines have not received the attention given to public spaces above ground. Considered to be merely infrastructure, engineering and capital investment principles have dominated the design and planning of these passageways with little attention to place-making. These underground transportation areas, often dismissed as “non-spaces,” are a by-product of high-density transit-oriented development, and become increasingly valuable and complex as cities become larger and denser.

In my dissertation, I investigated the design of five of these hidden cities that have been subject to serious efforts to make them into desirable public spaces. I argue that based on these examples, we can reinvent underused subterranean public spaces as effective places, realizing the potential for rich public life, so often obscured by the heavy foot traffic in transit hubs. Underground public spaces need not be gloomy and unsafe, and the vitality of public space is determined not only by its location, but by the design of its physical setting. The five hidden cities are success stories showing how designers and users have converted non-spaces into places through design and active civic engagement. 

Daniel Suh, Data Scientist, Consumer Data Analytics Team, Nike

In my dissertation, I developed new methodologies to enable more effective use of two broad categories of airport planning techniques: aviation demand forecasting and peer-group learning. Both techniques are used to estimate future use of the airport in airport infrastructure investment and are critical for airport master planning, a federally mandated planning process for airports which guides investment decisions. Demand uncertainty and optimism bias have rendered the traditional techniques ineffective because they result in inaccurate definitions of airport peers and highly optimistic forecasts of passenger demand that can, in turn, lead airport planners to make unwise, wasteful investment decisions. Consequently, one of the challenges of airport planning is dealing with the mismatch of capacity and demand (e.g., some airports oversupply infrastructure and waste millions, and sometimes billions, of dollars).

In my dissertation, I identify and explain how the dynamic changes in airport operations and socioeconomic conditions can directly lead to more effective use of peer-group learning and aviation demand forecasting. Airport peer identification based on measures of change in these metrics results in more robust and useful delineation of airport peers especially compared to the current practice of either using a very formal yet crude delineation based on a single metric of passenger volumes or choosing peers in an aspirational manner. For instance, airports that have lost significant portions of their air traffic can share more relevant planning lessons from each other than they can from airports in their current peer categories. At the same time, my research indicates that these peer airports may also share similar levels of forecast errors. I leveraged this information to build a method to incorporate the systematic patterns of these past forecast errors to calibrate current aviation demand forecasts and achieved more than 30% reduction in forecast errors on average.

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