May 17, 2017

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

By: Penn IUR Emerging Scholars

Artistic rendering of a city skyline by Dee Ashley via Flicker Creative Commons.

Penn IUR is invested in supporting and encouraging a new generation of urban scholars who are identifying and pursuing key questions related to urbanization. For this month’s issue of Urban Link, we interviewed some of our most recent PhDs to get a feel for the issues that they consider important or that they are currently pursuing in their research. 

Benchmarking Economic Development and Environmental Protection for Rural Agricultural Communities

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

With a seed grant recently awarded from the Global Affairs program at UC Davis, I am now embarking on a study of the land-use and property value impacts of District Heating in Sweden. 

Sweden has shifted its energy supply from 75% oil import in the 1970s to over 30% biofuel, supplying rural economic development opportunities largely through forest management while reducing GHG emissions by 60%(Brinkley, 2014; IPCC Sweden 2014). The United Nations estimates that transition to DH systems, combined with energy efficiency measures, could result in a 30–50 per cent reduction in primary energy consumption, thereby reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 58 per cent in the energy sector by 2050 and allowing global temperature rises to stay within 2–3 degrees Celsius (UNEP, 2013).

Instead of every home and office operating an individual boiler, nearly 90% of apartment buildings and 20% of single-family homes in Sweden receive hot water and heat from district heating networks (DiLucia and Ericsson, 2014). Heat is produced by a central boiler and distributed through underground insulated pipes to heat exchangers at the point of use for both hot water and ambient heat (Bouffaron and Koch, 2014). Boilers can be coupled to geothermal, biomass incineration, waste heat from industry or heat storage during times of peak production. In light of this, my upcoming research will seek to answer the question: How has Sweden’s transition to DH systems affected land use and property values?

Redefining Food Deserts

Ben Chrisinger, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Medicine, Stanford University

Following early research linking food access to health outcomes, millions of community development dollars were spent building supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. Despite food access projects across the US[1], and major pre/post evaluations in New York, Philly, and Pittsburgh, we have yet to find direct health benefits from opening supermarkets in food deserts. In light of disappointing results, at least in terms of diet and obesity, some food access funders and advocates have eased off the access-health rhetoric.

However, these evaluations mostly offered high-level epidemiological views of health: nobody was asking food desert residents about their thoughts and experiences. If new stores didn’t change diets or weight, why not?

To try and understand the value of a new supermarket, I interviewed dozens of shoppers in a North Philly store that had been developed in a food desert. I found that the store made shopping a little bit easier for low-income Philadelphians, and provided a higher-quality environment where customers felt respected and safe. In short: they got to shop like most Americans regularly do.

My findings made me believe that our food desert definition is wrong. More than anything, food deserts force individuals and families with limited means to settle for less. I believe that these stores can present a space where “upstream” health behavior changes can happen.[2] If we redefine food deserts as an experience - rather than a geography - we may start to identify better interventions.

Place-Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Revitalization: Who Benefits and Who Loses from University Initiatives in Neighborhoods?

Meagan Ehlenz,  Senior Sustainability Scholar, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Assistant Professor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Arizona State University

My research examines universities pursuing neighborhood revitalization, focusing on the ways institutions have used place-based initiatives to engage with their surrounding communities. In recent work, I use a survey of university administrators to understand what university anchors do in the realm of neighborhood investment and, subsequently, study how neighborhoods with university revitalization initiatives have changed over time.

Three findings emerge from this current work. First, survey results suggest that universities typically emphasize attraction strategies, focusing on catalytic developments that meet university consumer demand (e.g. apartments, retail, dining, entertainment). Collectively, this imparts a vibrant, “college town” brand onto the neighborhood. In addition, it is common for universities to invest in value-added programs, including public safety, public amenities, and partnerships with K-12 schools. This marks a shift from 20 years ago, as universities now recognize neighborhoods as an asset instead of a liability.

Second, across these 19 cities, neighborhoods with university revitalization investment show statistically-significant differences in market indicators relative to other tracts within the same county, including increases in median home values and rents, and decreases in vacancy rate. Importantly, these home value observations hold across all cities in the sample, regardless of market strength, institutions, and revitalization style.

Third, despite growth in the real estate market, these university initiatives have not substantially changed the socioeconomic indicators for target neighborhoods. The trends suggest moderate growth in student-sensitive categories, such as educational attainment and poverty rate, in ways that augment existing conditions, rather than substantially changing trajectories. Amenity rich university neighborhoods are supporting changes that attract students and shift away from the commuter campus model. Also, new development is attracting middle- and upper-class professionals and families who can afford more expensive homeownership choices.

Universities now recognize neighborhoods should be an asset. But collectively, these observations point to a key unresolved question for university revitalization initiatives: who benefits from university initiatives in neighborhoods? And, perhaps more importantly, who does not These represent the future questions needed to refine our understanding of the field.

Proximal Greening: A Distinct Form and Possible Norm for 21st Century Urban Design

Theodore Eisenman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

My principal research addresses the historical, scientific, cultural, and design bases of urban greening, which I define as the introduction or conservation of outdoor vegetation in cities. As noted in “Greening Cities in an Urbanizing Age: The Human Health Bases in the Nineteenth and Early Twenty-first Centuries,” published in the fall 2016 issue of Change Over Time, this scholarly interest is rooted in an observation that cities have entered a historically significant period in the enduring aspiration to integrate nature with city.

Unlike the large destination parks of the 19th century, contemporary greening of roofs, facades, bridges, vacant lots, traffic islands, street sides, railways, and waterways is integrated into the very fabric of cities. Additionally, three decades of research now substantiates stress and related psychological outcomes as, perhaps, the most reliable health benefit of urban greenery. This nexus of practice and research points to proximal greening as a distinct form, and possible norm, for 21st century urban design. It also supports the call for “nature at the doorstep” three decades ago by esteemed environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan, predicated on repeated, short-term exposures to greenery that may provide cumulative benefits through “micro-restorative opportunities.”

A proximal greening norm also aligns with the Nature Pyramid, a four-tiered hierarchy of nature contact scale and exposure proposed by Tim Beatley and Tanya Denckla-Cobb at the University of Virginia. Here, neighborhood greenery provides “the bulk of our nature diet” through daily encounters. The Nature Pyramid also provides a compelling framework to bridge urban greening practice with scholarly research, which has identified a need to better link health outcomes more directly to types of green spaces, while accounting for both quantity and quality of green spaces. 

Costal Green Infrastructure and Resilience Projects (Plus, a Grassroots Political Organizing Project)

Billy Fleming, PhD

For much of 2017, I have been engaged with two major projects. One, my dissertation, is ending. The other, a public, grassroots organizing project known as Indivisible, is just beginning.

At the core of my dissertation, at least two key findings stand out. One takeaway is that the U.S. Army Corps (USACE) of Engineers is unable—or unwilling—to invest in coastal green infrastructure at a scale that’s commensurate with the problem of sea level rise. The likeliest outcome of this failure is that the U.S. will continue to build large, monolithic forms of grey infrastructure along the coast—a process that we know will induce new, greenfield development in flood-prone areas at the base of levees and surge barriers that we won’t be able to maintain. Without reforming the ways in which the USACE evaluates and invests in coastal infrastructure, it’s difficult to imagine a Corps-led process that bolsters the resilience of American cities—and that’s particularly important given the singular role that the Corps plays in shaping our coastline.

The other lesson from my dissertation is that, at least amongst landscape architects and designers, the recent push to build “resilience projects” like the ones generated through Rebuild by Design has left us a bit over our skis. By that I mean that many of these projects have developed without the kind of evidence base that’s needed—and available—to support their claims. There are things a reinforced dune can do, for instance, that an oyster reef cannot. It’s incumbent upon designers to better integrate the science of resilience within the practice of coastal design—we may only get one shot at it getting right.

Housing Affordability in Canadian Metropolitan Areas

Albert Han, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Metropolitan Growth and Change, University of Calgary

I am conducting research on urban sprawl and growth management policies in Canadian metropolitan areas and am currently analyzing development patterns of 11 major Canadian Metropolitan Areas between 1990 and 2010 in association with housing affordability. The research questions I seek to answer are “Did suburban sprawl decline as the result of densification of inner city in major Canadian Metropolitan Areas (CMA) in the 2000s compared to the 1990s? If so, how did housing affordability change along with the trend?”

I am hypothesizing that if a metro area successfully managed to promote infill and compact developments in the 2000s, I expect to find significant increase in density in “Inner City” areas. Densification may influence housing affordability What I hope to find from my study is whether housing affordability remains a key factor in attracting people to suburbs in Canadian metros and thus how affordability and density interact.

Consequences and Geographic Factors of Police Transport for Traumatically Injured Patients

Sara Jacoby, Postdoctoral Fellow, Penn Injury Science Center, University of Pennsylvania

Through ethnographic fieldwork with traumatically injured patients in Philadelphia, I recognized the profound impact of first responders on the way that patients interpret their injury and injury care. Pre-hospital police transport (PPT), known colloquially as ‘scoop and run,’ is authorized in select US cities, including Philadelphia, to reduce transport time and alleviate strain on emergency medical systems (EMS). This policy has been enacted specifically for victims of penetrating injuries like gunshot and stab wounds. It was codified on the basis of research that demonstrated comparable survival rates between patients who were transported by police and those transported by EMS providers.

In my recent work, I have collaborated with researchers at the Penn Injury Science Center in a mixed geospatial-qualitative study to investigate the broader consequences of PPT and its impact on different Philadelphia neighborhoods over the past decade. We identified several patient factors associated with the likelihood of PPT which included being male, black, and Hispanic and being injured at night, by a firearm, and outdoors. After controlling for these factors and the geographic distribution of police and EMS stations, crime rates, and relative economic disadvantage, we found that residents of specific Philadelphia neighborhoods were more likely to experience PPT than others. In qualitative analysis, the speed of transport was identified as PPT’s primary benefit by patients, police, and trauma care clinicians. Patients, however, perceived pain and being unsecured in a police vehicle as major drawbacks. Trauma clinicians found the unpredictability of police drop-offs challenging. And police described fears about blood exposure and limited knowledge of first response best practices. This ongoing work is demonstrating that while PPT has the potential to improve survival, cities implementing this practice should evaluate geographic equity in access to services and multifaceted impacts on patients, police, and the trauma care system at large.

Distributed Stormwater Management Techniques in Cities and Urban Regions

Theodore Lim, Global Environmental Data Scientist at Monsanto

Unlike the centralized pipes and treatment plants of traditional drainage infrastructure systems, distributed stormwater management techniques try to restore “near natural” site hydrology, close to where rain falls. These techniques are often collectively referred to as “green infrastructure.” The green infrastructure approach acknowledges that improvements to development practices and infrastructure planning can increase urban livability with less economic burden than re-constructing traditional drainage infrastructure.

My research explores the physical function and implementation of distributed stormwater management practices in cities and urban regions. Through a statistical analysis of stream flows in over 100 urban watersheds, I show that site planning needs to consider the integrity of native soil and vegetation, and not merely focus on limiting imperviousness. Second, I build a high resolution, surface-subsurface hydrologic laboratory of a Washington DC test site to show the dependence of networks of distributed infrastructure effectiveness on spatial configuration. Lastly, I studied one of the largest voluntary green infrastructure programs in the US, to show that social networks are an important factor in explaining adoption of green infrastructure within cities.

My work has shown how natural land conservation should be prioritized over practices that claim to allow development to match “near-natural” hydrologic conditions. However, within existing development, the spatial configuration of green infrastructure facilities is not expected to have a detectable effect on the network’s hydrological response. This finding frees planners from the burden of “optimal” location of individual green infrastructure projects, and allows them to focus on other placement based on other benefits of green infrastructure to communities. Lastly, planners can leverage the role of social networks to adapt the urban landscape to both increased urbanization and climate change-related challenges of water resource management in cities.

Can US Metropolitan Areas Use Large Commercial Airports as Tools to Bolster Regional Economic Growth?

Simon Mosbah, Consultant, Transit and Rail Project Development and Finance, WSP USA

My dissertation,  “Airports, Airport Expansions and Employment at Local and Regional Scale,” investigates how transportation infrastructure supports city and regional economic development strategies. Airport expansions are major endeavors of U.S. metropolitan areas engaged in global competition. Exploring airport expansions’ political economy and the zones surrounding airports, coined “airport zones”, sheds light on whether these projects support economic development locally and regionally.

Findings from three case studies of recent airport expansions in Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky contributed to answer two questions: (1) How do decision-makers of airport expansions perceive the impacts of the airport in the economy, and integrate this conceptualization in their decisions? and (2) To what extent do airport-related employment growth and airport-oriented development occur in areas closer to the airport, and through which mechanisms in terms of airport expansions and plans?

With respect to expected results from airport expansions, interviewees made no direct links between airport expansion and air service enhancement and employment growth. However, the different members of the “airport growth coalitions” focus on the role the airport and air service play to attract or retain Fortune 500 headquarters and regional headquarters of foreign companies. This finding is somewhat contradicted by the fact that interviews also suggest that changes in air service only have limited impacts on metro areas’ abilities to retain and attract companies’ headquarters.

Regarding airport zone development, coalition building and land assembly seem to matter most in order to build the basic infrastructure necessary to foster development in the airport zone and attract developers. For instance, in Denver, a mayoral administration successfully renegotiated with surrounding jurisdictions an agreement preventing local development on airport property and on land that was annexed for building the new airport.

The literature review of this dissertation was published in the Journal of Planning Literature ( under the title “Can US Metropolitan Areas Use Large Commercial Airports as Tools to Bolster Regional Economic Growth?”

Philanthropy, Partnership and Innovation: 21st Century Urban Revitalization in US Legacy Cities

Mary Rocco, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher, Penn Institute of Urban Research (IUR)

The future of American cities depends increasingly on philanthropy. Older industrial cities, also referred to as Legacy Cities, continue to grapple with the long-term effects of physical and economic decline and high poverty rates. In the face of constrained public and private resources and limited leadership, how does revitalization occur? This question of who influences urban revitalization in declining cities as they attempt to recover matter more than ever. Philanthropic foundations challenge traditional assumptions about who catalyzes and leads urban revitalization. They do this in the cities where they work through investments in physical upgrading, community and economic development and in capacity building.

An analysis of grantmaking in 50 Legacy Cities between 2003-2012 found that philanthropic expenditure totaled $6.3 billion and surpassed federal sources such as community development block grants (CDBG) monies. While a small number of foundations engage in place-based activities, local foundations not only support local and regional regeneration but leverage funds from multiple sources to supplement and enhance revitalization planning and implementation. In-depth case studies revealed foundations amplified their role in efforts to revitalize in Legacy Cities through three models of philanthropy- traditional, collaborative and directive. Through traditional grantmaking, foundations solicit applications and fund projects based advanced by city agencies and local non-governmental organizations. In other cases, foundations collaborate widely with other funders, city agencies, non-governmental organizations and developers on a variety of project based and long-term investments. Increasingly, some foundations take a directive approach to conceive, plan and implement projects with the goal of revitalization. These findings suggest that philanthropic foundations amplified their roles in Legacy Cities beyond traditional grantmaking to contribute to and, in some cases, lead revitalization efforts

Using Spatial Analytics to Transform How Governments Provide Services, Minimize Waste and Increase Transparency

Ken Steif, MUSA Program Director and Lecturer, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania and Founder, Urban Spatial

My current work falls at the intersection of data science and public policy - working both in academia and as a practitioner. I am the Program Director of Penn’s Masters of Urban Spatial Analytics, a graduate program training the next generation of civic technologists. My consultancy, Urban Spatial has made recent contributions to the Smart City movement, developing new spatial machine learning models and helping cities convert their administrative data into actionable intelligence.

I am betting on these technologies to completely change how governments provide services, minimize waste and increase transparency. By example, the goal of machine learning is to borrow the past experiences of people or places and analyze the extent to which these experiences are generalizable to a population for which outcomes are unknown. Machine learning has had a revolutionary effect on how the private sector tends to its bottom line. Governments have several bottom lines – economic prosperity, social equity and political cohesion – and machine learning can help cities address these goals by prioritizing the allocation of limited resources across space. Recently, my team and I developed a tool that predicts gentrification using longitudinal census data. The goal is to help communities make prescriptive planning recommendations in the face of neighborhood change. 

Historically Marginalized Populations In Airport-adjacent Communities

Amber Woodburn, Assistant Professor, City and Regional Planning Section, Knowlton School, Center for Aviation Studies, The Ohio State University

As the busiest airport hubs have grown in size since the rise of the Jet Age, city planners have seen airport infrastructure transform into locally unwanted land uses while simultaneously spurring a new economic land use: the airport-centric activity center. Motivated by this airport transformation, my recent research takes a closer look at airport-adjacent communities (AACs) and asks “How has the population of historically marginalized groups living near airports changed with the rise of the Jet Age?”

The main findings are threefold. First, disadvantaged groups often constituted larger proportions in communities near the less dominant hubs (<250,000 operations per year), but only later in the jet age after most hubs were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that a lack of community power (as related to race, ethnicity, nationality, or socioeconomic status) was a driving force in the rise of the busiest hub airports.

Second, in evaluating the push–pull effect (or ‘come to the nuisance’ effect), the percentage of white persons frequently decreased far more near airports than in their respective metropolitan regions. Thus, there is evidence to suspect that the market has played a role in reshaping the demographics of AACs, often in a way that drastically increased the presence of historically marginalized groups.

Third, airport-adjacent residents frequently had less favorable socioeconomic outcomes when compared with their respective regions. Even if airports are functioning as strong activity centers, the economic benefits for local residents are not substantial enough to keep pace with the average socioeconomic performance of the metropolitan region.

Further research can explore “Good Neighbor” policies that (1) distribute the economic benefits of airport-centric development to airport-adjacent residents and (2) anticipate and remedy the challenges of further airport expansion into AACs with increasing proportions of historically marginalized groups.


Woodburn, A. (2017). Investigating neighborhood change in airport-adjacent communities in multiairport regions from 1970 to 2010. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2626, 1-8.

Does the Option to Extract Home Equity Affect House Prices?

Albert Alex Zevelev, Assistant Professor of Real Estate, Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College

Real Estate can be pledged as collateral for a loan at the time of purchase and after purchase via a home equity loan. My recent paper “Does Collateral Value Affect Asset Prices?” asks whether the ability to pledge an asset as collateral after purchase affects its price. Economic theory predicts the answer is yes: if households are credit constrained, they should prefer to own assets which facilitate their future ability to borrow.

The challenge to answering the question is to disentangle collateral value from other factors that affect house prices. The paper exploits law changes in Texas where home equity loans were illegal before 1998. The empirical strategy is to compare house prices in Texas zip codes to border zip codes before and after the law using a difference-in-differences estimator. The identifying assumption is parallel trends: that the law change was uncorrelated with other variables that affect Texas house prices. Research has linked this law change to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, a circuit court ruling in 1994 and growing Republican control in Texas. This assumption can be defended as these factors are not clearly linked to Texas house prices.

The impact of the law change on house prices was PHD: Positive, Heterogeneous and Direct. The law increased Texas house prices 3.5-5%. Pre-trends are parallel and the rise in prices was gradual. House prices rose more in inelastic locations, consistent with theory. Prices rose more in zip-codes with higher pre-law house prices, income and employment. This indicates that wealthier households value the option to extract home equity more strongly. Finally, variables related to house prices such as rent and income were unaffected by the laws. This indicates the rise in prices was due to demand for the option to extract equity.


Zevelev, Albert A. “Does Collateral Value Affect Asset Prices? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Texas.”  (2017).

[1] i Chrisinger, B. (2016). Taking Stock of New Supermarkets in Food Deserts: Patterns in Development, Financing, and Health Promotion. San Francisco: Community Development Investment Center, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Working Paper 2016-04. 2016/august/new-supermarkets-in-food-deserts-development-financing-health-promotion/

[2] ii Chrisinger, B. (2016). A Mixed-Method Assessment of a New Supermarket in a Food Desert: Contributions to Everyday Life and Health. Journal of Urban Health, 93(3):425-437. DOI: 10.1007/s11524-016-0055-8. PMID: 27197735.



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