Designing Livable Cities


Transportation strategies such as mass transit and active commuting, which will reduce local air pollution, are crucial for improving health in cities such saw Santiago de Chile, where the nearby mountains cause a pollution-trapping atmospheric inversion. (Photo by Jason Vargo.)

Livable Cities is a campus-wide initiative that invites UW-Madison faculty and staff and government and community leaders to imagine, design and prototype the sustainable, livable city of the future and redefine its relationships with the landscape around it.

In the light of ongoing and increasing urbanization, climate change and the need for sustainable health, Livable Cities will connect the rigor of university research to city and community needs.

GHI, the Wisconsin Energy Institute, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Office of Sustainability and former Chancellor David Ward are developing the initiative. Livable Cities will become a translational center, through which campus research can be applied to community challenges.

Finding synergy in new partnerships on and off campus

GHI Assistant Scientist Jason Vargo is creating an inventory of campus projects related to Livable Cities with the goal of connecting researchers and creating new synergies that will lead to new integrated solutions for a healthy, sustainable future. Livable Cities also hopes to connect current community partners to a wider range of university knowledge. Partnerships around food systems, for example, have already expanded into energy and waste initiatives that use food scraps and other waste to produce electricity in Uganda.

By creating an inventory of existing work, Vargo will assemble a critical mass of researchers and community partners who will develop proposals for new, cross-sector fundable projects.


Cities such as Bogota, Colombia, have invested in mobility rather than a single mode of transportation. Infrastructures like Bus rapid transit, roads, cycle paths and wide, inviting sidewalks combine for a healthier and more egalitarian transportation system. (Photo by Jason Vargo.)

Livable Cities themes include:

  • Developing active transportation options to encourage physical activity for health while reducing the use of fossil fuel with its negative environmental impacts
  • Understanding how micro-grid electrical systems can be optimally scaled for cities of different sizes, potentially increasing energy autonomy, public safety and employment
  • Examining the connections between urban systems and the landscapes that support them and identifying ways communities of all sizes can improve the places they live while supporting larger ecosystems.
  • Increasing urban food production and improving equal access to nutritional food and, so, strengthening community health
  • Engineering constructed and natural systems that will produce attainable and appropriate infrastructure solutions for cities to ensure climate extremes of the future do not result in greater damage for communities.

Active transportation improves climate and health

Postdoctoral research fellow Maggie Grabow works on better understanding the benefits of active transportation, such as bicycling and walking, expanding on her previous work that showed the health and environmental benefits of decreased automobile travel in the Upper Midwest. Her earlier studies constituted a comprehensive health impact assessment of active transportation. showed a comprehensive healthWisconsin. In adapting a tool used in the United Kingdom, she hopes to show the benefits of active transportation across the United States, creating a tool for policy-makers to show the benefit of reduced automobile use. Grabow also is leading an effort to conduct a health impact assessment of bike sharing across the United States.

A new initiative would look at the mental health benefits of active transportation, such as riding bikes or walking instead of driving a car on short trips.

A Fulbright Award took GHI Director Jonathan Patz to Ethiopia in spring 2015 to meet with government leaders about potential Livable Cities partnerships and projects.

Read more about Livable Cities at UW-Madison: