April project update

While we usually post project updates in our monthly newsletter, we realized that we were taking up valuable real estate reporting on what’s currently underway, especially since many of our projects have long timelines. This month, we’re trying out the idea of posting this update on our blog, which could provide this information in a searchable, archive-able format. So without further ado, here’s what’s occupying the Urban Initiative staff this month:

1) The SouthCoast Urban Indicators Project (SCUIP)

  • This month, we’re developing content on Brownfields, walkability, and civic infrastructure.
  • If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our newest civic infrastructure pages on collaborative leadership in Fall River and New Bedford.

2) Taunton HOPE VI evaluation

  • Bob Golder has been conducting interviews of 25 randomly selected heads of household from the former Fairfax Gardens housing development, a process that will qualitatively inform both the service delivery of the HOPE VI program as well as the Urban Initiative’s evaluation.
  • We’ll be conducting focus groups in the upcoming months to learn about HOPE VI households’ experiences with and needs around supportive services in areas like childcare, health and wellness, and job training.

3) SouthCoast Healthy Housing and Workplace Initiative (SCHHWI)

  • This week we got feedback from the CDC on our evaluation plan (very positive!).
  • We just finished surveying New Bedford Housing Authority residents on smoking behavior and exposure and will do so in Wareham next.

4) Civic infrastructure survey project

  • As noted, the first research brief and accompanying pages of SCUIP were just released.
  • Upcoming topics will include nonprofits, philanthropy, and municipal government.

5) Sustainable cities

  • Our next event is Thursday, April 11 at 6p right here on the UMass Dartmouth campus. We’ll be talking about developing indicators for SCUIP related to environmental sustainability.
  • Mark your calendars for our final event, featuring keynote speaker Catherine Tumber (author of Small, Gritty, and Green.) We will host her at New Bedford’s Celtic Coffee House on Thursday, May 9 at 6p.

6) College access

  • We have just finalized our research proposal for investigating college access issues in the SouthCoast starting this summer. Next step: identifying funding.
  • UI intern Masi Faroqui is conducting some college access asset mapping in the region for a project in his MPP course, Applied Policy Research. We hope this will be a great way to generate some momentum for future research.

7) LifeWork for the WISE Woman

  • The Urban Initiative has been engaged as the evaluator for an innovative project being developed by the Women’s Fund of Southeastern Massachusetts aimed at enhancing education and career outcomes for low-income mothers in New Bedford.
  • Our first step has been working with the Women’s Fund and their many partners to develop a logic model demonstrating the program theory. We look forward to the kickoff of this very important initiative!

We have several other projects currently in development, so expect more in this space next month.

SimCity and Urban Planning

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Asst., Urban Initiative

The first computer that I ever owned was an Apple Macintosh SE/30. State-of-the-art when it was introduced in 1989, the SE/30 sported a 9-inch black-and-white screen composed of 512 by 342 pixels. But that postcard-sized screen displayed a world of wonder when I inserted a 1.44 MB floppy disk into the drive to load… Sim City.


Arriving on the scene in the same year as the SE/30, Sim City was the antithesis of the first-person shooter games that also arose in that exciting time. There were no points to score while playing the game. There was no real “winning” or “losing.” Sim City introduced a generation to the intricate pleasures and puzzles of urban planning: the player as mayor and urban designer, plotting out a city from its inception and then keeping its virtual inhabitants, the “Sims,” happy by adding amenities and addressing problems of zoning, traffic, police protection, and the occasional disaster, whether natural (tornado) or unnatural (the occasional appearance of Godzilla, crushing high-rises and starting devastating fires).

Fast forward nearly a quarter century (using the latest version’s “Cheetah Speed”), and you’re playing the fifth and latest version, now known as SimCity, available for the first time in an online-only configuration. Or, possibly, you’ve tried to play SimCity and gotten nowhere, since the rollout of the new game was disastrous. All players – even those active in single-player mode – must be connected to the Internet at all times, because the incredible complexity of accurately modeling a detailed urban environment in real-time demanded computing power located in the cloud, not just in your laptop’s chip. But server capacity arranged in advance by Electronic Arts was nowhere near sufficient to host the sudden influx of thousands of SimCity enthusiasts. Immediate fixes included disabling some of the game’s more popular features and temporarily halting new sales on Amazon.com, which infuriated still more players. Reportedly, those troubles have largely passed.

On the horizon, SimCityEDU is scheduled to be introduced later this year. The nonprofit GlassLab is working on this downloadable version of the game that is aimed at sixth graders and addresses their challenges in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, SimCityEDU measures children’s understanding at regular intervals along the learning path, rather than testing at the end of a unit. For example, the environmental choices students make as they engage in building a power plant (collecting documentation, interpreting information, graphing data, making a decision on what type of plant to build, etc.) may be continuously assessed, and teachers will have a tool to match these urban planning play sessions against Common Core standards.


Understanding the implications of new shipping lanes across the unfamiliar Arctic

Recent studies suggests that, due to climate change, opportunities for shipping vessels to cruise through the Arctic Ocean are becoming a real possibility.[1]  Once ice-covered and impassable for centuries, these waters are changing and changing fast.

From an economic development perspective, many argue that new shipping lanes through the North Pole will translate into big savings in time and money for the shipping industry, which could then lead to favorable outcomes for the global economy as a whole. But before we scratch our heads and think to ourselves, “Who said global warming was all bad?” let’s be sure we understand what tapping into this untouched resource really means.  Economic savings aside, there are a whole host of political, legal, and developmental considerations that opening up the arctic introduce.

First and foremost, it is unclear whether passage through the arctic (particularly the Northwest Strait as depicted below) is considered an international waterway or falls directly under Canada’s sovereignty.  Further, the United States has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans.  Until the U.S. decides to ratify UNCLOS, they do not officially have a seat at the table for discussions about the newly opened shipping lanes.  There is also the issue of safety and navigation, as there is little to no infrastructure or technology in place that would help guide vessels and support search and rescue efforts through this dynamic environment.

Of course there is little doubt that the negative impacts of climate change will far exceed the positive.  It remains to be seen whether or not, or to what extent the impact of shipping lanes through the arctic will be positive. What is clear, however, is that we don’t have much time to address the major issues coming into the fore.  Most studies estimate that arctic ice will be thin enough for considerable travel by mid century at the latest.

Smith L.C. and Stephenson S.R. PNAS 2013; 110:4871-4872
The fastest navigation routes for ships seeking to cross the Arctic Ocean by mid-century include the Northwest Passage (on the left) and over the North Pole (center), in addition to the Northern Sea Route (on the right).

[1] Smith, Laurence C. and Stephenson, Scott R.  New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcentury.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. March 2013; 110:4871-4872.  http://www.pnas.org/content/110/13/E1191