Amid the climate crisis and rising concern amongst the academic community and the public, UTM’s Centre for Urban Environments (CUE) is launching a new initiative which entails collecting thousands of data points in the GTA in an effort to conduct novel research on the connection between urban systems and the environment.   

The new project is the first of its kind and is called the Urban Environmental Network— CUE’s UrbEnNet. Researchers from across the three University of Toronto campuses will be conducting research on environmental factors regarding soil, air, biology, and the social aspects of the urban environment. Ten professors will be heading the new initiative and thirty different researchers are associated with the massive data collection project. The aim of the initiative is to solve large questions surrounding how the urban environment system shapes the environment.

Scientists will measure, monitor, and conduct experiments on all aspects of the urban environment. Observational and experimental studies will focus on examining pollution and the outcomes for different organisms. One experimental study, headed by Dr. Marc Johnson, Director of the CUE, involves the Ecotron—a dome that can manipulate environmental controls such as temperature, humidity, and soil. Through the Ecotron, researchers can mimic growing conditions and species’ effects such as the transfer of genetic change over different generations of some organisms.

Dr. Matthew Adams, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at UTM, is one of the faculty members associated with CUE. He conducts research on urban environments and urban air pollution exposure. Adams mentions that the government only monitors thirty sites across Ontario, fewer than ten of which are located in the GTA. With the UrbEnNet initiative, Adams will make a terrestrial monitoring network of one hundred monitoring sites.

Since the government’s monitoring does not include air pollutants, Adams hopes to use the UrbEnNet monitoring sites to investigate volatile organic compounds such as benzene levels, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. Though pollution has decreased in the GTA due to reduced manufacturing processes and process control, there is a shift in the cause of pollution. As Adams explains, “Now we see a lot of transportation-related air pollutants which is what we deal with in this GTA region. Each vehicle itself does not admit a lot of pollution, but when we aggregate all of them up, that’s where our concerns are.”

Such studies are critical to the future of urban population as air pollutants pose an unknown health risk to residents. Adams says that through UrbEnNet, they are “really trying to track these pollutants that are in lower concentration [and] haven’t historically been monitored, but that have these more chronic long-term effects.” Long-term exposure can result in cancer, loss of life, and other adverse chronic health effects decades down the line.

The Adams’ lab is a perfect example of how scientists and social scientists need data to be able to understand human-environment interactions, especially in regions with layers of complexity and spatial variation like the GTA. The UrbEnNet project, through modelling and understanding environmental changes, will pave the way for informed policy and positive social change as climate change becomes a localized issue.

“We just aren’t gathering as much information as we need to start answering or solving these problems. And I think something like UrbEnNet will be one of the most comprehensive projects internationally to understand how a city functions,” Adams summarizes. “Right now, cities need to start planning for things like climate change as it’s absolutely the right time to be doing this. There are physical scientists, biologists, [and] social scientists—there are people collaborating from many disciplines on this project. And that’s what really makes [UrbEnNet] and the depth and breadth in which these questions will be assessed very unique.”

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