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Northwestern Joins Collaboration to Study Climate and Urban Science in Chicago

Researchers will use models to identify equitable climate and energy solutions


A multi-institution collaboration, including Northwestern University, has received $25 million over five years from the US Department of Energy (DOE) to study urban climate change, climate resilience, and environmental justice at a street, neighborhood, and regional scale.

With the new funding, the team will establish Community Research on Climate and Urban Science (CROCUS), a Chicago-based Urban Integrated Field Laboratory (IFL). By better understanding urban climate and energy impacts, CROCUS will help climate-vulnerable communities become more resilient to the adverse effects of climate change. 

Like several other US cities, Chicago is already experiencing climate disruption in the form of extreme weather, flooding, drought, and heat waves. Researchers will explore how trees, open spaces, buildings, and Lake Michigan shape the city’s climate. And, because no two neighborhoods are alike, the researchers will create detailed climate models to predict climate impacts on areas as small as 1 square mile, enabling communities to identify solutions at the neighborhood level. 

As the lead for research related to urban water, Northwestern researchers will monitor the environment with novel, artificial intelligence-enabled sensors that provide robust, real-time data and respond to extreme weather events. Using this data, the researchers will study interactions among microclimate, stormwater dynamics, residential areas, and greenspaces.

Aaron Packman

“This work will help us provide new solutions for reducing urban flooding, which greatly affects many neighborhoods across Chicago,” said Northwestern Engineering’s Aaron Packman, urban water lead for CROCUS. “We will determine how nature-based solutions such as community green spaces and green infrastructure can improve resilience to climate change and reduce vulnerability to extreme weather.” 

A world-renowned water expert, Packman is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and founding director of the Center for Water ResearchWilliam Miller, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at McCormick and director of the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience, is Northwestern’s co-lead with Packman. 

William Miller

CROCUS builds upon three recent National Science Foundation-funded projects at Northwestern to improve resilience to climate change: SAGE, a national effort to develop and implement smart sensors for monitoring climate, traffic and ecosystems; Systems Approaches for Vulnerability Evaluation and Urban Resilience (SAVEUR), which aims to mitigate the effects of extreme weather in cities; and Sustainable Urban Systems: Predictive, Interconnected, Resilient and Evolving (SUSPIRE), a series of urban sustainability workshops that addressed how climate, natural, technological, and societal disruptions are transforming Chicago and other Great Lakes cities.

Led by Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago, CROCUS is partnering with local and regional colleges and universities to recruit and train the next generation of climate scientists. CROCUS will provide educational and workforce development opportunities to students representing several institutions, including minority-serving institutions and historically Black colleges and universities. Participating colleges and universities are: 

  • Chicago State University
  • City Colleges of Chicago
  • North Carolina A&T State University
  • Northeastern Illinois University
  • Northwestern University
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • University of Texas-Austin
  • Washington University-St. Louis

CROCUS researchers will engage with community-based organizations on Chicago’s South and West sides. This collaboration will enable community members to share their needs and concerns as they work alongside researchers to transition neighborhoods to clean energy and nature-based climate solutions. Community partners include:

  • Blacks in Green (Woodlawn)
  • Greater Chatham Initiative (Chatham)
  • Puerto Rican Agenda (Humboldt Park)
  • Metropolitan Mayors Caucus

 While Chicago is the center of the study, the new insights and lessons learned will help researchers create a blueprint to assist other cities across the country and around the world as they work to become climate resilient.

“If we understand the risks posed by climate change, we can address them in a fair, equitable, and sustainable way,” said Cristina Negri, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s Environmental Sciences Division and CROCUS lead. “We can help neighborhoods, governments, and businesses adapt to risks, avoid the worst outcomes, and recover faster from the impacts of our changing climate. We’re all in this together.”

CROCUS is funded by the Biological and Environmental Research program in the DOE’s Office of Science.