Partner Profiles

David Hsu, PhD -- Assistant Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning, PennDesign

August 14, 2014

There are no easy answers to the challenges of environmental sustainability, David Hsu cautions his city planning students. But he encourages each of them to direct his or her particular skills into collaborative teamwork needed to solve problems in this interdisciplinary field. In this interview, Professor Hsu shares his thoughts on the rhetoric around sustainability and his ideas on how Penn students and the University can contribute to the ongoing discourse.

Q:  Describe your approach to infusing environmental sustainability into the courses you teach.

A:  I teach a class in sustainable cities (CPLN 730), as well as a class in infrastructure finance that has a strong environmental component (CPLN 651). The concept of sustainability itself has a huge task and scope, so in both classes I try to stress a number of competing themes.

First, the rhetoric around sustainability matters: There are a number of fundamentally different viewpoints about what a sustainable and urban future might look like, ranging from deep ecological to Promethean discourses.  The Australian political philosopher John Dryzek writes that like democracy, sustainability is fascinating because it is contested and yet “the only game in town”.

Second, sustainability remains an ill-posed problem. The sustainability movement has been good at setting goals and indicators, but we have to be honest that it is less clear if our goals and indicators at the local level are affecting global sustainability. For example, in my field, cities seem to be potential centers for sustainability, because they are correlated in global development statistics with higher economic growth, rising levels of education, and falling birth rates, and because activist mayors are ahead of dysfunctional national politics; however, by any meaningful measure (and especially in carbon emissions), both our global consumption and waste production is still growing rapidly.

Third, what happens on the ground matters a lot: sustainability is happening on multiple scales and in many places.  Among all of the cities, universities, NGOs, corporations and governments pursuing sustainability, many permutations of collaboration, competition, experience, and learning are happening right now.  In order to promote the goals of the sustainability movement, we have celebrated early successes through case studies.  However, as we try to go to larger and large scales, we need to look more carefully at our failures and learn from them.  Our biggest failure so far is to impact our trajectory in terms of the global environment.

Sometimes I worry that the students will be left demoralized by the many open questions surrounding sustainability, but one of the best things about teaching, of course is to take inspiration from their enthusiasm, energy, interests, and youthful sense of challenge.


Q:  How do you encourage students to consider folding environmental sustainability into their study and career planning  -- taking the principles they learn here into actual practice in their own jobs after Penn?

A:  Sustainability is always going to be a complex and multifaceted problem, and again, I think the sustainability movement has done a good job in terms of developing broad perspectives on the environment.  Nonetheless, in terms of work, have a real and concrete skill to contribute: in my opinion that’s the best way to join a team, organization, company or agency, and what sustainability really needs to progress.

I think of sustainability work as similar to interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research, which is really quite hard.  You will have to learn and speak the languages of multiple communities in order to bring them together. But similar to language, you need to know one area or skill well enough to think in terms of it, and to identify yourself as a valuable contributor to an immediate need. (Of course, when you are lucky enough to meet someone or multiple other people with similar viewpoints and complementary skills, that is a rare and wonderful thing to find, and don’t let go of it!)

For most students, early in their careers that language may be a degree, skill, area of expertise, or problem of interest. Don’t discount the value of skills that haven’t traditionally been part of sustainability, or the value of working on a problem that you haven’t solved yet.  Later, you will develop more perspective to be able to step back and address a particular area, industry, problem, or way of doing things.

Finally, the future is what you make of it, but making things well is really hard, and requires craft, time and labor.  You might have a flash of insight but spend years making it happen.  There is no easy path to the hard goals.


Q:  In what ways would you like to see the University used as a laboratory for ideas in environmental sustainability?

A:  Universities, like small cities, are a unique scale for bold experimentation, with plenty of expertise, resources, and willing participants. I’d like to see us focus on a small set of problems that are important to the wider world, and convincingly demonstrate that we can successfully solve them in a number of ways that translate to the larger world outside of the university.


Q:  What could the Green Campus team provide to faculty to encourage involvement and participation in the existing "green" effort or perhaps to initiate new ones?

A:  Universities already have more intellectual opportunities than any of us can take advantage of, so it is actually kind of difficult to say. The university has been open about sharing data; has been trying to connect faculty and researchers around the university on this topic; and exemplifies fairly good environmental practices. 

Thinking at a bigger scale, it would be exciting if there was a grand goal, debate, or set of problems that could become a forum or ongoing discussion that engages the broader university community around sustainability.

Q:  Tell us about the work you are during under a current grant from the U.S. EPA, to study green infrastructure practices in urban areas, using Philadelphia as a pilot project.

A:  The City of Philadelphia has emerged as a national leader in green infrastructure for stormwater management with its "Green City, Clean Waters" plan.  Our city’s plan has built on efforts by other cities, the environmental community, and the U.S. EPA to promote green infrastructure, but in this particular area, Philadelphia probably has the most ambitious and far-reaching approach among all cities.

Our team, including Professors John Landis, Thomas Daniels in PennDesign, Susan Wachter in Wharton, and others, is studying how to make this approach work better on the ground, and in particular with regards to how policy can shape the markets for real estate, construction, and investment. To do this, we are carrying out research using surveys, geospatial analysis, and other quantitative social science methods.  Eventually, we are trying to build a prototype information exchange and market that can help the city grow the market for green infrastructure.


Additional information can be found in:

The Philadelphia Inquirer:,

PennDesign press release:,

EPA STAR grant abstracts:,

EPA STAR grant description:


Dr. Hsu invites those interested to follow his research group, the Green Cities Lab, on the web at or on Twitter at @greencitieslab.