U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Document Type


Date of this Version



Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 32 (2008) 474–488; doi:10.1016/j.compenvurbsys.2008.08.003


Urban systems emerge as distinct entities from the complex interactions among social, economic and cultural attributes, and information, energy and material stocks and flows that operate on different temporal and spatial scales. Such complexity poses a challenge to identify the causes of urban environmental problems and how to address them without causing greater deterioration. Planning has traditionally focused on regulating the location and intensity of urban activities to avoid environmental degradation, often based on assumptions that are rarely revisited and producing ambiguous effects. The key intellectual challenge for urban policy-makers is a fuller understanding of the complexity of urban systems and their environment. We address this challenge by developing an assessment framework with two main components: (1) a simple agent-based model of a hypothetical urbanizing area that integrates data on spatial economic and policy decisions, energy and fuel use, air pollution emissions and assimilation, to test how residential and policy decisions affect urban form, consumption and pollution; (2) an information index to define the degree of order and sustainability of the hypothetical urban system in the different scenarios, to determine whether specific policy and individual decisions contribute to the sustainability of the entire urban system or to its collapse.