UArizona RII Interviews CAPLA Faculty Members Shujuan Li and Bo Yang
By Leslie Hawthorne Klinger, UArizona Research Development Services
By 2030, the state of Arizona aims for at least one million electric vehicles on the road. Power and water utility Salt River Project (SRP) knows this won’t happen without a robust network of charging stations. To this end, SRP is funding University of Arizona College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture faculty Bo Yang, professor of landscape architecture and urban planning, and Shujuan Li, associate professor of landscape architecture and planning, to research the planning and design of electric vehicle charging stations.
Li and Yang have garnered enthusiastic support for their work, likely because it is rooted in the highest qualifications, rich cultural observation and well-founded conviction that their work matters to societal health and wellbeing. In this conversation, the Arizona community can learn more about their critical work preparing the state for the next big energy transition and electrification of the transportation system.
Tell us about your backgrounds and how they echo in your work today.
Bo Yang: I started as an architecture student in Wuhan, China. Development and urbanization were accelerating at the time, and a lot of professionals were needed for design, planning and construction. I was one of those students who got to enjoy the boom. Professors of architecture in China usually maintain working studios, so even undergraduates have real projects coming their way. Throughout my studies, I got to work on a lot of housing projects, office buildings and even a few bus terminals. There were almost too many jobs you could do if you wanted. There weren’t enough architects to do all the work.
Landscape architecture wasn’t a field of study yet, but architects were recognizing the need for specialists who know more about things like drainage, plant design and the impact of weather—topics that aren’t usually emphasized in the architecture curriculum. We were realizing we need people who focus not on the building itself but its envelope and the environment surrounding it.
Through my advisor and a conference in Singapore, I began to think of architecture as a collaboration and expanded my idea of what I could do as an architect. I was drawn to landscape architecture because I could see its importance. Most cities in China are very dense urban environments without much open space, park systems, river corridors or recreational areas. But I knew outdoor environments are essential to quality of life and something we should consider.
Shujuan Li: My background is quite different. I grew up in a very rural area near Nanjing, on the east coast of China. As a high school student in a rural town before the internet, I had very little information about what I could study. All I knew were disciplines I had studied in high school: math, chemistry, physics, Chinese and English. Math was my number one choice for a college degree, but it was the hardest to get into, and unfortunately, I was not accepted to the program. Instead, I was assigned to geography.
I went to Beijing by train for my college studies. It was the first time I had ever taken a train! In Beijing, everything was different from where I grew up. I really missed home and couldn’t get used to the urban environment. My childhood among the rice paddies had created a tension in me between urban and rural.
When I finished my college study, I went to Peking University for a master’s degree in ecology—maybe because I still missed being surrounded by nature! When I was a student in Peking, a landscape architecture program started, and I was able to audit one landscape architecture course. I became very interested in the field.
I went to Texas A&M for my PhD in geography and met Bo there. For my thesis, I focused on rapid urbanization in Shenzhen, a city in China near Hong Kong. Shenzhen is the epitome of China’s urbanization in that it changed from a small fishing village to a metropolis with seven million people in just 20 years! China’s rate of urbanization at the time was incredible. For my study, I developed computer modeling of urban expansion that could be used for urban planning.
With your experience in China, how do you view urbanization in the United States?
Shujuan Li: The difference between urban planning in China and the United States is that China’s urban planning has always been late. When the urban plan was approved in Shenzhen, urbanization had already happened! I think the United States is entering a time of much work for our profession because of the federal Infrastructure Act passed in 2021. With the funding, there will be a lot of work for students here to build roads, bridges and housing and to retrofit infrastructure.
Charging station development will be the same kind of development. We’ll need to renew or repurpose existing facilities like gas stations, for example, or parking lots. The work will be complex, and good design will be critical.
Bo Yang: It’s interesting—landscape architecture in the U.S. started with communities looking at cemeteries as potential spaces for people to recreate, reduce stress and have contact with nature. The profession boomed with the big federal acts of the 20th century: the Interstate Highway Act in the 1956, the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. These bills created many design needs, and a new environmental awareness helped people see that landscape architects protect the environment.
In the future, we will probably view the Infrastructure Act of 2021 as the next in line of federal acts. It creates another great opportunity for our profession to contribute to the nation’s built environment. But it’s a different moment than in the ’50s and ’60s when we were building new things. Now is a not time for making new things but for renewing existing ones. Landscape architects have experience with this—we have a lot of knowledge about retrofitting places like parks, downtowns and commercial areas.
Charging station development will be the same kind of development. We’ll need to renew or repurpose existing facilities like gas stations, for example, or parking lots. The work will be complex, and good design will be critical
How does your research plug into the opportunities created by the Infrastructure Act?
Shujuan Li: Arizona’s plan for part of the Infrastructure Act, funded at approximately $65 billion, has already been approved. We also have a statewide electrification plan that includes the goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. We currently have less than 50,000 EVs, so we see huge opportunity there.
With all those new electric vehicles on the road, we’ll need many charging stations. Around $5 billion from the Infrastructure Act has been approved specifically for charging stations for a national network of 500,000 EVSE by 2030, including the state’s main corridors. We hope our research will help the state to design the infrastructure, so it won’t need to be demolished and rebuilt in a few years.
Tell us more about your project with SRP.
Shujuan Li: The first phase was looking at the placement of charging stations and how that impacts electric vehicle adoption. As part of the study, we reviewed people’s opinions about existing charging stations. We collected around 8,000 comments, 40% of which were opinions about the existing charging station network. There were two negative opinions for every positive one. Existing experiences with charging stations aren’t very good. There are still a lot of problems and issues to resolve.
Our research identified gaps in the Phoenix metropolitan area in urgent need of charging stations. We reported these findings to SRP in a report and a presentation.
Bo Yang: For the second phase, we’re focusing on human perceptions and how people identify their needs regarding charging stations. We just released an online survey of both current EV users and potential users. Their comments and locations will show us, for example, where they think new stations should be situated and what should be nearby.
It takes time to charge an electric vehicle. Right now, the fastest kind of charging takes 20 to 40 minutes, which is different from the few minutes it takes to put gas in your car. Public EV stations must be designed very thoughtfully. For example, charging stations should probably have other amenities or be near places like a café or grocery store.
We’ve also developed metrics for site assessment. How safe is the charging station? Is there enough shade? How do people find the station if they don’t have the right app? These are just some things in the rubric we offer to help determine how an existing site could be retrofitted or a new one designed.
What’s it like to collaborate with SRP?
Bo Yang: I really like working with Salt River Project. For our first proposal, Brian Adair, executive director of industry engagement for UArizona Research Development Services, helped us identify where our expertise and SRP’s interests overlapped. For phase two of the project, our research idea wasn’t as exact a match as the first phase, but SRP liked our initial work and agreed it should be expanded.
Shujuan Li: It has been wonderful working with SRP. We plan on applying for phase three of the project, and our current SRP advisors, Alejandra Mendez and Diana Orquiola, are supportive. SRP just started an electric vehicle department, which shows how important EV design has become to the company.
Bo Yang: SRP has its own 2035 goals. They know their power grid and how much they can fuel EV charging points. What they don’t know is where the stations should be located or how they should be designed. Our findings will help solve these pieces of their puzzle. It’s a good collaboration.
Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about our country achieving its goals of a rapid transition to EV?
Bo Yang: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the trend is going in the right direction, not only in the U.S. but globally. In the future, our energy use will be cleaner and more sustainable, reducing the carbon footprint and helping us combat climate change.
What percentage will have made the necessary transitions by when is a harder question to answer. Changing to EVs is a culture, a mentality. When someone mentions buying a car, is our first impression an electric vehicle or another conventional combustion-engine car? I think we’ll gain momentum when EVs become cheaper than conventional vehicles and more people can afford them. And when psychology changes. When people’s friends get electric vehicles, they’ll tend to go in the same direction, and change will become exponential.
We need to seriously consider human behavior, human perception, to be successful. For example, we are in a building where each room has a thermostat because studies show that people are happier and more heat- and cold-tolerant when they think they can control their environment. In reality, most people will not touch the thermostat.
We have a very strong engineering department and environmental programs, and our design programs are excellent. When we work on projects like EV charging station development, I hope we will see a very solid collaboration.
Shujuan Li: We just bought an EV, so maybe we’ll get others to buy them!
I feel we’re on track to electrification even though the current adoption rate is less than one percent in new vehicle sales. This year seems promising. Things are changing. For example, Tesla and Chevrolet just reduced the prices of their EVs.
Bo Yang: You ask about the timeline to electrification. Human history is fascinating when you look at the few big energy transitions. The transition from wood to coal was fast, and we didn’t use up all our timber before it happened. The transition from coal to gas was also quick, and we didn’t use up all our coal before we went to gas. So, history shows us that energy transition can be very fast, and we don’t need to use up all our gas before powering our vehicles with electricity.
Imagine we’re sitting here ten years from now in another interview. What do you hope UArizona will have accomplished?
Shujuan Li: Our environment needs to change to feed emerging technologies like the electrification and automatization of vehicles. The university needs to adapt existing transportation infrastructure and systems. Think about all our parking facilities. We may no longer need parking lots or garages, so how will we make use of them? We need sound design, so we renew those spaces in a way that is useful, beautiful and sustainable.
I also hope our design work in the next decade remedies the weak link between science and practice. Many, many articles have been published about research related to the electrification of vehicles, but when I look through planning documents like the ones Arizona recently developed to get funding from the infrastructure bill, I rarely see references to all that research. Modeling isn’t even mentioned. It’s not a surprise. It’s common for scientists to research in their universities while urban planners make plans based on their knowledge. The communication between the two has been weak.
In the future, on our campus specifically, I hope it can be different. We have a very strong engineering department and environmental programs, and our design programs are excellent. When we work on projects like EV charging station development, I hope we will see a very solid collaboration.
Bo Yang: We want to make an impact. The university wants to tell the story of how we improve the sustainability of the built environment and how we make the quality of life better in our communities.
That’s where Research Development Services comes in. Connecting academia with industry needs is critical. Most companies want to do research but don’t have the staff capacity. We have the capacity. We have the tools. We know how to collect data and how to structure the survey. We can employ our expertise to benefit industry.
We are a very strong university in basic research like science and engineering. As architects, landscape architects and planners, we fit more in the applied research category. I hope we achieve real collaboration between fundamental researchers and applied researchers and see smooth transitions between applied research and industry application.