AAAS 2013: Environmental Challenges and Adaptation in Cities

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Photo via Thinkstock.

If we want to use research to inspire action by cities and have that research be inspired by what cities cur­rently do to affect their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, it really means we must work closely together with deci­sion making com­mu­ni­ties and stake­holder groups,” said North­eastern pro­fessor Matthias Ruth, who holds joint appoint­ments with the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the depart­ment of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering.

Ruth hosted a sem­inar at the AAAS annual meeting this weekend focused on how urban envi­ron­ments can and must adapt to envi­ron­mental changes. “It’s impos­sible in an hour and a half to cover all of this in any great detail,” said Ruth, so he and his col­leagues chose to focus the sem­inar on one slice of the urban envi­ron­ment: Water.

The chal­lenges and issues with water sus­tain­ability are so con­cisely sum­ma­rized by one of the 21st century’s grand chal­lenges recently given by the National Academy of Engi­neering,” said asso­ciate pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering, April Gu. “Access to clean water.” For many of us that seems simple enough, but one in six people around the globe still go without clean water every day.

Pol­lu­tant levels in 50 per­cent of country’s streams and nearly 30,000 of its water­sheds are impaired to var­ious extents, said Gu. Yet the prob­lems going for­ward lie not only in increasing pol­lu­tion, but also our uncer­tainty about the effects of such changes. “We don’t know the risk asso­ci­ated with larger para­me­ters for con­t­a­m­i­nants,” she said. Without knowing the risk, reg­u­la­tors cannot make informed deci­sions on how to manage those contaminants.

On the other hand, as reg­u­la­tions approach smaller and smaller thresh­olds for pol­lu­tant levels, they present new chal­lenges in eco­nom­i­cally fea­sible treat­ment tech­nolo­gies and in water quality mon­i­toring sys­tems. “Without the ability to mea­sure things, you cannot reg­u­late things,” said Gu.

Our mon­i­toring capac­i­ties also break down when it comes to con­t­a­m­i­nants of emerging con­cern, or CECs. Today’s waste­water treat­ment tech­nolo­gies were not designed to remove these com­pounds, so they pass treat­ment and get into receiving water and poten­tially our drinking water. But in order to develop new tech­nolo­gies — both for mon­i­toring and reme­di­a­tion — we need proac­tive, pre­ven­ta­tive poli­cies to jus­tify the added cost of such devel­op­ment. And therein lies the real grand challenge.

Every dollar spent today in a proac­tive way would save more than ten times as much money over the long term, said another ses­sion speaker, Paul Kir­shen of the Uni­ver­sity of New Hamp­shire. But con­vincing policy makers and stake­holders of this eco­nomics is a chal­lenging task. Together, Kir­shen and Ruth imple­mented a first-​​of-​​its-​​kind study of the envi­ron­mental impacts of cli­mate change on an unde­served com­mu­nity in Boston. A few decades from now, the shore­line will have retreated enough that a storm like hur­ri­cane Sandy could have dev­as­tating impacts on the neigh­bor­hood of South Boston.

Ruth and Kir­shen worked with the local pop­u­la­tion to increase aware­ness both about the impacts of cli­mate change on their com­mu­nity but also ways that they can pro­tect it from those impacts through min­imal interventions.

Uncer­tainty about the geo­log­ical mech­a­nisms here make nego­ti­ated solu­tions among prop­erty owners prob­lem­atic,” said Porter Hoagland of Woods Hole Oceano­graphic Insti­tute. “It’s likely that retreat from the coast is now optimal in many cases.” Hoagland’s work looking at the shore­lines of coastal com­mu­ni­ties in Mass­a­chu­setts and Vir­ginia has demon­strated hard struc­ture flood mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies, like sea­walls and jet­ties, can cause more harm than good.

As coastal urban­iza­tion has become a pre­dom­i­nant form of land devel­op­ment in the last few decades, the research of people like Gu, Hoagland, Kir­shner, and Ruth is inde­spen­sible. But without effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion between sci­en­tists and engi­neers and stake­holders like com­mu­nity mem­bers and policy makers, their work will have little impact. Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary projects like Northeastern’s Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive aim to pro­vide effec­tive routes for that communication.