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AAAS 2013: Environmental Challenges and Adaptation in Cities


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“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.

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