Pitt | Swanson Engineering
Using Nature to Protect Cities from Extreme Weather
Pitt and Northwestern Awarded $2 Million by NSF to Study Nature-Based Strategies to Prevent Urban Flooding
(left to right): Carla Ng, PhD,assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Murat Akcakaya, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Daniel Bain, PhD, assistant professor of geology and environmental science and associate director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Water Collaboratory.

PITTSBURGH (Aug. 27, 2019) — As the planet warms, communities will continue to face the sometimes crippling aftermath of flooding and increasingly common extreme weather events. The U.S.’ failing infrastructure exacerbates the problem, leaving engineers in search of solutions that are both sustainable and future-proof. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Northwestern University $2 million to study nature-based strategies that can help prevent urban flooding and give under-resourced communities the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to extreme weather events. The project, entitled “Catalyzing Resilient Urban Infrastructure Systems: Integrating the Natural & Built Environments,” is part of the NSF’s Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health and Infrastructure (LEAP HI) program, which has awarded five projects a total of $9 million this year.

The Swanson School of Engineering’s Carla Ng, PhD, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Murat Akcakaya, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will work with principal investigator Kimberly Gray, PhD, Kay Davis Professor and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University, on the project. Daniel Bain, PhD, assistant professor of geology and environmental science and associate director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Water Collaboratory, will also contribute his expertise to the Pitt team.

“Cities across the country experience flooding when severe weather strikes due to their overtaxed and aging stormwater infrastructure,” says Dr. Ng. “Here in Pittsburgh, a combined sewer system means water quality is often hit as well. We want to give cities the ability to use natural features that will not only improve water management and enhance the livability of the surrounding community, but are also more adaptive, robust and resilient than current systems.”

Linda Young, Dr. Peter Haas and Drew Williams-Clark at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago; and Nicole Chivaz and Laura Brenner Kimes at Greenprint Partners in Chicago, are also on the team. Sarah States, PhD, director of research and science education at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, will contribute expertise towards biodiversity assessments and outreach activities in Pittsburgh. 

The goal is to develop the engineering tools that will allow communities to integrate nature-based green infrastructure, such as green roofs, rain gardens and porous pavements, with existing built infrastructure to manage storm water in ways that help prevent flooding while improving water quality and ecological health. The collaboration will fundamentally reinvent the urban water cycle using a systems approach that will be designed to operate with predictive and expanded performance metrics tailored to local conditions. 

The researchers will use two topographically different cities with ongoing stormwater issues—Pittsburgh and Chicago—to establish a model that can be replicated in communities across the country. Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes, one of only a handful of certified Living Buildings in the United States, will provide historical data from several of its existing green infrastructure installations from which the team will build new models and understanding of green infrastructure function within the landscape.

“Using green infrastructure alongside the built environment can benefit the entire ecosystems, including humans, wildlife and vegetation,” says Dr. Ng. “We aim to identify and resolve the hurdles that have limited green infrastructure to single installations with limited real-time performance data or to plans that remain unrealized. Our goal is to apply engineering tools to real communities with real outcomes affecting real lives.” 

The grant began on Aug. 1, 2019 and is expected to last until 2024. 

Maggie Pavlick, 8/27/2019

Contact: Maggie Pavlick