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Research Spotlight: Overcoming Barriers to Green Infrastructure Solutions

Posted: November 17, 2017

Over 70 attended a Chesapeake Stormwater Summit on October 27 which highlighted Penn State research exploring the barriers to greater adoption of green infrastructure approaches to stormwater management, and discussed recommendations for overcoming them.
Attendees listen to presenations at Stormwater Conference

Attendees listen to presenations at Stormwater Conference

“Getting green infrastructure on the ground is not a technical problem,” notes Stuart Echols, Professor of Landscape Architecture at Penn State. “It’s a people problem.”

Echols serves as the director of the Penn State Center for Green Infrastructure and Stormwater Management, a collaborative multi-disciplinary research project which, for the last several years, has been exploring various barriers to greater adoption of green infrastructure and solutions for overcoming them.

The research, sponsored by a US EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant, was highlighted at a summit at Penn State Harrisburg on October 27. Over 70 stormwater practitioners, regulators, municipal staff and officials, educators, and conservation organization members attended the event organized by the AEC.  

The research team included experts in disciplines of landscape architecture and design, environmental economics, engineering, hydrology, sociology, and law and policy.

Research began in 2012 and was focused in Pennsylvania, particularly in the Lower Susquehanna region. While this region has seen specific community success stories and increases in green infrastructure adoption, barriers to widespread adoption remain. Barbara Gray, Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior in the Smeal College of Business, studied the cognitive and institutional barriers to greater adoption of green infrastructure in addressing stormwater management. She conducted over 40 interviews of various decision makers involved in stormwater management, from private to public and statewide to the very local. The research identified various frames through which stormwater is viewed that color perceptions and sometimes result in barriers to greater adoption. Recommendations for overcoming these barriers focus on green infrastructure technical training, regional watershed planning, regulatory and permitting streamlining, and public outreach and education.

Visualization tools can serve as solutions for overcoming these barriers. This hypothesis has been tested by the work of Professor of Landscape Architecture Brian Orland. Originally at Penn State but now at the University of Georgia, Orland used actual hydrologic, design and plant species data to model and replicate green infrastructure sites in computer generated visualizations of what green infrastructure looks like in actual communities. This allowed for the creation of visualization dashboards to communicate the implications of stormwater management and incorporate these tools into decision-making processes.

In this research project, the visualization tools were incorporated into a study led by Richard Ready, Professor of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at Montana State University. Orland and Ready, also formerly of Penn State, collaborated on a survey of citizens which used the visualization tools to test preferences for different green infrastructure approaches in neighborhoods. Results showed a preference for high biodiversity but an aversion to standing water. The level of geometry or the pattern of green space was not shown to be an important factor. And while people tend not to care how much of an area is mowed, they did not like landscapes that are completely mowed. These findings may help shape proper design and placement of green infrastructure in neighborhoods to gain greater community acceptance.

More technical aspects of stormwater management were also explored through the Center’s research. Over the last decade, Chris Duffy, Professor of Civil Engineering at Penn State, has developed a dynamic hydrologic watershed model known as the Penn State Integrated Hydrologic Model, or PIHM . This grant allowed Duffy to incorporate urban influences into that model. Duffy’s work concentrated on the Conestoga watershed in Lancaster County and shows how the changes in that landscape with increased urbanization has altered hydrology and watershed dynamics.

Shirley Clark, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Penn State Harrisburg, also shared preliminary results of a survey of stormwater practitioners and exploration of the International BMP Database, a repository of monitored water quality information at a variety of green infrastructure projects. Preliminary assessment reveals that while there is broader acceptance of green infrastructure in recent years and increased data to predict green infrastructure performance , many design tools relied upon by the engineering community have yet to be updated to reflect changes in technology and understanding of the performance of stormwater control measures.

The conference also provided attendees opportunities to hear from Lee Murphy of DEP about the state’s recent updates to its MS4 program and to participate in facilitated dialogue around solutions for overcoming barriers to green infrastructure adoption, including developing public awareness and acceptance, technical tools, facilitating and supporting collaboration, and funding.

The Center’s work will wrap up in February 2018. The AEC will develop a conference report as well as a website where the final reports and presentations of all of the researchers will be distributed, so that stormwater practitioners and decision makers can draw from the research findings and recommendations.