Centering Equity and Resilience in Urban Stream and Watershed Restoration

Environmental Engineering; Environmental Sciences; Urban Studies and Planning; Physical and Environmental Geography

This project will integrate engineering, environmental, and social equity goals and perspectives to jointly and resiliently improve environmental and social equity conditions in urban regions.

Research Interests
  • Community engagement
  • Resilience
  • watershed management

In response to decades of urbanization and structural racism, some cities are seeking strategies to jointly improve stream health and social equity.  Management options for stream health range from watershed-wide efforts to deploy grey and green infrastructure, which seek to control stormwater quantity and quality before it reaches the stream, to stream restoration,which involves reconstruction and revegetation of the stream channel and immediate riparian area to seek to restore stream function and reduce hazard. Successfully designing systems using these approaches involves balancing the effectiveness and resilience of new and restored infrastructure with the equity and benefits for local community members. We will focus the project on Charlottesville watersheds with current and future planned restorations,partnering with municipal, county, and state governmental agencies, and community-based organizations.

This project seeks to create a multi-system, multi-objective analysis to begin to address this question of the comparative performance of in-stream restoration versus distributed watershed management or whether a combination is required.  This work will address both ecological and hydrological assessment combined with assessment of community impacts and benefits, including how benefits are distributed among community members. Work involves instream monitoring, modeling of future conditions and benefits given different approaches to management, integrated with surveying and mapping of social impacts and benefits, and coproduction of an acceptable management plan.   Climate model projections will be used as inputs to hydrologic models in order to evaluate the robustness of potential stream restoration and watershed interventions to more intense and erratic rainfall events that may occur in the future. We will also concurrently consider long-range planning documents and how zoning regulations and other policies might affect urbanization in the study watershed(s).

Historically communities of color are typically under-served by green infrastructure (GI) investments (Ferguson et al., 2018; Hasala et al.,2020) and this includes stream restoration projects (Moran, 2010; Stanford et al. 2018). The proposed modeling work will be integrated with an equity lens on the design and implementation of GI-based stream restoration in Charlottesville. The nature of planning and decision-making processes as well as the specifics of the project itself can greatly affect how residents understand and react to stream restoration projects (Derkzen et al., 2017). This project will help to fill this gap by exploring strategies for more effectively engaging vulnerable populations in green infrastructure planning,while still providing an innovative synthesis of the engineering and scientific foundation of the challenge.  By better understanding the knowledge and perceptions of GI benefits—from water quality improvements to heat island attenuation to recreational opportunities—the proposed research will yield new knowledge that can improve community acceptance and implementation of GI projects, while enhancing resilient adaptation strategies to the needs of the local community.

 In addition, we will conduct an equity assessment that draws upon the Social Vulnerability Index (Cutter et al., 2003) and established, practice-tested approaches (Montgomery County, 2021) as a point of departure. We will explore the use of participatory mapping techniques (Cutts et al., 2011) and digital technologies (e.g., web apps and mobile phones) to document the perspectives of residents and other stakeholders on the need for water quality improvements, urban heat island attenuation, and recreational green space in Charlottesville. We will host two, 2-hour open house events with recruited community participants, local government staff and non-profit organizations operating within the study watershed(s). The initial workshop will characterize public awareness of the watershed management needs and possible interventions while establishing a common fact base for co-producing the watershed management interventions. The second event will focus on developing shared priorities and an implementation strategy for the stream restoration work. These focus group activities will  allow the project team to integrate local government and researcher goals with the lived experiences and preferences of residents. 

Desired outcomes

  • The project will develop and pilot a framework for the co-production of effective resilient watershed management strategies, including hydrological and ecological modeling and digital tools for community engagement.
  • This project will lead to peer-reviewed publication(s) and presentations. 
  • The new research collaboration seeded by this proposal will lead to at least one external grant proposal national, state, and private funding sources