Houston flood expected to drain slowly


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Give its flat landscape and dearth of flood control infrastructure, the city of Houston will rely primarily on slow-moving bayous to drain the area. (Adam Baker/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 1, 2017

While the downpour in Houston has finally subsided, the Texas city has few options for draining the 15 trillion gallons of water that fell in the region.

The city of Houston has no levees or pumps or flood walls it can call on to drain water more quickly back into surrounding bayous. As a low-lying coastal plain, it also has a rather flat landscape. Arturo Leon, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Houston said, “This means the capacity for drainage is very slow. If there were a slope, then it would drain faster,” in a report by Scientific American.

In the last thirty years, the city has grown a great deal, all without any zoning laws that regulate development, even in flood prone areas. For example, since 2010 about 7,000 residential buildings have been built on land the federal government considers a 100 year floodplain, according to a review by the Washington Post. Stormwater drainage systems have not kept pace with the area’s development.

Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University, said, “Houston is the Wild West of development, so any mention of regulation creates a hostile reaction from people who see that as an infringement on property rights and a deterrent to economic growth. The stormwater system has never been designed for anything much stronger than a heavy afternoon thunderstorm.”

As a result, the city relies heavily on surround bayous to reabsorb rainwater. Bayous are slow moving, and especially so on Houston’s flat landscape.

A list of options for donating to victims and displaced residents in the area can be found here.

On The Radio – Urban areas to suffer economic costs of climate change


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According to a recent study, the world’s larger cities, such as New York City, will be hit hardest by global warming. (Chris Goldberg/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 24, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment describes how climate change will have a disproportionate economic impact on urban areas.

Transcript: A recent study by an international group of economists found that climate change will likely cost cities twice as much as rural areas.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the largest quarter of the world’s cities could see more intense temperature spikes by 2050 due to the combined effect of global warming and urban heat island effects. Urban heat islands are formed when naturally cooling surfaces like vegetation and bodies of water are replaced by surfaces that trap heat like concrete and asphalt.

Higher temperatures in cities have negative economic impacts including less productive workers, higher cooling costs for buildings and poorer water and air quality. On average, the global gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to drop by 5.6 percent by 2100 due to climate change. The combined climate change and heat island effect means that the most-impacted cities are expected to lose about 11 percent of their GDP in the same period.

The economists noted that some actions can be taken to mitigate these effects including installing cooling pavements and green roofs and reintroducing vegetation in urban areas.

To read the full story and for more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

On the Radio – UI researcher works to understand bicycle fatalities


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Hamann has found that bicycle specific infrastructure, such as bicycle lanes, can help reduce fatalities. (Danielle Scott/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| June 26, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses Dr. Cara Hamann’s research into the increasing number of bicycle fatalities in Iowa.

Transcript: Deaths of Iowa bicyclists have risen by 260 percent in the last four years, and Dr. Cara Hamann of the University of Iowa is working to do something about it.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Hamann, an associate professor of epidemiology at the UI College of Public Health, and her team of researchers explored the relationship between motor vehicle driving behavior and bicycle crashes. The scientists attached GPS and video-recording equipment to bicyclists to capture first-hand data and performed simulations using the National Advanced Driving Simulator, located on the University of Iowa campus.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,477 people were killed in bicycle crashes in 2015. Hamann explained that most fatal crashes happen when motor vehicles strike bicyclists.

For more information about Dr. Hamann’s research, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

UI professor works to make Iowa roads safer for cyclists


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Despite Iowa’s unique and treasured tradition of cycling across the state each summer during RAGBRAI, deaths of everyday cyclists are on the rise. (Channone Arif/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 26, 2017

Bicyclist deaths in the state of Iowa have risen by 260 percent in the last four years, and Dr. Cara Hamann of the University of Iowa is working to do something about it.

Hamann, an associate professor of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health, has done extensive research on bicycle safety. Now she aims to bring her work to the attention of lawmakers.

“I am working to close the gap between research and policy,” she said in an interview with the Big Ten Network. Hamann and her research team have explored the relationship between motor vehicle driving behavior and bicycle crashes in both simulated and naturalistic settings. She explained, “We have conducted studies of how drivers interact with bicyclists using the National Advanced Driving Simulator (located here on the UI campus) and have also conducted real-world naturalistic bicycling studies, using GPS and video to capture first-hand data on bicyclist trips.”

National trends match those observed in Iowa. In 2015, 3,477 people were killed in bicycle crashes according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most fatal bike crashes, Hamann explained, happen when cars strike bicyclists. To explain motor vehicles’ particular lethality, some researchers point to the fact that an estimated 660,000 U.S. drivers use their cell phones while driving during daylight hours.

Hamann said, “We have also found that bicycle-specific infrastructure (e.g., bicycle lanes) have protective effects, which supports the need for more appropriations and implementation of those types of roadway treatments to reduce crashes and related injuries.”

Over its lifespan, the average motor vehicle emits 1.3 billion cubic yards of polluted air, including earth-warming greenhouse gases. In contrast, bicycles do not produce any emissions during use. Additionally, when more people are on bikes, traffic congestion is reduced and cars spend less time idling. Bike friendly communities are also generally healthier than those that center entirely around motor vehicles.

Hamann said, “Reduced bicycle crashes and associated injuries can have huge benefits to communities—the same things that are associated with increased biking and walking, in general—better overall health of the community due to increased physical activity, less traffic congestion, and environmental benefits, to name a few.”

ISU researchers develop decision-making tool for sustainable cities


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The city of Des Moines is involved in ISU’s “Big Data for Sustainable City Decision-Making” research project. (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 28, 2016

Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) and the city of Des Moines are working together to develop a decision-making tool that could revolutionize the way cities tackle climate change and social issues.

Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of ISU’s Center for Building Energy Research, is the lead faculty researcher. Passe said, “There’s so much unrelated data available — from census and economic information to policy studies and weather records — but it needs to be merged into a useable model.” Passe added that city planners and officials need to have “a data-based tool that helps them decide how to allocate resources for conservation measures like tree planting and storm water management.”

Passe’s team of 16 researchers from over a dozen disciplines is working closely with Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager. Sanders said, “The creation of this this decision-making system will provide staff access to an amalgamation of big data, which they presently have no way to effectively evaluate, that is a critical component to the future of successful and resilient cities.” Sanders noted that citywide interest in sustainability is on the rise, he said, “The demand far outweighs the city’s ability to provide all of the required and desired improvements within its current budget constraints. The need for a data-driven process and policy to help assess and prioritize the city’s investments has never been higher.”

The project is focusing its efforts on communities in east Des Moines such as Capitol East, Capitol Park and MLK Jr. Park. Linda Shenk, associate professor of English at ISU, is also involved in the study. She said, “We focus on marginalized populations because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to limited resources, yet the most difficult for cities to reach and engage in data collection.” For her part, Shenk has been discussing climate change and brainstorming local solutions with neighborhood groups and high school students. Meanwhile, other researchers in the neighborhoods are gathering data about how citizens interact with their city, communities, and homes using computational thermal-physical models.

Other ongoing projects include a tree inventory in the Capital East neighborhood and energy efficiency research through controlled experiments at ISU’s net-zero energy Interlock house located at Honey Creek Resort State Park. The study’s goal for this year is to compile data about human behavior related to energy use. Moving forward, Passe said, “Our objective is to create decision-making support systems that will help cities and their residents translate this research into actions — new policies, incentives for individual behaviors and community resilience.”

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The above graphic outlines the four phases of the research project along with the 16 ISU faculty that are involved. (Iowa State University)

Study: Urban planning can reduce city’s energy usage by 25%


Des Moines is the most populous city in Iowa with 203,433 residents according to the 2010 Census (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)
Des Moines is the most populous city in Iowa with 203,433 residents according to the 2010 Census (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 30, 2015

A study released earlier this month found that efficient urban planning and more emphasis on public transportation can help cities to reduce energy usage by about 25 percent.

The study – which was conducted by researchers from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Yale University, and the University of Maryland – examined 274 cities around the globe and concluded that if sustainable development and infrastructure is not implemented, the world’s energy usage will triple by 2050. Sustainable development is most important in the Middle East, China, and Africa where populations are expected to rise at the fastest rate.

The researchers also pointed to findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which found that cities consume 76 percent of the world’s energy and are responsible for approximately three-quarters of global CO2 emissions.

The study’s authors conclude:

“The results show that, for affluent and mature cities, higher gasoline prices combined with compact urban form can result in savings in both residential and transport energy use. In contrast, for developing-country cities with emerging or nascent infrastructures, compact urban form, and transport planning can encourage higher population densities and subsequently avoid lock-in of high carbon emission patterns for travel. The results underscore a significant potential urbanization wedge for reducing energy use in rapidly urbanizing Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.”

According to the 2010 Census more than 80 percent of the U.S. population live in urban areas while more than half of the world population lives in cities, a number that is expected to rise to 66 percent by 2050.

 

Urban Wetlands Can Help Curb Pollution


Constructed Wetland, Photo by Sustainable Sanitation; Flickr

Constructed wetlands can help Iowa cities and towns manage storm runoff from both farm fields and new development sites, according to researchers who looked at the opportunities offered by urban wetland projects. Continue reading