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ASU will lead new research network looking at weather extremes and city infrastructure

Arizona State University

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IMAGE: On the left, Indian Bend Wash in Scottsdale is an example of safe-to-fail resilient infrastructure that is the focus of the ASU UREx SRN. By contrast, the LA River, pictured... view more

Credit: Image credits: Indian Bend Wash, Nancy Grimm, ASU; LA River, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

TEMPE, Ariz. (July 27, 2015) - Extreme weather events can cripple crucial infrastructure that enables transit, electricity, water and other services in urban areas. This leaves cities and their citizens cut off and in danger. With weather extremes becoming more common - from devastating hurricanes and flooding to record drought and heat waves - it will be increasingly important to develop infrastructure in different, more sustainable ways.

That is the idea behind a new Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN), recently funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Three Arizona State University researchers from distinctly different disciplines will lead the new UREx SRN to change the way we think about urban infrastructure. The three ASU researchers - Charles Redman, Nancy Grimm and Mikhail Chester - have joined together to lead a team of 50 researchers from 15 institutions in nine cities spanning from North to South America.

The National Science Foundation awarded the network $12 million over five years through its Sustainability Research Networks program, which focuses on urban sustainability.

Redman, an anthropologist, is project director of UREx SRN and is founding director and a professor in ASU's School of Sustainability. Grimm, an ecologist, is a project co-director and professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences. Chester, an engineer, is a project co-director and an assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

"The failing of urban infrastructure in extreme weather events was because people trained themselves to think that events of this magnitude would never happen in their city," said Redman. "However, they are happening now and we can expect them to happen more frequently in the future."

"Extreme events present a great challenge to global sustainability, and urban areas are particularly vulnerable to these events, often due to their location, interdependent infrastructure and people concentration," added Georgia Kosmopoulou, NSF program director in economics. "This SRN team will develop - through a novel more holistic approach - methods and tools to assess how infrastructure can become more resilient providing ecosystem services in an effort to improve social wellbeing. The geographical breadth of the proposal is an advantage; cities that represent alternative cultural backgrounds can offer new ideas about socio-ecological-technological infrastructure."

"We're interested in letting a little bit more of nature back into the city," Grimm said. "We can actually benefit quite a lot from using some of the characteristics of natural systems and incorporating those into our designs."

The team's holistic approach to urban infrastructure is novel. They will evaluate the social, ecological and technical systems (SETS) related to infrastructure. This includes recognizing the values of all stakeholders, from city decision-makers to the people who will use and be affected by infrastructure, understanding the natural environment in which infrastructure operates and evaluating available infrastructure technology. The result will be a suite of tools supporting the assessment and implementation of urban infrastructure that is resilient, "safe-to-fail" and tailored to a particular city.

An example of differences of the current technology, called fail-safe, versus safe-to-fail is the comparison of a greenbelt in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Los Angeles River channel, Grimm said.

In Scottsdale, the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt winds through the city in a swath of green and dappled shade. A bike path and green space along the wash improve social well being for residents in the area, and trees and plants provide numerous ecosystem services such as habitat for animals, maintaining cooler air temperatures and producing oxygen. After it rains, the wash fills with storm water drained from the surrounding roads and neighborhoods. Because the wash is designed to be safe-to-fail, floodwaters do occasionally wash out the bike path and create a river - but repairs are easily made, Grimm explained.

Alternatively, the Los Angeles River channel was designed to be fail-safe. Devastating flooding of the LA River in the 1800s resulted in a call for its taming. In the 1930s the river was converted from natural and meandering to cemented and controlled.

While directing the river through a built channel has helped control flooding, it has removed the multi-functionality and ecosystem services that a river typically provides. In addition, the entire system could be paralyzed if one part of the structure sustains significant damage, such as from an earthquake. As a result, the City of Los Angeles has recently begun planning for transforming parts of the river to recapture parts of its lost ecosystem.

Creating safe-to-fail scenarios requires consideration of SETS and the current and future needs of a city. To do this, each of the nine UREx SRN teams includes an engineer, a social scientist and an environmental scientist, ensuring a rich understanding of infrastructure needs and impacts across cities and cultures. In addition to ASU's Phoenix-based team, the UREx SRN includes teams based in Baltimore; Miami; New York; Portland; Syracuse, N.Y.; Hermosillo, Mexico; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Valdivia, Chile.

"There is a lot of opportunity to think about who is vulnerable to climate change and where they live in the city; to tailor redevelopment of infrastructure to protect the people who are the most vulnerable," said Chester, adding that infrastructure design should be appropriate to each location and no single solution applies to all cities.

"By bringing this all together we may be able to really talk to people who build the future," Redman added. "From the first day of designing something like highways and power grids we're going to talk about how Earth's systems work and how human institutions react. Our goal is to build future infrastructure to be more resilient and equitable and not just more efficient."

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