Green Roof. Photo by Paul g. Wiegman.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Northwestern University are teaming up to battle urban flooding thanks to a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The five-year project, officially known as Catalyzing Resilient Urban Infrastructure Systems: Integrating the Natural & Built Environments, will examine strategies for incorporating green infrastructure (things like rain gardens and water infiltration systems) into existing urban environments. The University of Pittsburgh announced the award on Aug. 27.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, Carla Ng, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt, explains that teams at Northwestern in Chicago and here in Pittsburgh will carry out parallel monitoring and data collection of existing green infrastructure in their respective cities, then apply those findings to further research during the project.

Like Pittsburgh, the Chicago region has seen record-breaking levels of rain over the last several years, leaving historically dry neighborhoods suddenly at risk of floods.

But unlike Pittsburgh, Chicago’s topography is flat and the city has a separated sewer system that keeps stormwater away from sewage.

As Ng explains, these parallels and contrasts are a key part of the study: “Trying to find sites that are both similar and different will help us understand how a city landscape reacts to applications of green infrastructure in a number of different ways.”

The project doesn’t officially begin until Sept. 13 with a kick-off meeting at Northwestern, but Ng and her colleagues are already working with Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and several neighborhood groups to identify local monitoring sites.

The teams bring together scientists from a range of different fields. Ng, a chemical engineer by trade, will work with Murat Akcakaya, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering who specializes in building predictive models via machine learning. Professor Daniel Bain, the associate director of the university’s Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education, and Outreach, will also advise the team.

In addition to hard science, both teams will also work with partners in the community to develop designs and investment plans for their particular green projects.

As Ng emphasizes, the main goal of the project is to create workable solutions for neighborhoods at risk of flooding.

“We want it to be directly engaged with the community from the start,” she says.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.