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AGU's Thriving Earth Exchange Links Science with Small Towns

Scientists and students collaborate with communities to create a greener municipal building in Midway, Ga., and assess residents' vulnerability to warming climate in Brookline, Mass.

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Beside the Atlantic, some 50 kilometers southwest of Savannah, amid the Georgia wetlands and in the town of Midway, student Markesha McKay is designing a new city hall.

The Midway municipal building design shown in this rendering incorporates many budget-friendly green features.
The Midway municipal building design shown in this rendering incorporates many budget-friendly green features, such as recycled cork flooring. Credit: Bryan Knakiewicz, Savannah State University

McKay, a member of Savannah State University’s Department of Engineering Technology, is aware of the challenge: design a new municipal building that is resilient, environmentally friendly, and fits the town’s aesthetic. By the time the project is complete, Midway’s new municipal building will include a green roof top, low-emissivity glass, rain gardens, bioswales, recycled cork wood flooring, and recycled steel.

“When we had the meeting with the mayor, they literally had the design; they had red ink all over that paper with things that they wanted to change,” McKay said.

McKay was connected to the town of Midway through the College/Underserved Community Partnership Program (CUPP) run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through the CUPP program, the EPA matches university resources with underserved communities.

The students started by making conceptual floor plans using pen and paper. There are separate rooms for police, administration, and secretaries. The students went on to present their plans at a citizen town hall meeting. After fine-tuning and ensuring that the plans adhered to city, county, and state requirements, they used the computer programs AutoCAD and Revit to create 3-D renderings of the new structure.

Connected by TEX

The process was facilitated by AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX), which helped Midway’s community representatives connect with scientific lead Jackie Jackson, who has a background in resiliency planning, sea level rise, climate change, and coastal management.

“The collaboration worked really well because there was really good communication between the scientist, the professor, and the students,” said Natasha Udu-gama, director of community partnerships for TEX. “I’m really happy to say that it’s finished and pleasantly surprised about how that collaboration worked with EPA CUPP and that we were able to find a professional expert.”

Launched in 2013, AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange connects scientists with communities to solve local challenges related to climate change, natural hazards, and natural resources. The program, which was recently tapped by the White House to colead a new climate change resilience initiative, currently hosts 37 U.S.-based projects, from Oregon to Massachusetts, as well as four projects overseas. With respect to Midway, TEX facilitates a particular solution in helping address the needs of a small town.

TEX also facilitates opportunities for students. McKay, who graduated in May, had no previous field experience prior to the Midway project. She, along with colleague Uriah Virgo, wound up working directly with engineers and town mayor Clemontine F. Washington.

Brookline Project

Some 1600 kilometers northeast of Midway, in Brookline, Mass., other students and scientists are working together on a different TEX-facilitated project to create a heat vulnerability assessment for the town. Rising temperatures pose numerous threats to the area. In particular, the team is looking at these temperatures’ effects on vulnerable populations, especially the elderly. Although area projections show impending hot days, Brookline itself lacks data on how the town will be affected.

Town leaders in Brookline were most interested in public health impact. But along with an analysis of the way their citizens would be impacted by rising temperatures, the civic leaders sought a risk assessment that would inform their plans for adaptation and mitigation. The team, led by Auroop Ganguly, scientific liaison for the project, performed different types of geospatial data analysis. The factors they examined included land cover, land surface types, green roofs, vegetation, roof area availability, and cooling centers.

“I think it’s beneficial for all of us to have at least some projects of this nature,” said Ganguly. “We actually go and see how it helps, see challenges and opportunities, and sometimes as you start work with communities, some new questions come in which you may not have thought about which inform your research and your knowledge.”

Brookline, Mass., from above.
Using satellite imagery and census and climate data, TEX volunteers evaluated alternative approaches to protecting Brookline residents from extreme heat. In city blocks with expansive roofs and lots of pavement, like the blocks shown here, moving to green or reflective roofs is an effective way to reduce future heat vulnerability. Credit: Isaac Kohane, CC BY-NC 2.0

Team member Lizzy Warner is a first-year Ph.D. student at Northeastern University. Her background is in the intersection of policy and science, and she found the chance to work on the Brookline project to be a good opportunity to combine her interests and interact with the public.

“To me it was one of the first times to present scientific data and have feedback from people who were living and working there,” Warner said.

Maria Morelli, senior planner for the town of Brookline, said the process has been eye-opening. “The fact that we can provide evidence that is data driven is phenomenal,” Morelli said. “It is a game changer.”

Small-Town Challenges and Opportunities

Working in a small town has presented some challenges, team members said. For one, the project team found itself without the resources of nearby Boston and other communities. However, the setting also permitted a high degree of in-person interaction.

“The other thing that really helps when looking at communities or small towns is you have the opportunity to talk directly with urban planners and people on the ground,” Ganguly said.

Students Have Grown from Both Projects

In mid-October, Warner and fellow student Babak Fard presented their findings to representatives in Brookline’s town hall. Their presentation combined both climate and social data. In Atlanta, the Midway students presented their work at the EPA CUPP Conference. In both cases, the students played a pivotal role in communicating scientific information to key decision makers and the public.

For community and scientific leads, the student presentations presented a particular moment of pride. Bryan Knakiewicz, who has served as a local leader on about 20 community developments in Midway, including the TEX project, said the latter was most impactful for students, as well as one where they were the most involved.

“This level of work…couldn’t have been done without the enthusiasm and participation of students,” Ganguly said. “Each student brings in very different perspectives.”

Students are also participating in other TEX projects, including improving air quality in Granite City, Ill., and adapting ecological calendars to a changing climate in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. TEX also matched a recent graduate to its project on exploring renewable energy options in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

A New Approach to Community Science

Raj Pandya, Thriving Earth Exchange program director, views student involvement as a way of facilitating a new approach to community science.

“With students, you’re investing not just in the community and not just in the student, but also in a new approach to connecting science and society,” Pandya said.

For the students, the rewards of the projects extend beyond the confines of Midway and Brookline and have affected the ways in which they think about their future.

Back in Midway, McKay said she enjoyed the control granted to her throughout the process of designing the municipal building. Working on the project “made me realize that I really wanted to turn my career path and focus more on design,” she recalled. “I want to focus on creating new things and have a major part in that process.”

She also enjoyed the opportunity to push the boundaries of science itself.

“We’re able to use things from our own imagination…and actually put together our skills and make something from nothing, and I thought that was a beautiful thing. I learned a lot about the process, and it pretty much made me fall in love.”

—Pierre Dumont (email: [email protected]), Intern, Thriving Earth Exchange

Citation: Dumont, P. (2016), AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange links science with small towns, Eos, 97, https://doi.org/10.1029/2016EO064235. Published on 08 December 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0