Flooding 17 October 2016 in downtown Miami, Fla.
High tides can cause nuisance flooding, even on sunny days, as shown in this 17 October 2016 photo from downtown Miami, Fla. At a workshop earlier this year, participants worked to identify common problems and emerging challenges and to establish a multidisciplinary research and cultural exchange program involving Italian universities and Florida International University. Credit: B137/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Coastal cities increasingly experience flooding events. Population growth and critical socioeconomic dynamics highlight the scientific, cultural, and societal knowledge gaps that affect safe urban development—gaps that raise risk and life uncertainty for coastal dwellers under these hydrologic extremes.

To address these critical scientific and cultural topics, an international workshop was organized by the Institute of Water and Environment of Florida International University (FIU) and the Water Resources Research and Documentation Center of the University for Foreigners Perugia in Italy. Attendees included academics and experts from various Earth and environmental sciences and from engineering, architectural, sociohumanistic, hydroinformatics, and digital geography (geographic information system) disciplines. The workshop also had representatives from the University of Florence (Italy) and the World Water Assessment Programme of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

This first Italy-U.S. bilateral workshop had several main objectives: to debate the state of knowledge and research; to identify common problems and emerging challenges; and to establish an innovative, multidisciplinary research and cultural exchange program among Italian universities and FIU. The event had three sessions.

Presenters discussed water sciences and infrastructure design from a security and sustainability perspective for coastal urban systems.

During the first session, presenters discussed existing graduate academic programs and ongoing research related to water sciences and infrastructure design from a security and sustainability perspective for coastal urban systems. The debate confirmed the maturity of water infrastructure design as a research field, with remote sensing as well as information and communications technology (e.g., in situ ground and water monitoring technology, hydroinformatics, crowdsourced data, geospatial modeling) advancements contributing to effective understanding, managing, and forecasting of extreme events.

Nevertheless, during the subsequent sessions, on common problems and emerging challenges, invited speakers from Italy and the United States confirmed that the complexity and uncertainty of water phenomena still challenge scientists to provide novel guidelines for sustainable engineering approaches. This is especially so in historic cities where social, cultural, architectural, and archeological constraints limit the applicability of modern solutions.

Presenters recommended investigations into the effectiveness and durability of solutions that rely on structural (gray) approaches versus nonstructural (green/blue or land- and water-based natural resource) approaches. They also stressed the importance of integrated multisectorial research to help tackle actual and future societal needs in coastal settings.

Workshop outcomes provided a basis for identifying the main research topics going forward, as well as pertinent questions that need to be answered:

  • The sea-land interface represents one of the most challenging and multidisciplinary research topics. This is especially true in a context of sea level rise, subsidence, and saltwater intrusion, among other coastal issues that are affecting sustainable development worldwide. How could possible solutions to these issues effectively consider the social and cultural component?
  • Great technical and economic efforts are being devoted to the worldwide implementation of “gray” engineering approaches (e.g., coastal barriers, gates, and sediment movement works). How can we evaluate the long-term impact of these efforts on human safety and maintenance efficiency? Also, how can we consider human perception and behaviors linked to the effect of large gray infrastructure?

How will we address the cultural gap between popular green/blue solutions and policy-making approaches, which favor gray solutions?

  • “Green” remediation actions, ecosystem services, and nature-based solutions seem a viable technical solution in the long term, and citizens are well disposed to noninvasive green or blue solutions. How will we address the cultural gap between these solutions and short-term decisions and policy-making approaches, which are still prone to implementing gray solutions?

Participants also recommended the following future actions:

  • develop joint Ph.D. programs integrating water science with social and cultural studies
  • develop applied research that engages active citizenship and big-data science as a central part of next-generation decision-making processes for smart and sustainable urban systems
  • identify and develop large-scale demonstration and living labs for testing the effectiveness of noninvasive solutions, compared with large gray infrastructures
Flooded Tiber River surrounds Tiber Island in Rome, Italy.
A flooded Tiber River surrounds Tiber Island in Rome, Italy. Although Rome and Miami, Fla., have very different climatic, hydrologic, and cultural settings, they share similar concerns about flooding and water quality. Credit: ROMAOSLO/iStock

The historic urban landmarks and coastal landscapes of Miami, Fla., and Rome, Italy, will be used as starting case studies. Although Rome’s historical center isn’t directly on the coast, the city managers are facing significant issues with constant nuisance flooding on the coastal land reclamation domain (e.g., the Ostia archeological area and surroundings), which is home to informal settlements and inefficient water infrastructures. Our case studies will form the basis for extending research investigations and solutions to the global domain.

The authors thank FIU Institute of Water and Environment director Todd A. Crowl for his significant work in the writing of this meeting report. We also thank all the academic partners, institutions, and other entities who are supporting our joint effort.

—Fernando Nardi (email: fernando.nardi@unistrapg.it), Water Resources Research and Documentation Center, University for Foreigners Perugia, Italy; and Maria Donoso and Rita Teutonico, Institute of Water and Environment, Florida International University, Miami


Nardi, F.,Donoso, M., and Teutonico, R. (2017), Integrating water science and culture for urban sustainability, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO087439. Published on 18 December 2017.

Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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