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Urban Watershed Research
The Humane Metropolis

Project Summary


NSF Grant No. CMS-0201409

Between 1950 and 2000, metropolitan population of the United States nearly tripled from 84 million (55% of U. S. total) to 226 million (80% of U. S. total). At the same time, the land area within designated "metropolitan statistical areas" more than doubled from about 9% to about 19% of the conterminous U. S. land area. The expansion of metropolitan areas in size and number (from 169 in 1950 to 347 in 2000) has been accompanied by the degradation of local watersheds, streams, wetlands, groundwater aquifers, and coastal waters. Aquatic resources in the path of urbanization have been widely polluted, littered, dredged, filled, paved over, channelized, walled, and otherwise abused. In the process, "Nature's services"--including flood mitigation, water quality filtering, biotic habitat, nutrient uptake, soil formation, scenic amenity--have been impaired or obliterated. This has compelled cities, regions, states, and the federal government to substitute costly technology for those services, as with structural flood protection and water treatment plants. Water-based recreation, commercial and sport fishing, birding, and relaxation have all been casualties of the longstanding abuse of urban waterways and wetlands.

This dismal picture, however, is to some extent out of date. Many cities and metropolitan regions have begun to adjust to their biophysical circumstances rather than seeking to overwhelm them through technology. This shift is tentative, geographically uneven, and poorly documented, but nevertheless palpable and significant to the future habitability of urban places. Such "greening" of urban development follows a trend well established in Europe according to recent research by associate investigator Timothy Beatley. This proposal postulates that the leading edge of this process of "urban greening" is most apparent in new attitudes, perceptions, policies, and approaches to the management of urban land/water features, particularly stream corridors, wetlands, and coastal estuaries.

Four research-based notions helped to foster this transition to "greener" approaches to urban land-water resource management. First, research by geographer Gilbert F. White and his associates over four decades have proven that structural flood control is costly, environmentally damaging, and often counter-productive. Second, wetlands ecologists such as Eugene Odum, William Niering, and John and Mildred Teal have taught that wetlands, and especially coastal saltmarshes, are ecologically and aesthetically vital. Third, the potential of urban streams and coastal waters to provide outdoor recreation and exercise was emphasized in the 1962 Report of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission and further promoted in the writings of William H. Whyte, Charles Little, and others. Fourth, research by the present writer has fostered better recognition that urban watersheds transcend political boundaries at all levels and thus require new basinwide management strategies.

A series of research questions will guide the study:

  1. What alternative institutional models are available to overcome political fragmentation in urban watersheds and estuaries?
  2. What indicators of "effectiveness" may be applied to models identified under Question 1?
  3. To what extent do existing federal programs for coastal, riverine, wetland, and habitat management encourage or inhibit the achievement of multiple objectives in urban stream corridor and estuary management?
  4. What is the influence of the property rights movement and the "Takings Issue" as a constraint upon regulatory measures for urban floodplain, wetland, and estuary management?

The study will seek to assess comparative regional experience concerning these and other related issues through four research tasks:

Task 1: Survey of State of Practice. We will survey a selected sample of resource management professionals knowledgeable about stream corridor, wetland, and estuary management in ten representative metropolitan regions. The survey will address: (1) promising or innovative institutional arrangements for managing aquatic resources; (2) evidence of effectiveness of such institutional arrangements; (3) how federal programs may promote or hinder regional initiatives; and (4) the effect of the property rights and the "takings issue" on the management of local and regional efforts to manage aquatic resources.

Task 2: Regional Workshops. We will hold 3-5 one-day workshops in some of the MSA's addressed in the Task 1 survey. These workshops will be organized in cooperation with regional nongovernmental organizations, academic research centers, or public agencies. The purpose of the regional workshops will be to gather additional knowledge about the state of practice of multi-objective management of stream corridors, wetlands, and estuaries in the particular MSA. Workshop sites will be selected from the list of survey MSA's based on geographical diversity and budget considerations.

Task 3: Detailed Case Studies. The Task 1 survey and Task 2 workshops will guide the selection of 3-5 detailed case studies of promising new approaches to managing urban land-water resources. Case study sites will be chosen to reflect diversity in bioregion, urban characteristics, and flood experience.

Task 4: Publication and Dissemination of Results. A final project report will be based on the work products developed through the Task 1 survey, the Task 2 workshops, and the Task 3 case studies. This report will include major Findings and Recommendations regarding institutional management of urban land-water resource features to serve multiple objectives.

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Last Updated: January 20, 2006