UMD Researchers Uncover Critical Barriers to Improve Sustainability and Green Infrastructure Adoption Across Two Chesapeake Bay Watersheds

UMD Researchers Uncover Critical Barriers to Improve Sustainability and Green Infrastructure Adoption Across Two Chesapeake Bay Watersheds

College Park, MD -- While the White House and the United Nations are prioritizing the sustainable development of urban green space with the introduction of goals and target timelines, adoption in areas such as Green Infrastructure (GI) at the local level has been challenging and inconsistent. GI occurs at many scales, but it is most often associated with stormwater management, response to climate change, reduction of heat stress, and sustainable energy production. Policies set forth from the top-down have been partially unsuccessful in changing community behavior, due to a combination of socio-cultural, environmental, economic/financial and other challenges. To better understand this phenomenon, a team of researchers - Debasmita Patra, Victoria Chanse, Amanda Rockler, Sacoby Wilson, Hubert Montas, Adel Shirmohammadi, and Paul T. Leisnham - conducted a Community-based participatory research study. They have deployed a social science approach to potentially increase GI adoption rates in two Chesapeake Bay Watersheds, which was recently published in Sustainable Cities and Society where they identified five categories of perceived barriers, as well as an integrated governance approach to improve water quality locally and beyond.

Patra, an assistant research professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Science and Technology, is part of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD), the University of Wellington in New Zealand, UMD’s School of Public Health, University of Maryland Extension, and UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering that focused the study’s efforts around Watershed 263, and Watts Branch, two distinct locations within the Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Watts Branch is a tributary stream of the Anacostia River in Prince George’s County, Md, and Washington D.C., while Watershed 263 represents a large drainage area encompassing multiple neighborhoods that empties into the Baltimore Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. Once the locations were identified, Patra worked to establish relationships with three community partners to find residential and professional interviewees. 

“I wanted to go really in-depth on this issue. Why are there barriers and challenges that exist in GI installation in certain areas? To get to the bottom of this, I really wanted to focus on community based research with help from an advisory committee,” says Patra. “To this end, I secured participation from the Anacostia Watershed Society, Bluewater Baltimore, and Parks and People Foundation, all of which helped me reach out to community members and partners to conduct interviews. Due to their involvement, we received an overwhelming response and excitement from the community.”

Patra initiated 42 interviews divided equally between both watersheds. 20 were local residents, while the remaining 22 included infrastructure professionals, non-profits, researchers, county officials, and others. The interviews were wholly qualitative in nature focused solely on the problem of why local jurisdictions were not meeting their sustainability goals. She spoke with each one of them and delivered broad, open-ended questions. She also conducted an assessment of the government GI policies. 

“For a social scientist, the interview process is fundamentally different. In some cases, I let individuals speak for hours! You get really quality data from this approach,” explains Patra. “I asked them about their best management practices (BMPs), what they perceive as their responsibilities, barriers, and future goals, and what community outreach activities are taking place in their area. I wanted to garner varied perspectives and not homogenize.” 

Feedback from stakeholder interviews centered predominantly around socio-cultural barriers, whereby residents were feeling disenfranchised in the decision making process. Educational outreach activities and incorporating multi-stakeholder perspectives at the inception of the sustainability planning process was deemed to be inadequate, according to Patra’s findings.

“We uncovered so many interesting insights, but mostly we discovered that folks were not being consulted from the onset, and that the governance structure of GI installation and sustainability efforts was broken,” says Patra. “Several of these people have been living in these watersheds for decades, and felt that government officials would show up once in a while and tell them what’s going to happen. There simply wasn’t enough transparency at the community level for individuals to want to take action.”

Other barriers include lack of maintenance and funding for GI projects’ maintenance, economic challenges, institutional barriers as part of the bureaucratic process, and technological and environmental barriers. Patra emphasizes that these challenges are a big problem. You may convince one resident to take action because it will help our environment, but what if they are unable to maintain the installation or don’t have a clear plan of action if the system becomes faulty?

“What is the long-term sustainability plan for GI? If they are renters, then what? There is not a lot of communication around this,” explains Patra. “ GI may not be on their priority list necessarily because they are trying to feed their children. We need to think in terms of those challenges.” 

Paul Leisnham, principal investigator on a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant which incorporates Patra’s study, views this as an important layer to try and affect change in DC and Baltimore City.

“This study helps us better understand how residents and environment professionals perceive and manage green infrastructure,” adds Leisnham. “Do residents and environmental professionals identify the same challenges or opportunities? We need to answer this type of question to implement social and environmental programs that more effectively improve the health of urban watersheds and their communities.” 

This paper, titled “Towards attaining green sustainability goals of cities through social transitions: Comparing stakeholders’ knowledge and perceptions between two Chesapeake Bay watersheds, USA,” is published in Sustainable Cities and Society.

Original news story written by Graham Binder

September 13, 2021


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