Green Infrastructure: F&ES Class Produces More than a Grade

The research produced by a group of F&ES students yielded the framework for the stormwater management component of Yale University's new sustainability plan, which was officially released this week.

By Kevin Dennehy

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F&ES students on the green roof of Philadelphia's PECO Building.
Earlier this year, as students across New Haven escaped campus for a few sun-soaked days in tropical climes, eleven F&ES students packed into rented cars for a six-day trek down the I-95 corridor. Stops included Baltimore and Philadelphia.
So what lures a group to spend its spring break in some of the nation’s grittier towns during the grey days of March? In this case it was stormwater.
Over the course of six days, the students learned first-hand how four major cities —also including New York and Washington, D.C. — are tackling the challenges of storm water runoff, including innovative “green infrastructure” projects that mimic natural systems to improve water quality in urban areas.
I love the connection from the research to practice and practice to research.
— Brad Gentry
For the class, it was a valuable opportunity to explore the latest developments in this emerging field. But for Yale University, it might be even more valuable. The research produced by the students — in the classroom and during the trip — yielded the framework for the stormwater management component of the new Yale Sustainability Strategic Plan 2013-2016, which was officially launched this week.
Ultimately, their findings could transform the way Yale — and, for that matter, New Haven — manage the expensive problem of stormwater runoff.
“Stormwater is a kind of underappreciated issue, even though cities are spending tens of billions of dollars on it,” said Ryan Withall, a second-year student who helped organize the trip. “So these people were really happy to have a group of interested individuals who were knowledgeable and asking questions.
“It was much more than just a field trip. It was a practice in professional engagement.”
The connection between the F&ES curriculum and Yale’s overall sustainability plan was actually borne out of work done by the previous year’s Payments for Ecosystem Services class (F&ES 963), which is taught by Professors Brad Gentry and Mark Ashton.
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Students explore the green roof on the PECO Building in Philadelphia.
During the spring of 2011, that group spent several weeks learning how other universities were using ecosystem services to improve campus performance on climate, water, aesthetics, and biodiversity issues. They spent the second half of the semester studying how those lessons might be applied on the Yale campus.
In the end, they identified stormwater management as an area with particular potential for improvement.
“I really loved the fact that we can be practical enough to help the Facilities Department deal with a real problem they have, but do so in a way that allows us to easily connect with the more theoretical discussions about where the modeling is going,” said Gentry, a professor at F&ES and co-director of the Center for Business & the Environment at Yale (CBEY).
“I love the connection from research to practice and practice to research.”
Before they even arrived on campus in the fall of 2012, Withall and Caitlin Feehan, another second-year F&ES student, had contacted Gentry to express their interest in green infrastructure issues.
Before long, Gentry asked Withall and Feehan to help develop the new iteration of the ecosystems services class — taught last spring by Gentry, Ashton, and PhD student Jenn Hoyle — and put the new students in touch with Yale’s facilities department, where they were hired to help coordinate the stormwater plan.
The class’s 13 students helped organize the four-city tour which highlighted concepts that they would bring back to Yale. In New York, they noticed an emphasis on implementing data-based projects (“very Bloombergian,” Withall said.); In Philadelphia, they learned the importance of follow-up analysis to assess system performance. And in Baltimore, they saw the value of collaboration.
“What all these cities helped us understand,” Feehan said, “was the importance of getting projects in the ground, just to see how they function in your own city.”
Back in New Haven, the students identified an obvious area where Yale could improve its own runoff performance: storm drains. Specifically, they noticed that numerous buildings had storm drains that dumped water directly into sewers. It’s a common enough feature that can produce flooding during heavy rain events, and send wastewater into public water supplies and natural ecosystems.
As part of the stormwater management plan, the students recommended that the university conduct an assessment of drainage systems campus-wide, which is now nearing completion. Eventually, the findings could yield new drainage designs — such as ones that divert rainwater from sewers toward rain gardens that absorb the water into the soil — or the planting of more water-tolerant vegetation.
“And Yale has a significant amount of square footage that is roof surface,” Withall said. “So if we can somehow manage some of that, that can be a potentially huge impact in New Haven.”
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In Philadelphia, the class toured infrastructure sites with Gerald Bright, an environmental program scientist with the Philadelphia Water Department and F&ES alum.
As part of the stormwater plan, the students also developed a computer model that calculates how much water can be saved in the future, and calls for the collection of real data that will assess the accuracy of those models.
According to Virginia Chapman, director of facilities sustainable initiatives, having such data will enable Yale to set reasonable targets for improved stormwater management.
“We realized that we needed a lot more information and we wanted to see how well green infrastructure performs,” said Chapman, who will become director of sustainability at Yale next month. “We couldn’t set a stormwater runoff reduction target because we didn’t have enough information. We didn’t want to set a goal that might not be achievable and with no idea of the potential cost..”
The student input will help the university explore solutions that it might not otherwise have explored, Chapman said.
“And the students are really good at research,” added Keri Enright-Kato, program manager in the Office of Sustainability. “That’s what they’re here for … So if they can do that research for us and aggregate the information and present it, that’s extremely valuable in transferring knowledge.”
Early in the project, Enright-Kato recalls, some of the F&ES students were almost skeptical that they were qualified to make recommendations for such a critical issue.
“I told them, ‘You guys really are the experts. Trust me! You may know more than the [sustainability] staff even knows. So consider yourself the consultants. You are the person bringing it to the table, and your recommendations are the recommendations,’” she recalled.
“It’s a great experience for the students. Yes, they’re ‘learning.’ But what they’re learning is real stuff that is applicable to operations here… And it gives them confidence when they leave Yale.”