July 16, 2014, by Blue-Green team
Clean Water for All research in Newcastle March 2014; What Multi-Disciplinary Work Looks Like
“For me, the strongest take-away from the intensive week-long collaboration period in Newcastle was watching the many researchers explore the SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems), human-made ‘natural’ surface water management features– both as a group and as individual researchers.
As the crew of hydrologists, economists, ecologists, physicists, climate change scientists, biogeochemists, many types of engineers, urban planners, environmental scientists, geographers, and one Portland city employee (did I get everyone?) descended on the small catchment pond, I held back slightly. I hesitated in part because as an undergraduate student in Environmental Studies and Economics, I have little experience relative to the highly qualified team working on the Blue-Green Cities and Clean Water For All projects.
Back in our offices and labs, the tangible tools we use overlap significantly: laptop, paper, ink, pen, coffee. When given a chance to get our hands on the project, the differences became clear. The different behaviors and foci of the group of investigators impressed upon me the diversity of methods available for developing an experiential understanding of the SuDS.
One economist photographed the houses closest to the SuDS, as well as the walking trails that had formed around the small reed-filled pond. The project director and geomorphologist Colin Thorne examined the culverts and entry pipes, proposing designs that could accommodate animal passage or provide services in addition to their basic function. An engineer tramped directly into the center of the reeds to determine the water table level, using the slope of the ground to guide her to the very middle of the pond. A few hydrologists clustered around the input and output areas of the SuDS, noting to other observers that the reeds on the input side were flattened, indicating high-pressure flows. Other engineers looked at the concrete structure and piping that formed the input and output to the pond, pointing out worn sections of concrete and discussing the potential for slanted entry ramps to mitigate flow force. An ecologist overturned large rocks at the output, scanning for toxins or oil residues leftover from when the water level was higher. A mix of specialists followed the water coming out of the SuDS, pointing to stream bank characteristics, proximity to the road, and more.
So many human-constructed ecological projects result in unintended negative consequences. How important to have a project where a broad spectrum of people come together to build a more complete understanding! I am so grateful to have had the chance to work with an established, interdisciplinary group and come away with first-hand experience of the diversity of tactics and foci of these many fields. And perhaps most importantly, to come away with an urgent sense of need to apply this multifaceted approach in future research projects. This is a route less established (and harder to find funding in, given the need for more extensive communication between collaborators) than the more divided research projects that represent the overwhelming majority published in academic journals. This is not a swipe at specialized fields- quite the contrary; I think the specializations of the 30-plus crowd exploring the SuDS enabled each to notice significance in an element otherwise invisible to the rest. Pooling wisdom, then, becomes paramount to any research that hopes to comprehensively measure effects of both the constructed and natural elements of our world.”