Swarthmore College, Engineer Arthur McGarity Recipients of $1 Million Grant From EPA

by Mark Anskis

In an effort to find a sustainable solution to control the city of Philadelphia's water pollution problem, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a $1 million research grant to Swarthmore College and a team led by Professor of Engineering and Environmental Studies Art McGarity.

The federal agency made the announcement yesterday afternoon at a press conference from Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia. In attendance were Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley, and Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge '61, among others. Read more in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

McGarity's team representing the College is one of five awarded a grant. In response to the EPA's request for applications relating to "Performance and Effectiveness of Green Infrastructure Stormwater Management Approaches in the Urban Context: A Philadelphia Case Study," teams submitted proposals to conduct research and a peer review process was used to determine the five recipients. The other four institutions to receive EPA grants include Villanova University, Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of New Hampshire.

McGarity's team will comprise Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science/Environmental Studies Megan Heckert, along with professors Benjamin Hobbs of Johns Hopkins University, Christina Rosan of Temple University, and Claire Welty of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. McGarity calls his group a "dream team of highly accomplished experts in environmental measurement and modeling with decades of experience."

McGarity, who was in the midst of a cross-country trip when he received news of the grant last summer, is particularly proud that Swarthmore is taking the lead on the project.

"The fact the College is leading this effort is a tribute to the institution's strong support for scholarly achievement and community engagement among its faculty and students," he says.

"This is a perfect opportunity for Swarthmore's scholarship and expertise to serve the broader community," said President Rebecca Chopp upon receiving news of the grant. "I'm thrilled for Art and Megan and their enduring commitment to sustainable practices." 

Over the next four years, McGarity's team will monitor and evaluate the performance of Philadelphia's new green infrastructure practices, which are being implemented on the city's combined sewer overflow areas.

Philadelphia - like many older cities with combined sewer systems - has an issue with water pollution from stormwater runoff. In a combined sewer, water from sanitary waste is mixed with water from streets, roofs, and parking lots. Too often, following an intense rainstorm, sewers overflow and contaminated water flows into the nearest stream, instead of the nearest wastewater treatment plant.

To combat this problem, Philadelphia has proposed a sustainable solution called green infrastructure, whereby the stormwater is contained before it gets into the sewers and used in ways that restore rather than degrade the urban environment. The city's 25-year plan to implement this approach is called "Green City, Clean Waters"

"Green infrastructure investments are vital to creating healthy, livable communities," says Robert 'Bob' Perciasepe EPA deputy administrator. "This pilot project with Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters program will help us yield results and gain knowledge to help apply these practices in cities from coast to coast.  And, these results can be increasing green spaces, creating jobs, saving energy and reducing urbanheat island effects that contribute to climate change."  

McGarity is intrigued by the promise of this new approach. 

"It's exciting that Philadelphia is on the cutting edge of something this big," he says. "This approach has received a lot of attention around the country, because it has many benefits in addition to improved stormwater management. It uses a lot of vegetation and decreases the amount of paved surface, which can improve the quality of life in the city. The green approach goes beyond just solving a single problem."

The problem with the city's green approach to reducing stormwater pollution is that it's so new that no one is quite sure how well it will work.

That is where McGarity's team - along with the four other grant recipients - comes into action. McGarity's team will spend four years evaluating and testing the performance of three green infrastructure sites with a project titled "Performance and Effectiveness of Urban Green Infrastructure: Maximizing Benefits at the Subwatershed Scale through Measurement, Modeling, and Community-Based Implementation."  The team aims to measure subsurface water flow underneath green infrastructure installations; determine the attributes of geographic zones in the city that affect performance, benefits, and costs of green infrastructure; estimate the positive effects of green community spaces on property values, health, and other social benefits like increased neighborhood satisfaction and sense of safety; and, finally, find the combinations of green technology best suited to each geographic zone to maximize these benefits. The project will engage municipal and community partners during all stages through a "bottom-up" research design.

The benefits of this project will also find their way into the classroom. McGarity says that many Swarthmore students will serve as research assistants throughout the academic year and summer, and the projects' principles will be instilled into the curriculum through his environmental engineering courses.

"There will be many field trips into the city and multiple community connections in the affected areas," he says. "This has to be very interdisciplinary, because to make green infrastructure work requires not just good engineering technology but also requires the cooperation of the affected communities; if you're going to add this green infrastructure all around the city, it can't just be on public land; it has to be adopted by private landowners as well."

For more information about McGarity's project and Philadelphia's Urban Green Infrastructure, visit the project's website: www.greenphilly.net