Architecture doctoral student honored for urban stormwater runoff research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rui Wang, an architecture doctoral student in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Stuckeman School, came to Penn State to further pursue research regarding a problem plaguing many Chinese cities, including her hometown of Wuhan: flooding and pollution caused by urban stormwater runoff.

Wang, who is focusing her studies on landscape architecture, has been examining excessive stormwater runoff and the public’s perception of implementing green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), which is a decentralized system being implemented worldwide that utilizes natural elements — such as soils, plants and stones — to intercept, infiltrate and store excessive stormwater runoff.

Her research efforts were recently recognized by the Graduate School as a 2023 recipient of the Alumni Association Dissertation Award, which is among the most prestigious awards available to Penn State graduate students and recognizes outstanding doctoral students whose dissertations will have the greatest impact.

Hong Wu, associate professor of landscape architecture and director of Stormwater Living Lab, is Wang’s adviser.

“Rui’s work in the social and economic aspects of green stormwater infrastructure in China’s sponge city development (SCD) fills critical knowledge gaps in GSI development under the unique Chinese context,” said Wu.

SCD is a national initiative to transform cities so that they perform like sponges to store, infiltrate, purify and convey stormwater.

According to Wu, social science inquiries on GSI have been overlooked globally compared to the environmental aspects, and particularly so in a top-down environmental governance system where community engagement has not become a common practice.

“In my hometown, we had very severe flooding and stormwater problems, so that was when I started looking at this problem and thought, ‘Okay, maybe I can do something about this,’” Wang said.

Wang earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Wuhan University of Technology. She then decided to pursue a master of landscape architecture degree at Auburn University, where she was connected with Charlene LeBleu, Alumni Endowed Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn. The two collaborated in the Green Infrastructure Laboratory at Auburn and published papers together related to landscape architecture and stormwater management.

“I enjoyed Rui’s enthusiasm and collaborative spirit,” LeBleu said. “Her research is important because she excels in effectively communicating the importance of stormwater management. Her research concerns the public perception, ecosystem benefits and sustainability of sponge cities in China.”

Wang continued pursuing her research on stormwater mitigation techniques when she came to Penn State in 2018. After her first semester, she paired with Wu as her dissertation adviser.

“When I was introduced to Hong, I thought, ‘Okay, we are a perfect match,’” Wang said. “She understands the Chinese context, and she is very knowledgeable about stormwater management in both Chinese and Western societies. She was the perfect person to advise me on my dissertation.”

Wu said she helped Wang with “the design of the research methods, the structuring of the dissertation and how to frame compelling stories for publications.”

“[Wang] is very sharp and diligent in catching up with the most recent literature, and her abilities to identify critical research gaps and advanced research methods are exceptional,” Wu said. “My role was to critique the research design and help her synthesize and tell a compelling story.”

Wang has spent much of her time gathering residents’ opinions on GSI in four Chinese sponge cities. She conducted in-person interviews and field studies in China in fall 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic. She asked questions to gauge public perception on combining GSI with traditional gray infrastructure — like pipes and channels, which have been traditionally used to discharge stormwater runoff to local waterways quickly.

“I started with very simple questions, such as, ‘How does the public perceive the benefits of GSI in their daily lives? Which benefits do they prefer?’” Wang said. “It started very simple, and then I built on those inquiries with help from Hong.”

As Wang focused on asking Chinese residents their opinions regarding green infrastructure, she said she was surprised to find public opinion largely favored the addition of GSI in local communities.

“I thought people generally did not understand much about green infrastructure as it was a very new concept in China back in 2019,” she said. “During my field studies, I saw many construction flaws [in implementation] because even practitioners did not have the full knowledge of how solutions should be designed and implemented.”

“I also thought maybe people wouldn’t like green infrastructure, that they’d think it’s a waste of tax money, but people did tend to believe that developing green infrastructure is a good way to improve the hydrological condition,” Wang continued. “I not only interviewed the general public (primarily residents), but I also spoke to design professionals. They all tended to believe it was the right path to enhance the hydrological condition of the city to reduce stormwater risk.”

Wang said part of her research involved asking residents how much they would be willing to pay for green infrastructure. The results of that question surprised her as well.

“We found that people were willing to pay more for the social benefits of green infrastructure instead of the stormwater treatment benefits,” Wang said. “Those social benefits included environmental education and recreational benefits provided by additional green spaces.”

Wang measured this public interest in various benefits of green infrastructure using a specific method of “choice experiment,” which she said she learned about through her doctoral committee. The overall objective of a choice experiment, as described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “is to estimate economic values for attributes of an environmental good that is the subject of policy analysis.”

“There are a lot of moving parts in this research, and Rui does a great job of effectively communicating them all in her writing and graphics,” LeBleu said.

Ultimately, the surprising results of positive public feedback on GSI “emphasized the importance of asking the public their views of green infrastructure,” Wang said.

“Typically, the design process is primarily expert-led,” Wang said. “We think about how [something] should be designed and simply give a plan to the communities. However, we do not know how the communities and individuals prioritize the benefits. [My dissertation shows] how important it is to understand the public’s perspective on these plans before making any decisions that will affect their communities.”

Wang is scheduled to graduate from Penn State in summer 2023 and start a faculty position in China. Two of her dissertation chapters have already been published in highly regarded academic journals, including “Environmental Management” and the “Journal of Cleaner Production.”

“Rui’s critical and timely research is already attracting interest and attention from the academic community, professionals and decision-makers,” said Wu. “I look forward to seeing her excel at her next academic pursuit after graduation.”

For more news from the Stuckeman School, follow us on Twitter @StuckemanNews.