Stuckeman-led team earns seed grant to develop solutions to river flooding in Pennsylvania

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Lisa Iulo, associate professor of architecture and director of the Hamer Center for Community Design in the Stuckeman School, is the lead researcher on an interdisciplinary team that has received funding from Penn State to develop community-based solutions to river flooding in the state of Pennsylvania under the University’s strategic plan seed grant program.

The proposal, titled Penn State Initiative for Resilient Communities (PSIRC): A Pilot to Develop Community-Based Solutions to Riverine Flooding, is one of nine that received University funding as part of the third round of seed grants for strategic initiative pilot programs this semester. Since last year, Penn State has invested more than $4 million in over 20 pilot programs, while simultaneously advancing the vital and transformative work of its faculty, staff and students.

The thematic priority of Penn State’s strategic plan that the PSIRC project most closely relates is “Stewarding our Planet’s Resources.”

Lara Fowler, senior lecturer in the Penn State Law School; Klaus Keller, professor in the Department of Geosciences; Robert Nicholas, associate research professor with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute; Nancy Tuana, DuPont/Class of 1949 Professor of Philosophy in the College of the Liberal Arts; and Homer “Skip” Wieder, chair of the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies, are co-principal investigators on the project.

According to a 2018 Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency report, flooding is “the most frequent and damaging natural disaster that occurs throughout the Commonwealth.” The impact of flooding is exacerbated by wildly dramatic changes in precipitation and increased development of land.

The proposed PSIRC project will “bring together experts and pilot engagement in flood-impacted communities along the Susquehanna River to address flood risk and community development,” explained Iulo.

Iulo and her team have established a network of collaborators – scholars, practitioners and community members – to assist on the project, including experts in flood modeling and policy, as well as representatives from Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, the Lewisburg (Pennsylvania) Neighborhoods Corporation, the Lycoming County Government Planning and Community Development Department, Pennsylvania Floodplain Managers Association and the SEDA Council of Governments. A strong partnership has been forged in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, as a pilot for this initiative.

The project includes two components. The first is working with the Borough of Selinsgrove to develop a “vision plan” for community resilience to climate impacts and economic revitalization. Selinsgrove is an urban community with a population of about 5,900 (according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report) that is located on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. The borough worked with a Penn State landscape architecture studio class and the Hamer Center in 2006 to develop a master plan for its central business district, which resulted in the development of a “community commons” area in the downtown area. In February 2018, the borough reconnected with the Hamer Center, requesting help in: (1) understanding the borough’s socioeconomic challenges and opportunities, and (2) developing a plan to address both the flood risk and economic development of the area.

During initial discussions, it became evident that Selinsgrove is indicative of challenges faced by many of Pennsylvania’s riverine communities, thus it was designated as a pilot, where lessons learned can inform other communities throughout the Susquehanna River Basin. Therefore, a significant component of PSIRC is to broadly engage with stakeholders and decision-makers about flood resilience in the state’s riverine communities. There are more than 70 historically and culturally significant urban centers and rural communities along the Susquehanna River that are facing increased risk of floods, which result in economic, environmental and social stresses – threats that disproportionately affect low-income households.

PSIRC is synergistic with another Stuckeman School effort supported by a Penn State Strategic Plan Seed Grant, the Ecology + Design (E+D) initiative, which is led by Andy Cole, associate professor of landscape architecture and ecology. This spring, a landscape architecture course taught by Stephen Mainzer, assistant teaching professor, has taken on the project in Selinsgrove with the support of the Hamer Center and E+D. The students in Mainzer’s class are looking at a socio-ecological systems (SES) approach to balancing flood attenuation techniques with the town's economic resources through a series of linked urban development projects.

Selinsgrove residents experience the same issues as other communities along the Susquehanna: poor economic development, storm water and flooding issues, traffic and pedestrian patterns, and housing and land utilization. An important part of the Selinsgrove community is also the interaction between nearby Susquehanna University, the downtown area and access to the Susquehanna River. The class presented initial analysis and design visions to members of the Selinsgrove community on Feb. 28 to get feedback before they adjust and finalize their designs. Students will exhibit their final projects for the Selinsgrove public on May 1.

"Selinsgrove has presented a complex socio-environmental challenge for the students. The areas with the highest risk of flooding are also some of the most highly valued historic areas of the town – such as homes with waterfront views and the downtown area; yet our novel approach is demonstrating that a locally-sensitive solution can be both inspiring and accessible,” explained Mainzer. “The students are generating bold ideas grounded in environmental evidence, mostly through good old-fashioned pen and paper techniques."

The student engagement though Mainzer’s class is building excitement for the PSIRC pilot study and is contributing to the development of an update to the 2006 community master plan. With the support of Penn State’s Strategic Plan funding, PSIRC will be working over the next year to build research and educational opportunities and relationships across Penn State and with partner communities and organizations to develop tools, design strategies, data sources, risk assessments and values-informed decision support approaches to provide an application-oriented proof-of-concept pilot study in Selinsgrove.

“This pilot will allow us to deepen collaborations with the stakeholders and decision-makers in Selinsgrove and along the Susquehanna while establishing key tools and processes useful for other communities struggling to address community resilience and revitalization issues,” said Iulo.

In the long term, the goal of the PSIRC project is to establish collaborations with colleges and universities across the state of Pennsylvania to help build and strengthen relationships with their local communities through the state’s shared common research interests of water, energy and land resources.

Schools and Departments: Department of Architecture, Department of Landscape Architecture, Stuckeman School
Unit Research: Hamer Center for Community Design