David Vann of the School of Arts and Sciences heads up the research efforts around Shoemaker Green’s stormwater management system. Using sensors placed around the site, he hopes to be able to closely monitor how much water drains out of the system, and how quickly. (Photo: Eric Sucar)
By Katherine Unger Baillie
Shoemaker Green, three acres of green space on Penn’s campus, is more than just a nice place to have lunch. Formerly home to tennis courts, the space was revamped in 2012 and now includes garden beds with native plantings, benches, and shaded walkways.
But all that conceals what is perhaps the most unusual facet of the Green—an underground cistern capable of holding 20,000 gallons of water.
The site represents one example of how the University is increasingly incorporating design features into campus buildings and landscapes to manage stormwater. From green roofs and rain gardens to buried storage tanks and water-reuse systems, Penn is playing a leading role in the city’s efforts to keep runoff from overwhelming the sewer system. All significant new building projects at Penn are designed to meet the Philadelphia Water Department goal of managing the first inch and a half of rain that falls on impervious surfaces.
“That means that the first inch and a half of water that falls from the sky literally can’t go down the drain as runoff,” says Bob Lundgren, Penn’s landscape architect. “That regulation dictates how we do a lot of projects here. We do green roofs, we do cisterns, we do permeable paving, so the rain can soak into Mother Earth or sit somewhere and then drain slowly or be reused.”
The rationale behind all of this attention on stormwater management is tied intimately with Philadelphia’s older infrastructure. In many parts of the city, the pipes that carry stormwater are connected to those that carry sewage. When a rainstorm sends a deluge into the storm drains, the overflow from these pipes goes directly into waterways, such as the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, instead of routing to wastewater-treatment plants. These so-called “combined-sewer overflow” (CSO) events degrade the environment, make the rivers unsafe for recreation, and increase the cost of treating the water.
Lundgren notes that managing runoff has been part of campus design strategy since long before the city required it. The late Penn landscape architect Ian McHarg, lauded as an innovator in ecological design, incorporated such elements into campus plans half a century ago.
“When he designed Woodland Walk in the 1950s,” Lundgren says, “he disconnected the drainage system from the sewer line, used permeable paving—cobbles over gravel—and put in native species. He was one of the first to be taking that approach.”
And though Penn has been a leader in environmental design since McHarg’s tenure, Philadelphia’s 2006 Stormwater Management Regulations and 2011 launch of “Green Cities, Clean Waters” prompted a closer look at management efforts.
The “Green Cities” plan in particular places emphasis on green infrastructure—increasing permeable surfaces—over traditional infrastructure like larger stormwater pipes and storage tanks. The 25-year initiative, which emerged under the leadership of Howard Neukrug, then-commissioner and CEO of Philadelphia Water and now a professor of practice and executive director of the Water Center at Penn, aims to reduce stormwater pollution entering city waterways by 85 percent. The plan includes provisions to encourage large property owners to take on the brunt of the responsibility in reducing CSOs.
“Residential and smaller commercial landowners can take steps to address stormwater on their properties and the government can manage runoff from roads, but we won’t solve our problems unless large property owners do their part,” says Neukrug. “When we are talking about a 50-acre or larger property in the middle of the city, economies of scale make the cost and impact of the project that much more important.”
The University has taken up the reins on this issue. A Stormwater Master Plan for Penn published in 2013 identifies areas where stormwater management is already succeeding, and pinpointed opportunities to extend this influence to new areas.
Penn Park represents perhaps the largest project that has conferred stormwater-management benefits to campus. Constructed in 2011, the site was overhauled from a series of paved parking lots and other impervious surfaces to a 24-acre multi-use complex with turf playing fields, tennis courts, grass playing fields, picnic areas, and an orchard. The site includes a cistern with a 300,000-gallon capacity so stored rainwater can later be used for irrigation, as well as several large natural areas, including six acres of native-grass meadows that serve to collect rainwater and allow it to soak slowly into the ground.
“One of Penn’s first projects, Penn Park, became the model for how private landowners can respond to stormwater issues and gain additional benefits at the same time,” Neukrug says. “The ecological, economic, and recreational co-benefits of green stormwater infrastructure to Penn and Philadelphia as a whole speak for themselves.”
Some green infrastructure helps on a small scale: Tree pits and trenches, for example, can intercept runoff from paths and sidewalks before it reaches a storm drain. But large-scale projects make even more of a difference. At Penn, every recent significant building project has some stormwater-management elements. The Singh Center for Nanotechnology, New College House, and Golkin and Fagin halls have green roofs that function not only to keep rain from entering the sewer system but in some cases, provide green spaces to eat lunch or take a study break.
“We have 1.4 acres of green roofs on campus,” says Lundgren. “By the time New College House West comes out, we’ll have close to two acres. That’s a pretty big deal.”
While green infrastructure confers a variety of benefits, it also comes with challenges. The spaces around porous pavers must be kept clear to allow rainwater to seep into the ground. Underground cisterns with pumps for irrigation require significant upkeep and technical skills to operate.
“It can be a learning curve,” says Lundgren.
That’s part of the reason why, when Shoemaker Green was installed, provisions were made to carefully monitor its systems as well as conduct research aimed at improving it and other future stormwater-management projects.
David Vann, a research coordinator in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, has led efforts to study and monitor those systems for several years. Partly as a component of a course on bioremediation and partly as independent research projects, Vann has worked with students to measure how much water the system is taking in, how fast or slow it drains, and how the plants and trees planted on the Green itself contribute to water management through evapotranspiration, the process by which water is taken up by plants and then evaporates from their leaves.
“We have found the system is doing pretty faithfully what it was designed to do: Regulate the stored water and permit it to drain slowly in the two or three days after a rain event,” says Vann. “One thing we’re looking at is whether, as the trees and plants grow, the contribution of evapotranspiration will increase.”
When Shoemaker Green was redesigned, care was taken to preserve six mature London planetrees in front of the Palestra, each estimated to be roughly 80 years old. As the largest trees at the site, their contribution to evapotranspiration is significant. Vann and colleagues have found that, in summer, evapotranspiration causes roughly 2,000 gallons per day to leave the system. As the Green’s younger bald cypress, red maple, swamp white oak, and other trees continue to mature, that figure may grow, leaving room in the cistern to capture additional rainfall.
Recently, Vann has identified places to drop down equipment that can measure the flow of water more precisely than the system’s original sensors. “With these wells, we’ll be able to measure the quantity of water in each of the catchment areas, so we can more or less understand where the water is at all times,” Vann says.
Beyond the quantity of water, Vann is also monitoring the quality of the water entering the cisterns. Though an environmentally friendly salt substitute is used to keep walkways on campus ice-free in the winter, Vann is concerned that rock salt used on the adjacent road may be infiltrating and building up in the system.
In the future, Vann would like to incorporate studies of the ecology and sociology of the space. “It’s not my area but there is interest in understanding how the space is being used by insects, birds, and even people,” he says. “Is it being integrated into the campus as intended, being used as a place where people can rest, relax, play soccer?”
Armed with data from such experiments, Lundgren hopes the University will continue to push the boundaries of designing with ecology and sustainability in mind. “The ecological health of a place is pretty much the highest thing on my list,” he says, “and that feeds right into stormwater management.”
Bob Lundgren is University landscape architect in Facilities and Real Estate Services.
Howard Neukrug is executive director of the Water Center at Penn and a professor of practice in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science.
David Vann is a research coordinator in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science.
By Michele W. Berger
Rachel Kyte has a unique perspective on climate change and the environment. She’s both a special representative to the United Nations and CEO of an international organization called Sustainable Energy for All, technically one job for which she wears two hats. All the work is geared toward broadening access to sustainable energy worldwide, including for the billion or so people who still don’t have access to electricity.
When Kyte came to Penn at the invitation of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, she spoke to an overflowing room about the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, how the world can more easily transition to renewables, and how, despite the progress to date, there’s still much farther to go.
Penn Today discussed with Kyte her vision for making sustainable energy available to all.
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Though the world has made significant headway in the push toward renewable energy, with serious technological advancements and lower costs for those technologies, there’s one area that Kyte says the world isn’t yet doing well enough: Clean fuels for cooking.
“It seems ridiculous to me that in 2019, in a world with so many sophisticated solutions to so many problems, we can’t find a way for almost 3 billion people to have access to a meal that’s cooked with clean fuels,” she says.
It’s a deadly problem, she adds. The World Health Organization estimates that each year, nearly 4 million people die from illnesses related to indoor air pollution caused by using kerosene and solid fuels like charcoal and dung in open fires. The people who do the cooking—mostly poor women in rural areas—and their children experience the greatest levels of exposure.
But that fact, that there’s a human-health cost is finally starting to turn the tide in a way that environmental and climate pressures never did, Kyte says. “It’s been a silent problem because it’s a got a female face,” she adds. “But the health statistics are now beginning to force this issue to the top of the to-do list.”
Benjamin Rohr, a graduate student in environmental studies, is studying the invasive spotted lanternfly at The Woodlands, a large cemetery a stone’s throw from Penn’s campus. The pest was first spotted there last year, in the wilder portions of the property’s periphery, where SEPTA and Amtrak trains pass regularly. (Photo: Eric Sucar)
By Katherine Unger Baillie
By the chain link fence lining the southern border of The Woodlands Cemetery property, Benjamin Rohr attempts to avoid brushing against poison ivy as he approaches a large black walnut tree. “Oh good, it’s still up!” he says, assessing a wide, sticky band encircling the trunk, now covered with the bodies of dozens of small insects. “No SLFs I don’t think,” he observes, using a shorthand for spotted lanternfly, an exotic bug that is poised to wreak havoc on farms, wineries, and forests in the mid-Atlantic states.
Rohr, a student in Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program, is embarking on his capstone project to culminate his degree. The premise of his experiment is straightforward: to determine the types of trees the lanternfly prefers beyond its known affinity for ailanthus, commonly known as tree of heaven, dozens of which sprout enthusiastically in several groves at The Woodlands and elsewhere around the region.
“Maybe they prefer cherry over ash or maple instead of willow,” says Rohr. “If we find these finer-grain preferences, and land managers on Penn’s campus or with the Natural Lands Trust are replanting, maybe they wouldn’t choose as many of those species that are lanternfly attractors.”
The stories of the ailanthus and spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) run in parallel, albeit a few centuries apart. Ailanthus, a tree species native to China and Taiwan, was introduced to the United States in 1784 by William Hamilton, an avid plant collector who inherited a sprawling estate along the Schuylkill River: The Woodlands. The species spread rapidly, outcompeting native species. They’re now widely considered “trash trees,” often targeted for removal.
Meanwhile, the spotted lanternfly’s introduction into the U.S. appears to have been accidental. The bugs, which can fly but more often hop, up to 20 meters or more in a go, were first seen in 2014 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and quickly extended their range. They’re known to feed on 70 species of tree and vine, 30 of which occur in Pennsylvania. Using their piercing mouthparts, they feed on tree sap, leaving plants weak and vulnerable to secondary infections. Currently, 13 counties in Pennsylvania are under quarantine for the lanternfly, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS), in partnership with Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, have kicked into high gear to keep the species under control.
For Rohr, who just finished his first year in the MES program, the lanternfly wasn’t on his radar until the spring semester, when he took a course in urban forestry taught by Sally Willig and Lara Roman. When an alternative capstone project didn’t pan out, Willig invited him to attend a meeting headed by Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Servicesdepartment focused on urban forest management. The Woodlands’ Facilities and Landscape Manager Robin Rick was also attending, and mentioned that she was working with USDA APHIS to manage what appeared to be an emerging infestation in parts of the property.
“I knew about the threat of the spotted lanternfly from reading different publications from Penn State and hearing about it in different horticultural forums,” says Rick. “I started to keep an eye out. And around the same time, we were approached by the USDA as a property owner in the city to participate in their efforts to control and stop the spread of the lanternfly. So that really raised our awareness.”
Following the FRES meeting, Rohr reached out to Rick, who was enthusiastic about a project on The Woodlands property. Together they formulated the experiment. At four different areas where ailanthus grow at The Woodlands, Rohr is affixing wide, sticky bands—in essence, big pieces of sturdy tape placed stick-side out—on one ailanthus tree. Then, within the 20-meter hopping range of the lanternfly, Rohr and Rick identified another tree species that the insects are known to feed on, and will monitor those trees as well.
To avoid catching birds, Rohr overlays the sticky band with chicken wire. The Woodlands will also post signage to inform visitors about the project. Rohr will switch out the bands once a week until the species goes dormant, likely around December, and count the lanternflies he catches on each tree.
The USDA has visited The Woodlands to note the location of ailanthus trees on the property and set up a treatment plan. The survey, Rick says, identified 274 saplings under 1 inch in diameter, 36 trees between 1 and 6 inches in diameter, and 45 larger trees greater than 6 inches in diameter. A couple are in the heart of the cemetery, but most sit along the fence line, bordering the Amtrak and SEPTA rail lines or the VA hospital. Rick says the first signs of lanternfly came from near the train tracks.
In Rohr’s first time out checking the bands, he found only five lanternflies—unsurprising since late May is when the nymphs generally emerge.
Once the season revs up, Rohr expects to find many more, and he’ll be tracking what happens after USDA treatment later this summer—herbicide for the smaller trees and pesticide applications on the larger ones.
“There are a lot of really old mature trees at The Woodlands, some have been there for centuries,” says Rohr. “These massive maples or black walnuts could drop branches if they get sick. So just from a safety perspective, it will be interesting to get a sense of how much this pest could damage The Woodlands, and how Robin, the USDA, and others might mitigate this.”
Eventually, Rohr would like to pull together his findings into a user-friendly format to serve as a guide for other land managers. And Rick hopes to spread the word to the West Philadelphia community that lives near or recreates in The Woodlands.
“Learning more about this bug is going to rely on collaboration,” Rick says. “Large institutions like Penn and SEPTA will need to work together with smaller ones like us as well as community members to understand how [the lanternflies] are moving through the area and take efforts to slow and stop them.”
The United Nations report noted five main drivers of threats to biodiversity: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasion of alien species. Marine pollution was identified as a particular area of concern.
By Katherine Unger Baillie and Michele W. Berger
The scale of the threats is massive: One million plant and animal species face imminent extinction due to human activity. That was the major finding of a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a summary of which was released earlier this month.
The assessment, which took three years, involved 145 expert authors as well as indigenous and local knowledge, and reviewed 15,000 scientific and government sources, reveals unprecedented and accelerating risks for biodiversity and human life.
To shed light on the report’s implications, Penn Today reached out to experts across the University in a range of subjects, from psychology to sustainability, sociology to biology, asking for their primary impressions of the study and for advice on how to take action.
By Katherine Unger Baillie
Forget birthstones and astrological signs; the month in which you were born may carry serious significance for your health.
A research project involving a team from Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and School of Veterinary Medicine is teasing out a link between birth month and cardiac disease risk, looking at both humans and dogs. The main thrust: Being born in the summer heightens the risk of disease later in life.
“Dogs are more similar to humans than many other animal models,” says Mary Regina Boland, a biostatistician at Penn Medicine. “They’re pets, so they live in the same environment as we do, but they also can naturally develop cardiovascular disease.”
Boland had been examining the link between birth month and heart disease for a few years, relying on electronic health records, but encountered challenges when accounting for biases and disparities reflected in the data. So she turned to another source.
“I started wondering whether there were any animal models that could potentially support this,” Boland says.
Exploring datasets for pet dogs, Boland realized she needed colleagues in the veterinary world to help her navigate. She connected with two veterinary cardiologists at Penn Vet, Anna Gelzer and Marc Kraus. Together, they analyzed datasets from Penn Vet and the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, an organization that supports research on inherited diseases in pets.
In a study published earlier this year in Scientific Reports, Boland, Gelzer, Kraus, and colleagues found a strong link between birth month and cardiac disease risk in canines: Those born in the summer months were predisposed to developing heart problems, with the risk soaring up to 74 percent higher than expected for dogs born in July.
In that work, as well as prior studies using human health records, researchers pointed fingers at air pollution as a likely culprit for this connection. It’s believed that exposure to fine air particulates—which are at their highest levels in the summer—somehow leads to harmful physiological changes in utero that may not manifest for decades.
Dogs prove a useful parallel subject to humans for these sorts of studies, the researchers note. “Their life spans are shorter, so if they’re going to develop a condition it will show up in a reasonably compressed timeframe compared to humans,” says Kraus.
That project is still in its early stages, but could have a variety of implications for reducing disease risk.
“For dog breeders, it’s pretty easy to control when puppies are born,” says Gelzer. “With June and July having the highest risk for heart disease, we could just advise to breed during months that wouldn’t result in these birthdays.”
When it comes to humans, dictating which month a baby will come into the world is not as straightforward, but insights gleaned from research in dogs have the potential to help uncover the molecular mechanisms that lead to birth-month effects.
For now, the Penn researchers are brainstorming ways to explore those mechanisms, such as statistical deep dives, genomic sequencing, or microbiome analyses, to potentially locate new intervention targets. They’ve also recently begun to explore connections between cancer risk and birth month, collaborating with Penn Vet’s Nicola Mason, a clinician and researcher who has applied immunotherapy approaches to treating cancer in dogs.
“This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any more summer babies,” Boland says, “but the findings we generate could be an entry into some very interesting questions about the drivers of these connections.”