The natural processes of earth have never halted in the face of urbanization. It is imperative therefore that communities adapt their water management strategies as cities continue to grow and expand. Dr. Chingwen Cheng, a sustainability scientist and landscape architect with a focus on water resources and climate change planning, seeks to bring community and global awareness to new, innovative, and environmentally friendly infrastructure and the ways in which communities can best regenerate a natural water cycle in an urbanized environment.
“[I] started getting involved [with] stakeholders and the public community to work together on the issues,” said Dr. Cheng, describing this new kind of community input in the water management sector as “the most rewarding” aspect of her current research.
Dr. Cheng completed her undergraduate degree in Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at the National Taiwan University and her master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Michigan before attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst to pursue her Ph.D. in Regional Planning with partial funding from the Massachusetts Water Resources Research Center.
Dr. Cheng first encountered the WRRC in 2010 when she spoke at the 7th Annual Massachusetts Water Resources Conference: “Planning for Climate Change: Impacts on Urban Watersheds and Implications for Regional Planning.” This connection led to much greater opportunities with the WRRC’s Water Resources Institutes Program from which Dr. Cheng, in conjunction with and under the advisement of Professor Elizabeth Brabec of the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Program at UMass, received partial funding for her doctoral research on flood mitigation in urban environments. This research focused on the use of hydrological modeling to understand the impacts of climate change on flooding and the effects of green infrastructure practice on restoring water flow in the ecological processes of the watershed. These models help urban areas to understand the issues presented by their current infrastructure in regard to climate change as well as possible ways to implement a more environmentally sound framework in the future.
Dr. Cheng has since completed her post-doctoral research at the University of Michigan and is presently continuing her work in academia as an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Senior Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University, teaching classes in addition to actively pursuing water resource related research. She reflects on her interaction with WRIP as her first experience with the procedural nuances of career academia.
“This experience [with the WRIP funding] is extremely important actually when I was looking for [an] academic job…in addition to the actual project that helped me to expand my current research, I think the appearance of just getting the funding itself just helped me to be more successful in academia.”
Due in part to her work on her graduate research at UMass, Dr. Cheng was selected to attend a 2012 summer academy in Munich, Germany entitled “From Social Vulnerability to Resilience: Measuring Progress toward Disaster Risk Reduction” organized by the United Nations University-Institute for Environment and Human Security and the Munich Re Foundation. One of just 20 selected Ph.D. students, Dr. Cheng was able to share her research on social vulnerability and risk assessment with scholars from around the world, creating connections that would last her entire career.
“That was really a great experience not only for academic knowledge but also the networking. I have been keeping in contact with several scholars…for any conferences and perhaps future collaborations.”
According to Dr. Cheng, collaboration has become an increasingly relevant part of her research as she focuses on incorporating community perspectives into her work with urban planning and green infrastructure. Green infrastructure refers to an interconnected natural and human-made system that restores and enhances ecological functions of a constructed human environment. This includes working on urban water issues in an attempt to regenerate an unimpeded water cycle, creating an eco-friendly way to manage rainfall and flooding within cities.
While in Massachusetts, Dr. Cheng had the opportunity to work within this field of study at the National Science Foundation Urban Long-term Ecological Area Exploratory in the Boston Metropolitan Area. Alongside UMass Professor Paige Warren, Dr. Cheng helped the project team to develop urban growth scenarios in the metro area and model land use and hydrological changes in the Charles River watershed. Their work focused on the understanding of how urban growth and climate change have interacted to impact both social and ecological aspects of urban environments. This project introduced the identity of local stakeholders directly into the research and tied together environmental science and community input to create a mixed methodology that Dr. Cheng has carried over into her subsequent work.
Dr. Cheng seeks to bring stakeholders who are directly affected by her research into the research process itself. This can be seen in her work in Boston as well as in her partnership with Michigan’s Huron River Watershed Council—a conservation group made up of governments, businesses, and dedicated citizens—and her more recent work on climate justice.
Whether through global conferences or public engagement, Dr. Cheng is constantly finding new ways to bring water resources research to the forefront of public consideration. With both awareness and urgency on the rise, Dr. Cheng’s pursuit of urban innovation could provide key insight into the solutions to the water resources issues that face the world today.