How might we take actions toward the realities of climate crises from our own backyard?

2021 was a year when the world was confronted with the catastrophic realities of climate crises. From Germany to Canada, from Malaysia to Greece, and from Hawaii to China, historic flooding has brought stormwater devastation to the doorsteps of many. 

In September 2021, Hurricane Ida posted a deadly wake-up call for New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, where the government and residents had, in fact, been made aware of the impending danger. Five hours before Ida barreled through the tri-state area, the National Weather Service had forecast “life-threatening flash flooding.” An interactive map of New York City issued only a few months prior indicated flood-prone severe areas, where 10 people died drowning in rainwater brought by the remnants of Ida, the most destructive storm of the season. In New Jersey, the death toll was at least 30. Months later, many displaced residents are still stranded in temporary housing. In Princeton, there were numerous overnight water rescues and road closures due to flash flooding. Quaker Road was closed for more than three months from the damages caused by Ida. 

Politicians and experts have called for better preventive measures in the costly aftermath of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season. Princeton professor and Nobel laureate Syukuro Manabe said, “It is one thing to predict climate change; it’s another thing to decide what to do, given that prediction.” While efforts like the Princeton University’s Sustainability Action Plan, released in April 2019 and Sustainable Princeton’s Climate Action Plan for the larger Princeton area, both have a strong emphasis on stormwater management and mitigation, they remain top-down approaches which leave local residents in a passive, and often delayed, receiving end of any results.

But the individual does not have to remain passive. At the local scale, green infrastructure can be constructed in any backyard or front yard to soak up water during storms. The Environmental Protection Agency defines a rain garden as “a depressed area in the landscape that collects rainwater from a roof, driveway or street and allows it to soak into the ground”. Not only will pollutants in runoff be filtered out in the process, but insects and birds can find shelter in these low-maintenance, aesthetic additions to an individual home. Aside from construction, homeowners can create their own stormwater management on private lots to help move excess water from rain and snowmelt. 

As a subsidiary of the Designing Climate Change Resiliency in Princeton, NJ: A Town/Gown Project, this Tiger Challenge team will focus on finding innovative ways to bring heightened awareness and education, mitigate stormwater flooding, and develop resiliency from an individual, bottom-up level. Working with data, evidence, and recommendations from experts, the team will aim to design pathways to educate local Princeton residents on practical stormwater management strategies such as rain gardens to mitigate runoffs from their own homes.

Faculty adviser:
Carolyn Rouse, Ritter Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University

Community partner:
Watershed Institute