Research Training and Experience

I am an interdisciplinary researcher with my core training in Civil Engineering. During my PhD I delved into the areas of urban planning and social sciences as part of a large European FP7 Project Prepared enabling change. I have researched in the areas of integrated modelling and urban water management, but also undertook fieldwork as part of my undergraduate thesis using infrared thermal imaging to detect buried pipe leaks, monitor pavement temperatures and assess the urban microclimate of different urban neighbourhoods. As part of the VR Water project, I touched upon the potential of virtual reality and also acquired skills in social science research, conducting semi-structured interviews with industry practitioners across Australia, results from which I am currently analysing using grounded theory as my core conceptual basis and am in the midst of publishing. These many experiences have allowed me to shape my current interdisciplinary research vision and engage with a broad international network of collaborators. The one key thread through all this is the central theme of Blue Green Systems.

Overview of my Interdisciplinary Research

Figure 1. Overview of my research – the ‘Big Picture’

My research focus is on Blue Green Systems, nature-based solutions to make our cities more sustainable, liveable and resilient to the challenges posed by climate change, rapid urbanisation and population growth. I focus on various aspects (see Figure 1) including how we can leverage smarter urban water management to create effective systems to provide human health and amenity as well as enhance urban ecology and minimise biodiversity loss, all within the context of a rapidly changing urban environment and urban governance structure.

Blue Green Systems is a term that is increasingly being used, but shares similarities with concepts like Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD), Green Infrastructure (GI), Low Impact Development (LID), Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDS), Sponge Cities and Best Management Practices. I focus not only on the technologies, widgets that can be implemented across a city at the household and local neighbourhood scales, but also on urban planning, that is strategically planned, interconnected green and blue spaces and the high-level policies that my drive how our city evolves into the future. By shaping the urban form and function, we are able to create spaces that deliver a broad range of benefits to humans and ecosystems – commonly referred to as ecosystem services.

Despite being recognised as ‘natural climate solutions’ and the ‘go-to’ for climate adaptation, enhancing urban liveability and improving biodiversity, Blue Green Systems remain ‘opportunistic’ and their planning is rather mono-functional. Through my work, I hope to provide guidance and the scientific evidence base to support their widespread adoption in cities worldwide. My method of choice is integrated modelling, using models as virtual laboratories to experiment with and explore different scenarios of how such systems can be effectively integrated into the future development of our cities.

Planning Multi-functional Blue Green Systems

As my core research area, I have focussed considerably on the planning, design and implementation of Blue Green Systems in delivering a range of benefits including stormwater quantity/quality management, reducing combined sewer overflows, providing alternative water sources, urban flood mitigation, urban heat mitigation and a broader range of ecosystem services. In particular, my research on planning of Blue Green Infrastructure has investigated their adaptability to future climate, location choice in the urban form, logistics of their implementation in evolving cities and challenges at the institutional and governance levels. Two planning-support models have resulted from my research:

  1. UrbanBEATS, developed by myself through my PhD, for generating feasible Blue Green Infrastructure layouts in urban environments and
  2. SSANTO, developed by my PhD student Dr. Martijn Kuller, for spatial multi-criteria decision analysis of suitable locations for Blue Green Infrastructure.

I have had the fortunate opportunity to test my research within a broader international research context through different collaborations, master student co-supervision in North America, Europe, Australia and China. I co-supervised three PhD theses in this research field (two of which have successfully completed their candidature). I actively promote Blue Green Systems research in academia (as one of the founding members and Managing Editor of the Blue Green Systems journal), through state government advisory and popular science media.

Currently, I am pursuing robust and systematic ways to effectively identify, quantify and plan Blue Green Infrastructure for delivering urban liveability (health, amenity, thermal comfort) and biodiversity (habitat creation, landscape connectivity) benefits, moving beyond individual technologies towards broader spatial planning, considering (more extensively) the dynamic and evolving nature of our cities and seeking new ways of incorporating the preferences of diverse stakeholders involved in the decision-making process.

Integrated Urban Water Management

Much of my research began in the urban water management space. I have experience in stormwater quality modelling, urban hydrology, urban drainage management, urban flooding, stormwater harvesting and modelling the total urban water cycle. My most impactful work to date is within this space and focussed on reframing the development and application of integrated models to simulate the urban water system and beyond. My initial work on Blue Green Systems focussed heavily on stormwater quantity and quality management as such systems offer decentralised opportunities for mitigating pollution and flood risk, offsetting the need for major infrastructure upgrades and, most recently, offering economically competitive solutions to conventional ‘grey infrastructure’.

My work has emphasised understanding not only the long-term temporal dynamics, but also the spatial dimension around water quantity and quality management and on how designing Blue Green Systems to achieve different stormwater management objectives can complement or even conflict with each other. We have to recognise the potential of integrated ‘fit-for-purpose’ and smarter urban water management in delivering broader ecosystem services, which is also why I primarily use the term ‘Blue Green Systems’, which emphasises the role of urban water management. Blue Green Systems provide the technological and operational means to achieving these ecosystem services, but are only effective if urban water management is in alignment with their planning – a major piece of social science research that I led under an Australian fellowship (the VR Water Project) and am currently in the process of publishing.

Even though I have moved beyond the urban water space, I still maintain my roots here and am also currently collaborating on two major Australian projects on predicting future water quality (the Future Water Project) and on the rapid simulation of urban floods.

Urban Liveability and Ecology

Aspects of urban liveability (human health and thermal comfort) and ecology (biodiversity enhancement) and how Blue Green Systems contribute to these has been my recent focus. My research in the human dimension investigates human perceptions of Blue Green Systems in the landscape (e.g., through the VR Water project), the adequacy of current spatial arrangements of urban green space in urban environments and their bioclimatic benefits i.e., mitigating urban heat and creating more comfortable thermal environments.

Notably, on the topic of urban microclimates, I engaged extensively with stakeholders across the Australian water sector and actively co-supervise an ongoing PhD student on planning Blue Green Systems for improving human thermal comfort. Most recently, I co-supervised and co-authored a substantial critical review on the mechanisms and effectiveness of different Blue Green Systems (technologies and practices) for mitigating urban heat (which is currently under review, so stay tuned).

In terms of urban ecology, I am currently involved in collaborations with the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) on a one-year and its continuation project CONNECT-HDL and BlueGreen-Net, which are applying ecological methods (species distribution modelling, functional connectivity assessment using Circuit Theory) to understand how urban environments affect the presence and flow of species and where opportunities for Blue Green Systems to enhance urban ecology and better connect urban environments with their hinterlands can arise.

Much of this research seeks to develop rigorous approaches (grounded in fundamental knowledge of their respective scientific disciplines) to quantify and understand the adverse impacts of urbanisation and climate change.

Urban Dynamics and Transitions

To mainstream Blue Green Systems in practice requires understanding of how they interact with the urban environment and fundamental shifts in current planning and water management paradigms. My research has been intrinsically linked with topics in urban dynamics and infrastructure transitions since the start of my PhD. At the fundamental level, I have investigated topics in urban planning relating to land use and land cover classifications and urban growth in large cities as well as small towns. I am currently conducting preliminary research on modelling urban growth and land use dynamics, which are a key theme of recent research proposals that I have submitted and is in collaboration with Newcastle University and WSL.

Much of the research in this space builds upon my previous experience in modelling the co-evolution of cities and water infrastructure, as part of the PREPARED project. Within PREPARED, our team developed the socio-technical model DAnCE4Water. My work on UrbanBEATS has itself been linked with DAnCE4Water and other socio-technical aspects of infrastructure planning and uptake (i.e., testing out the sequencing of Blue Green Infrastructure over time, ‘when and where to put what’) and economic decision-making of local municipalities.

Last year, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Mining Group from Monash University on the topic of abandoned mine rehabilitation. In sustainably developing cities, we not only have to look at new urban developments, but also the existing land that has outlived its original purpose and now requires rehabilitation. Mining operations are particularly urgent due to not only the significant environmental impact that these can have, but also the large area of land that could be transformed into some form of Blue Green Infrastructure to improve the liveability and ecology of cities. Our initial work attracted significant impact from the Australian and Canadian mining sectors and led to some media attention.

Likewise, my research in this area is also centred around the adoption of research in practice. Modelling and data analytics have been my primary means of not only building new scientific knowledge, but also communicating research outputs to practice. As such, I have been interested in investigating and providing insights into the effective development, application and communication of scientific modelling in academia and practice through a series of collaborations, building upon my initial critical review of integrated models.

My research summarised…

If you want to know more about my research, you can visit my YouTube channel where I post seminars and interesting videos that I make about my work and my interests. If you want to get a quick but extensive overview of my work and collaborations, you can view my December 2020 seminar below.

Further Information

This website and the UrbanBEATS model website provide extensive overviews of individual research projects. For more information about past and ongoing research projects I have been involved in, visit the Research Projects page. If you would like to read more about my work, visit the Publications page. Otherwise, keep and eye on the blog as I will occasionally post updates on major events. You can also visit my profile at Eawag for further information.