UMCES researchers examine healthy urban waterfronts around the world

May 4, 2020

Healthy Harbors are important for both the communities that surround them and the animals that live in them. Urban waterfronts, including harbors and ports, are a defining feature of coastal cities and serve as gateways to the rest of the world. These urban waterfronts are particularly vulnerable to intensified coastal development and to storms and flooding, leading to increased risk to people and coastal resources.

Baltimore's iconic Inner Harbor is one of many regions evaluated in our annual Chesapeake Bay Report Card

Associate Research Professor Judy O’Neil co-edited a special issue of Regional Studies of Marine Science by the World Harbours Project, which featured several papers by University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researchers on harbors around the globe, from Guanabara Bay adjacent to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) where urban development continues to degrade water quality and ecosystem health to Boston Harbor’s transformation from the “harbor of shame” to a vibrant coastal resource. 

“UMCES is partnering with academic, governmental, NGOs, and corporate partners to advance the science underpinning the revitalization of urban waterfronts,” said President Peter Goodwin. “From green ports, ship innovations, aquatic sensor technology, environmental genetic analysis (e.g., eDNA), chemical analyses, toxicology, environmental scorecards, and environmental socioeconomics, we are working globally to promote the future human and ecosystem health of urban waterfronts.”

The World Harbour Project (WHP) was launched in Sydney, Australia in 2014, and has grown into a global partnership that includes 36 cities on 6 continents, with over 130 scientists collaborating on projects. The project works to facilitate and link research programs across major international urban harbors, with a focus on investigating and restoring ecosystem functioning, sharing of knowledge and exploring solutions to develop management best practices that can be applied by cities around the world.

Biological Oceanographer Judy O’Neil co-edited a special issue of Regional Studies of Marine Science by the World Harbours Project, which featured several papers byUMCES' researchers on harbors around the globe

In 2016, a series of papers reviewing the biophysical, economic and sociological state of 11 of the WHP’s partner cities was published in a the first World Harbour Project special issue in Regional Studies in Marine Science. This second volume includes an additional 8 partner cites, as well as several topic specific papers on educational initiatives designed to enhance student and community understanding of urban marine issues. In addition to the UMCES author's contributions, the special issue also includes papers on harbors in Spain, Boston, Tasmania, Darwin, Hong Kong, and Xiamen. 

“The scientific reviews in this special issue highlight the fact that environmental challenges facing individual cities are shared by cities elsewhere, and that localized solutions being developed for a particular urban setting can be scaled up to help address issues in other parts of the world,” said Judy O’Neil, who co-edited the issue and co-authored several of the studies.

Urban waterfronts and healthy harbors

According to the United Nations, nearly 55% of the world’s population live in cities within 62 miles of the coast, which means that most people on the planet interact with the marine and estuarine environment in an urban setting. The urban marine waterways of these cities face similar challenges, including urbanization and loss of natural habitats, biodiversity conservation, water quality, contaminated sediments, biological invasion, sustainability, and many users and multiple uses that will only increase as the populations in these cities continue to grow. At the same time, coastal shorelines are challenged by the increasing risk of sea-level rise and flooding associated with global climate change. Key to understanding and management of these coastal marine environments is the sustainability of the environments in urban spaces.

Guanabara Bay
Guanabara Bay, adjacent to Rio de Janeiro, provides areas for shipping, industry, recreation, and tourism, but commercial and residential urban development in the watershed has resulted in water quality degradation. Large-scale international events hosted by Rio de Janeiro have brought widespread attention to Guanabara Bay pollution issues. Management actions have been identified to improve ecosystem health, including establishing a strong governance structure, restoring water quality in the rivers, bay and beaches, restoring habitats in Guanabara Bay and its watershed, and mitigating for climate change impacts.

“Despite the numerous problems and challenges that Guanabara Bay faces, it is possible to restore the Bay. It will not be accomplished quickly. It has taken many decades to degrade the Bay and its watershed and it will take many decades of concerted effort to restore it,” said UMCES Vice President for Science Application Bill Dennison.

UMCES’s Integration and Application Network provides ecosystem report cards—assessment and communications products that compare environmental data to scientific or management thresholds—to governments and communities around the world, including Chesapeake Bay and Guanabara Bay.

Using a report card approach to assess the state of an ecosystem increases transparency and communication to the public that is greatly needed to build and sustain public and political support for effective management and restoration. Improvement of Guanabara Bay is not only important for the health of the ecosystem, but also will bring economic, human health, and other social benefits.

Alexandra Fries, Dave Nemazie, and Bill Dennison worked with scientists from KCI Technologies, Inc. in Baltimore and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, State Environmental Institute (INEA), Environmental Sanitation Program for the Municipalities Surrounding Guanabara Bay (PSAM), and Superintendent Office of Union Assets in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on “Guanabara Bay ecosystem health report card: Science, management, and governance implications.”

New York Harbor
Dylan Tallie, Judy O’Neil and Bill Dennison reviewed 20 years of data for New York Harbor in “Water quality gradients and trends in New York Harbor.” The data revealed strong long-term trends in improving water quality, making New York City a model for other important and threatened harbors and waterways throughout the world for assessing and communicating water quality health. Data used in this analysis can be used as a resource for environmental managers, educators, and students to explore health of New York Harbor and its associated waterways.

“This analysis may be seen as a model for other important and threatened harbors and waterways by providing a comparable method for assessing and communicating water quality health,” said UMCES Graduate Student Dylan Tallie.

Environmental Education
Judy O’Neil and partners reviewed educational initiatives designed to enhance student and community understanding of urban marine issues in New York and the Chesapeake region to identify how implementing experiential hands-on learning in environmental science and ecology may have wider applications for other urban areas worldwide.

“With populations expanding into urban environments, where citizens may be less connected with the natural environment day-to-day, there is a need to develop an environmentally literate population,” said O’Neil.

In order to solve the increasingly complex environmental issues facing society, universities need courses to provide proactive and experiential learning opportunities focused on investigating and restoring urban marine ecosystem functioning, leading students to an understanding of best practice for the management and sustainability of urban marine waterways globally. Younger students also require increased access to thoughtfully designed environmental education field experiences within the school setting, connected to relevant curriculum.

“Using urban harbors for experiential, environmental literacy: Case studies of New York and Chesapeake Bay” featured work by Judy O’Neil along with scientists from Columbia University, Pace University, Chesapeake Bay Foundation,  OAA Chesapeake Bay Office,  Measurement Incorporated, Gaylen Moore Program Evaluation Services, and New York Harbor Foundation.

World Harbour Project Special Issue Part II — Global harbours and ports: Different locations, similar problems?” was published in Regional Studies in Marine Science.