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Plants Not Pipes: A Solution to Florida’s Stormwater Pollution Problem

Cameron Peters: Welcome back Home and High Water listeners. As we move through this season, in addition to our full-length stories, we are also going to feature shorter, bite-sized episodes that you can listen to as you make your coffee or enjoy on a short walk. This is a new endeavor, so let us know what you think and send us your questions on coastal resilience. What topics do you want us to dig into? We might feature your questions in a future episode. You can email us at   
This is FAU’s Home and High Water, a podcast by the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University about research that uncovers how we live, adapt, and thrive in a changing climate. I’m your host, Cameron Peters.  
When I recently spoke with Jeff Huber, Associate Professor and Interim Director at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Architecture, he said something at the beginning of our interview that caught my attention.  
Jeff Huber: The mantra I always say is plants not pipes. 
Cameron Peters: Yes, you heard correctly, he said “plants not pipes.” Professor Huber is talking about something called “Low Impact Development,” also known as “green-infrastructure,” where the natural characteristics of plants, like their ability to filter pollutants, are utilized in stormwater management to help protect our water and aquatic ecosystems. And as someone who is fascinated by climate solutions that already exist, this sounded like something we should be talking about. So today, we are going to dive into what you need to know about Low Impact Development and its potential to transform Florida’s climate-response.     
Jeff Huber: Low Impact Development is thinking of plants in the same way you'd think about them as a pipe. Now that's a cognitive leap I understand for most people, like, "Hey, wait a minute, a plant is a plant, and a pipe is a pipe." But pipes fundamentally transport pollutants, they transport volumes of stormwater runoff from one place to another. The plant can generally do the same amount of dealing with volumes of stormwater, and it's because they go through the three main elements that we think.
Cameron Peters: The similarities between plants and pipes are clear, but plants also have some additional superpowers.   
Jeff Huber: They filter, they can allow for infiltration of water, but they can also evapotransprate water.    

Cameron Peters: Meaning that they can also release some of that water back into the air.  
Jeff Huber: And so, when you have these mechanisms at work, they really do operate like a pipe, but unlike the pipe, they can also reconcile or deal with the quality of that water. So, they clean the water through the phytoremediation, the fact that they can either sequester pollutants, they can break down pollutants chemically within their metabolism, or they can go ahead and... You know, do a range of them by evaporating or breaking down the complex kind of carbons or complex molecules that we need to deal with and reconcile within an urban environment, especially due to a lot of our stormwater run-off.    
Cameron Peters: Plants are mighty cleaning machines. And this makes them a valuable material for residents, businesses, architects, landscape architects, and urban designers who are facing the realities of our urban environments and some of the major challenges facing stormwater management: the combination of flooding and pollution.         
Jeff Huber: Let's just look at what our current condition is, and what I always found interesting and fascinating in the research that I've done is that if you understand the first hour of stormwater runoff has a pollution index far greater than that of raw sewage, it starts to put your mind around like, wow, there is a tremendous amount of contaminants, carcinogens and other types of oils, other issues that run off of our urban areas, and it's just based on the products that we use on a daily life. It's coming from our cars. It's coming from our pets. I was actually shocked to learn that pet waste is one of the largest contributors of...quality issues in urban environments and especially in suburban environments, and, but it's all of these unique challenges that I think we're going to have to see our daily lives shift from, how do we begin to move around cities?...What's that runoff look like? I think in South Florida, it's going to be unique because we're going to see low-lying areas that {flood} during two times of the day, high tide, both high tides, we're going to have flooding potentially happening in our streets because we just cannot pay to elevate everything.  
Cameron Peters: Another pollutant we might not immediately think of is salt water from high tide flooding. Salt water can easily kill landscaping plants that are not salt tolerant, and will slowly corrode underground pipes and foundations over time, which can lead to other serious infrastructure problems. When the tides rise high enough to flood our streets, salt water can also degrade storm drains, the undersides of automobiles, and even some building walls and doorways.

Low Impact Development can help confront these challenges through technologies including bioswales, rain gardens, tree box filters, and constructed wetlands, to name a few. Let's take a step back and look at the differences between hardened and green infrastructure.   
Jeff Huber: Hardened infrastructure to me is sea walls, it's going to be rip rap, it's going to be the things that do not integrate ecological systems, I.e., they do not integrate plants. I think we're gonna have to use plants as infrastructure, no longer can our landscape around our cities be ornate, it cannot just serve as just the decoration on our city, they actually have to do things for us. And so... And plants through things like phytoremediation have the unique ability to clean up the environment, but they also through phreatophytic {plants with deep root systems that draw up large volumes of water} types of plant species that soak up huge amounts and volumes of water, they can become the bio-pumps to really work for our communities. And that's where the innovation and the new research that we need to find, because there's not a lot of action, nor is there a lot of understanding in that realm right now, especially in subtropical regions, especially in South Florida, to understand what is the plant's ability to absorb water, to clean the water, but also to manage the flooding issues that we're having and that we will continue to have more so in the future. 

Cameron Peters: So, what does Low Impact Development look like in practice and how can it shape future development in Florida?   
Jeff Huber: We have what could be interesting, blue streets and green streets that are highly botanizing the asphalt in those locations to begin to deal with and reconcile, not to eliminate stormwater and flooding, but to reduce the residence time that that stormwater is sitting in the street, and that's the primary function, because if we're talking about quality of life issues, if we're talking about doing it in an affordable ways, ways in which we as taxpayers can pay for the types of infrastructure we need, it may not be silver bullets where we can raise everything, it may be that we look at these unique challenges of designing things for flooding, designing things in a way that we, at least when we do flood, we can get back to some semblance of normalcy within a short period of time, whether that is seasonal or diurnal, daily. 
Cameron Peters: As an architect and landscape architect, Professor Huber sees Low Impact Development as an opportunity to meet climate challenges that are already here and in the near future, while also offering Florida the potential to face these challenges in highly-creative ways.  
Jeff Huber: Those are the kind of unique challenges I see in the future. But to me, that creates such an optimistic world that we could live in here, especially in South Florida, where people would probably be, I think, attracted to those kind of daily lives like, come to South Florida where you can see how they are... thriving within these events, how we have been able to re-adapt our infrastructure to work in a completely different way that you don't see anywhere else in the world. And that's where I find our set of challenges much more unique and potentially highly innovative than let's just say areas and communities that have been dealing with flooding for centuries like New Orleans or the Netherlands that are below sea level. We can't build walls and levies like they can, but we can build a kind of tapestry of infrastructure and especially infrastructure based on nature, nature and nature-based features that could begin to reconcile the way in which we manage flooding.
Cameron Peters: Low Impact Development offers potential to face some of Florida’s present and future stormwater challenges by taking ecosystem services of plants and reintegrating them into our landscapes and cityscapes, strengthening Florida’s flood resilience.     

Home and High Water is produced, edited, hosted by Cameron Peters. Music and Sound Design by FAU Assistant Professor of Music Matthew Baltrucki, Zachary Binder, Brendan Lyons, and Matt Bielasiak. Theme music by Matthew Baltrucki. Special thanks to CES Director and FAU Professor Dr. Colin Polsky, Associate Professor and Interim Director at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Architecture Jeff Huber, and CES Assistant Director Kimberly Vardeman.

You can follow Home and High Water on Twitter and Facebook @CESatFAU. You can email us at
 Headshot of CES Research assistant Cameron Peters Cameron Peters
Host of Home & High Water

S1 E4. Plants Not Pipes: A Solution to Florida’s Stormwater Pollution Problem

Publication date: June 9, 2021

What if plants could offer a natural solution to Florida’s climate change challenges? This week, we dive into what you need to know about Low Impact Development and its potential to transform Florida’s climate response with Interim Director and Associate Professor of FAU’s School of Architecture Jeff Huber.        

Additional Resources:      

  • Read an interview with Jeff Huber in the Invading Sea about the role of architecture and design in Florida’s response to a changing climate
  • Watch a 14 min CES video on Stormwater Treatment Areas, the largest constructed wetlands in the world, to explore how plants are used to filter out pollutants in Florida. 
  • Learn about Living Shorelines, a highly specialized variety of green infrastructure used in Florida and other coastal states.
  • A Story Map of green infrastructure projects completed in Florida.

With the release of this episode, we are thrilled to share a new addition to our podcast series: Home and High Water: Resilience In Focus. These “bite-sized” episodes (around 10 minutes each) will give you a brief dive into a particular resilience topic, helping you to stay up to date in our latest coastal and climate resilience research. 

  Featured in this podcast:


Jeffrey E. Huber
Associate Professor and Interim Director at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Architecture


Check out our podcast newsletter for this episode:

June podcast newsletter


Why Do We Care About Our Salt Marshes?

Cameron Peters: Why is it important that we discuss the value of a salt marsh?

Alyssa Jones-Wood: First and foremost for protecting it. We live in a very exploitative relationship with the environment, so being able to attribute a value, whether it’s through a story or through a monetary figure is important for decision-making. Also, it’s important to have the values and what people value most in the Marsh in one’s mind when you’re doing future land use planning or you’re doing sea level rise adaptation planning. You don’t want to move forward with the thinking that people value the marshes the same way that you may.

Cameron Peters: This is FAU’s Home and High Water, a podcast by the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University about research that uncovers how we live, adapt, and thrive in a changing climate. I’m your host, Cameron Peters.

I want you to take a moment to look around you. What do you see? Wherever you are, inside or outside, you are located in an area where life, like you, bacteria, plants, and animals, exists with non living things like sunlight or temperature. And all of this stuff interacts in an ecosystem. Humans benefit from ecosystems in so many ways like the clean water filtered through a forest or the shoreline protection from mangroves. Scientists and economists call these ecosystem services. A monetary value can be given to these services. For instance, the cost of trees for timber.

But, what about the things that aren’t quite as tangible? What if there are ecosystem services that the market doesn’t put a price tag on yet? What if those services are so fundamental to our daily lives and to our culture, we don’t even have the words to articulate their value? It might be more of a feeling: our mind and body feels healthier when we are in that space, it’s our home, it’s a part of our identity.

What is the cost of not having a complete picture of ecosystem services? And, how can we create space for these missing pieces?

Today, we dive into the story of a 4-year, multi-institution project that took a diverse team of social scientists, ecologists, and economists into three coastal marsh communities across the U.S.’s eastern seaboard to try understand not only what, but also how communities value a salt marsh.

Dr. Robert Johnston: My name's Robert Johnston, I'm the Director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University. It's a human-environment research institute, and I'm a Professor of Environmental Economics. I had come to this project based on roughly 30 years of work on linking biophysical and economic systems to understand values and behavior, primarily focusing on how different human populations benefit or don't benefit from changes in systems like salt marshes.

Dr. Colin Polsky: My name is Colin Polsky, I'm a Professor of Geosciences at Florida Atlantic University, where I also direct, as my full-time responsibility, the Center for Environmental Studies. My background is as a climate social scientist, so I'm interested in both quantitative and qualitative understandings of how people create, perceive and respond to climate-related risks and hazards.

Cameron Peters: Dr. Polsky and Dr. Johnston applied and received grant funding from the National Science Foundation’s Coastal SEES project, which stands for Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability. This project is led by Dr. Karen McGlathery at the University of Virginia.

This project supported a multi-institutional, 4-year interdisciplinary effort to examine how humans and their coastal environments interact, especially in the face of increasing threats like sea-level rise at three Long Term Ecological Research sites, known as LTER sites, also supported by the US National Science Foundation. Specifically, their goal was to put the ecological dynamics of coastal salt marshes into conversation with the economic, human, and social factors.

Dr. Colin Polsky: And to make a long story short, we were invited to participate in a grant proposal that involved three of these LTER sites on the Eastern seaboard to look at these dynamics in these three coastal zones and marshland environments, in particular, in Massachusetts, north of Boston, on the Eastern shore of Virginia, and lastly in central coastal Georgia.

Cameron Peters: Their project was called “Coastal sustainability: A cross-site comparison of salt marsh persistence in response to sea-level rise and feedbacks from social adaptations,” which we will refer to as Coastal SEES.

Dr. Robert Johnston: And so when Colin came to me and said, "Hey, we have this proposal. Would you be interested in joining us?" it took me about 30 seconds to say, Yes. This sounds fantastic. Since I was a grad student actually, back in the early '90s, salt marshes have been something that I've been working on. Salt marshes are a combination of a very highly valued system that is also at high risk.

Cameron Peters: Up and down the East Coast, storms, urban development, and chemical pollution are threatening marsh ecosystems and, in turn, the vital services they provide us. Invisible to the naked eye, these threats have been steadily building up in the marshes, often for decades. More recently, however, rising sea levels have been intensifying these stresses.

Dr. Robert Johnston: It's a combination of what people are doing on the land and what's happening to sea levels due to climate change. So, it's that kind of catastrophic harmony that is really threatening marshes now and in the future.

Cameron Peters: The question of how and why communities value coastal salt marshes has an immediate impact as sea-level rise increases. Together, Dr. Polsky and Dr. Johnston’s teams were trying to dig deeper into this topic. And this led Dr. Polsky to the question...

Dr. Colin Polsky: Are there certain things that people value about these landscapes that maybe it's even difficult to put a dollar value on from the revealed preferences or the stated preferences kind of methodological perspective?

Cameron Peters: To understand what this question is asking; let’s begin by recognizing what a marsh is.

A marsh is low-lying land found at the dynamic boundary between land and water. It remains partially flooded throughout the year, resulting in a collection of plants and animals fine-tuned to thrive in these variable conditions.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: My gut feeling is to actually say it looks pretty boring, but it's not, they're normally made up of one or more different species of Spartina grass, which just looks like a grass, it's also called cordgrass. Some grow higher, some grow lower. Also in Georgia there's the Juncus plant, which is like a dark purple bushy grass that is very sharp. So it just looks like a big expanse of grass with tidal creeks. It's obviously coastal, so there's water around it, it changes from the different times of day because when the tide goes out you may see mud flats. So that's what it generally looks like, and then of course, there's always visitors of different animals that are using the marsh, as well as different people's uses of the marsh, so you could see the vast expanse of grasses, the three or two or one, depending on where you are, wading birds, all sorts of clams, the mud, the crabs, but it's pretty uniform. It's almost monotonous, but in a comforting way.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: I'm Alyssa Jones-­Wood and I was a student researcher on the Coastal SEES research project.

Cameron Peters: A marsh might mean something unique and deeply personal to each of us, depending on our engagement and history with this environment. But for all of us, marshes are critical and, whether you live next door or hundreds of miles away from one, your life is connected with this ecosystem.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: So salt marshes are among the most productive and threatened ecosystems on earth. They protect communities from flooding and storm surge, they store massive amounts of carbon, they're important habitat and nurseries for wildlife, those that we eat and those that we just enjoy seeing. I could go on and on on the different ecosystem services or the different services that marshes provide just for human existence, for food, water, our ability to live on a habitable planet, but they're also important to surrounding communities for things like aesthetic reasons. For economic reasons, they depend on the fishing gains. For recreation. Also, there's cultural values in the marsh, there's so many different ways in which the marshes have value, and all ecosystems in general, but we were focusing on the marsh.

Cameron Peters: The economic value of marshes is often characterized using economic concepts that are easy to give a dollar value to, like property values, the total revenues from selling seafood, tourism expenditures based on time people spend in the marsh, and other measures that are easily quantified.

But they've also been valued in other ways that measure how much people would be willing to pay for certain services provided by the ecosystem rather than go without those services, like public access to green space or fish habitat.

In October 2017, in pursuit of her master’s of science in Geosciences concentrating in Human-Environment Sustainability at FAU, Alyssa became one of many researchers to join the Coastal SEES project. Alyssa focused her research on Georgia’s salt marshes and communities.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: And in Georgia, in 1970, Eugene Odum, who's like the father of modern ecology, who did a lot of work in the area, he valued salt marshes or estimated the value at $2000 per acre, in 1970's dollars, totaling $40 million annually for the whole Georgia coast, and a local environmental group recently updated these numbers to $3.5 billion annually.

Cameron Peters: Let’s imagine the marsh as if it was a baseball park. With an infield and outfield and surrounding spectator seating making up a “baseball ecosystem.” Now imagine we have to decide how much that baseball park is worth. Historically, economists have relied on studying the actions or by surveying those who visit the park to figure out how much that space is worth. For example, how much they are willing to spend in time and money in order to attend a baseball game.

But some types of socio-cultural values, like a sense of togetherness, are difficult to capture using these monetary measures. Many people feel that these socio-cultural values are at least as important as the monetary measures.

While considerable effort has gone into estimating the economic value of wetlands in the US and elsewhere, less effort has been placed into understanding how people value US marshes in non-monetary terms.

So, the equation historically used to value an environment leaves gaps in the research, directly impacting our ability to make decisions with a complete understanding of a marsh’s value.

Reflecting on our baseball park analogy, we might notice that there are some things that are missing from our initial valuation.

What is the price you would pay for those Friday nights, where, win or lose, families and friends gather together to follow the game on TV or radio? Or for kids who look up to the professional baseball players they see out in the community? Or the fact that that baseball stadium is a major landmark in the community that you drive by every day. It is familiar and comforting. Can you imagine your city without it?

What do these not quite as tangible values look like for a marsh?

Alyssa Jones-Wood: So, in addition to those values of the marsh that we can put a dollar figure on, people value salt marshes and ecosystems in many other ways, some of which are hard enough to put into words, let alone numbers.

Cameron Peters: Scholars call these cultural ecosystem services.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: Which can include things like spiritual value, recreational value, aesthetic value, cultural heritage perspective, educational value, and so on. Oftentimes people don't even reflect on it, it's just something that they know, they don't really speak about it. But they're absolutely necessary part of the pie of the full or true value of the ecosystem services provided by the marsh, and this value is often described or expressed best in stories, art, or other means.

Cameron Peters: And the Coastal SEES goal was to figure out a way to quantify these missing pieces. To do this they set up three focus groups in each state where community members were quasi-randomly selected and invited to take part in a discussion-oriented study. Over the course of 90 minutes, Dr. Polsky and Dr. Johnston, with support from their student researchers, would ask the selected local residents questions about their relationships to the marshes, recording their answers verbatim.

As Dr. Johnston observed the focus group conversations, he noticed a hopeful pattern.

Dr. Robert Johnston: One of the things that we constantly see, and I've seen this ever since I've been studying how people interact with natural systems, is that once you get people in a room and you ask them, "Well, how do you interact with your local environment?” In this case, we were talking about salt marshes but it could be many different aspects of the local environment, what you find, is that all of a sudden, a lot of the political divide that you see today out in the broader media, that goes away when you simply ask people, "Tell me about your local coastal area. What do you appreciate about it? What do you value about living here? What makes it special?" All of a sudden you discover that people really have a similar way of looking at these systems and they really value them. And that's what's exciting about this project, is getting below the hyperbole and understanding how people truly understand and value these systems. And that's really useful, to provide that information beyond the shouting that sometimes happens in political and policy debates. And to me that's really gratifying, to understand that regardless of where you are on the political spectrum that people really do understand how these systems are special and why they value them.

Cameron Peters: The stories the participants offered to the researchers were the key to understanding how the marsh ecosystem is viewed and utilized on the ground. The data that Coastal SEES was collecting has the potential for real-world impact because it was shared with stakeholders.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: Being able to attribute a value, whether it's through a story or through a monetary figure, is important for decision-making. When we collect these stories it can add some weight potentially towards keeping a section of the marsh or the marsh in its entirety protected from development, from pollution, from other concerns. Also, it's important to have the values and what people value most in the marsh in one's mind when you're doing future land use planning or you're doing sea level rise adaptation planning. You don't want to move forward with the thinking that people value the marshes same way that you may, when the whole community could value, for instance, the changing of the color of the Spartina grass, if you don't see a vast expanse of that, perhaps that value is diminished and you need to make sure that any future decisions made can retain that vast view that people can see throughout the year.

Cameron Peters: One of the Coastal SEES Sites became the focus of Alyssa’s master’s thesis: Georgia’s Golden Isles Community. One of the two counties she studied was Glynn County, which was described by Charles Seabrook’s 2012 book The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast as, “one of the most contaminated places in the South.” According to the EPA’s record of contaminated sites, when Alyssa was there in 2017, it was home to 16 identified hazardous waste sites, eight brownfields, six actively polluting industries, and three superfund sites. As noted in Sherry Baker’s 1997 article, “A Toxic Legacy” published in Public Health, “One of those superfund sites… is regarded as the worst superfund site in the South, and one of the worst in the entire nation.” The pollution in the area is not incidental. It is an environmental justice issue.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: So this impacts people's health, it impacts the marsh's health and people's ability to do certain things in the marsh. Many participants made comments about the pollution and how their use of the marsh over their lives. Most of our participants were 65 plus, just saying that had changed due to pollution. It impacted their ability to recreate in the marsh, some participants mentioned impacts from the paper mills in the area, and about a proposed coal ash disposal site that was coming up the river a bit. People made mention to watching the tidal rivers and creeks get muddied up when they were kids. So one participant said, "It's a new normal, the pollution from those pulp mills have made a new normal and people just don't know what things used to be like, or how productive they used to be. And so I'm afraid that if we keep doing what we're doing and not dealing with the pollution issues, that we have a new normal and we'll never know how productive our systems and rivers and marshes could be.

Cameron Peters: In McIntosh County, the second community Alyssa studied, the pollution is a daily experience for residents.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: So the obvious contamination of marsh in Georgia, and that's the seafood in the area, so McIntosh County specifically at the time, had the second highest poverty rate in the state, and many people depended on fishing for subsistence, but pollution, specifically from pollution into the water, into the marsh, also the air, had an impact on fisheries. So it was impacting the water quality for subsistence and economic fishing. Shrimping, which was one of the major industries in the area, had been wrecked in the years coming up to the research by black gill disease. Black gill disease is exacerbated by the presence of heavy metals in the ecosystem, and the whole industry has been doing poorly basically for years because of black gill.

Cameron Peters: And this contamination appears to be more common in poor communities and communities of color.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: When looking at the whole SEES project, it was obvious that as you move further south the more polluted that ecosystem became, and also as you move further south the blacker the communities got. And it didn't take us going home and doing the analysis to realize that. It was stark, it was in your face while we were doing the focus group discussions, it was clear as day, that as we moved further south, the communities were more polluted and, down to the point, we know that the air is polluted because of the factories in the area, but you can't even get your protein source without having a risk to your health.

Cameron Peters: As Alyssa went into each community to listen and record their stories, the marshes and its history became an important part of the residents’ stories.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: Additionally, in Georgia, I looked at how public perception or value of marshes differed from local decision makers to just general public, if focus groups provided different information than key informant interviews, and if there was a difference in how people viewed and valued the marsh in the rural part of the study area versus the suburban industrial area. So, what did each community value most from the marshes and why?

Cameron Peters: The coastal salt marsh ecosystem has historically been a critical part of Georgia's coastal communities.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: They're important in a really robust way, almost any way that you could attribute value to the marsh, and that has been done or that hasn't been done. It's important to that community. So they have a point of pride because Georgia actually preserved the salt marshes in the 1970s, which is why more than one third of the Eastern seaboard's marshes are in Georgia, even though it's only a 100-mile coastline. But the fisheries, the tourism and culture, the feel of the community because of its coastal setting, the history of the people that have been there for hundreds of years, tied to the land and the land uses, it's integral to the community, quite honestly.

Cameron Peters: Like the project’s other two research sites in Massachusetts and Virginia, Alyssa’s discussion groups brought together people from across the two Georgia counties she was studying. And, prompted by a series of questions, the community members began to tell her stories, about their experiences in the marsh, its quality and condition, and stories of flooding. While academic studies tend to explore the economic implications of marsh changes, what the research showed is the cultural implications dominate the community conversations and thinking.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: So I was surprised that cultural ecosystem services actually came up most in both the focus groups and the key informant interviews, especially given that there is so little scholarship into cultural ecosystem services in general. I was almost expecting what was well-researched would pop up as the most commonly brought up thing, but it was so far from what we found. Also, if we're mostly valuing the marsh based on what we can attribute economic value to, yeah, cultural ecosystem services seem to be the most valuable thing to the residents. We're definitely not operating with a full picture in mind. And one last thing that really surprised me in the research results was I was really touched by how much the individuals we worked with in Georgia knew about their ecosystem and what was going on in it. They knew the animals, the names of them, the health of the ecosystem, the history of the area. I was really touched by how people in Georgia could name all of the polluting industries in the area, they could remember when they were seeing tidal creeks muddied up, for instance. People were in touch with the environment there.

Cameron Peters: From these stories patterns emerged.

Dr. Colin Polsky: So, we ended up with kind of a single long sentence to summarize what we found from these focus groups, trying to elicit in a very inductive way what people valued from a cultural perspective in their location, but I'll give an abbreviated version here. In Georgia, for instance, the emphasis seemed to be childhood experiences as being particularly instrumental for people's love of the marshlands in their area. And that people who had had childhood experiences, whether with their parents and grandparents, or as part of school field trips, or what have you, led, as you might expect, to a greater love for the area and the ecosystem and consequent greater interest in stewardship and cultivation.

Cameron Peters: What Alyssa was hearing in each focus group was crucial because it was also being reflected in data drawn out of the participant’s stories.

Dr. Colin Polsky: And so even though these were kind of open-ended questions that had open non-structured answers, we did a kind of a structured analysis of the transcripts of these focus groups, there were nine of them, three in each location. And the cultural benefits category dominated in all three locations, 39% of all references of themes in Massachusetts were in this category, 20% in Virginia and 30% in Georgia. That is the number one such rate for each of those locations, although their community agency and engagement in protection was another theme in Virginia that also had 20% of references.

Cameron Peters: These numbers make a clear statement: cultural ecosystem services matter to communities. And not only do they matter, but they have shown to be an active part of the conversations the participants were having around the topic of marshes in the focus groups.

Dr. Colin Polsky: Cause I fully expected there to be some people talking about some of these cultural ecosystem services, the aesthetics, the spirituality, the serenity, and so on, but I didn't expect it to really dominate. But it did dominate. So much so that I think Rob and I both remained surprised at the extent to which the cultural benefits really dominated the conversation.

Cameron Peters: And within cultural ecosystem services, themes emerged for how each site was valuing their marsh.

Dr. Colin Polsky: So again, in Virginia a marsh and shore identity, in Massachusetts this idea of serenity, and in Georgia this idea of stewardship cultivation and a love for the habitat, and to take some kind of personal ownership for it, even though it's a public good…

Dr. Colin Polsky: There is, if you will, an unmet demand, I think, among stakeholders, people outside of the academy, to have these conversations and to help put a name to the things they are feeling and experiencing and to then put those things, those concepts, into conversation with other things that are also important, like the economic valuation.

Dr. Robert Johnston: If there's one thing that we've learned from studying Environmental Economics over the last 15 years it's that, very often, protecting the environment, protecting ecosystems, is exactly the type of activity that benefits people in the long run.

Cameron Peters: And that brings us back to Alyssa’s research and the current state of salt marshes in the communities she studied in Georgia. Alyssa Jones-Wood: So, unfortunately, there's a new additional source of pollution for the marsh. In September 2019, the MV Golden Ray, which is a roll-on/roll-off vessel that carried vehicles, capsized in St. Simons Sound. The capsizing of the ship, which is actually still in the water today, spilled gas, heavy bunker fuel, diesel, anti-freeze from the vessel and the cars it was carrying, into the sound. It took a long time for them even get a boom put up to try and mitigate some of that. So the marsh became even more polluted, unfortunately. They haven't really made too much progress on racial equity either, as Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in Brunswick, in the focus group area. The Gullah Geechee community is still struggling to retain their land. The marsh is still there, but getting a bit more polluted, but there's lots of fervent work done by local non-profits in the area that have been doing what they can to protect the marsh. And I haven't been given any updates on how they're proceeding with any climate change adaptation plans. So, besides knowing that the situations that were bad have gotten a bit worse, I'm not... I don't really know.

Cameron Peters: The climate challenges facing salt marshes and the communities that depend on them are immediate and will continue to be so in the coming years.

And this brings us back to the beginning and vital question we started with: how do we value an environment? For the Coastal SEES project, this was a research question that investigated how our current equation can be extended to include both the economic and cultural ecosystem services in order to reflect the complex value of marshes. A complexity directly reflected in the community member’s stories in not just one location but three sites along the East Coast.

Dr. Robert Johnston: And so that's one of the things that we were developing in this project, was a set of tools to do that. And among those is what we call a meta-analysis, or a study of studies, where we took information from dozens of studies that have been done previously in the US, each seeking to identify a certain aspect of salt marsh values. And by combining those in a big quantitative model, we can come up with a tool or a model that enables us to predict what values are likely to be for other marshes that haven't been studied. And that's really exciting because now anybody in the US who has a salt marsh that they wanna understand values, can take this tool and use it to predict certain types of salt marsh values.

Cameron Peters: And, from their research, the Coastal SEES team found that cultural ecosystem services are a necessary factor of the equation when valuing salt marshes, creating space for new research questions.

Dr. Colin Polsky: Well, for me, three cultural benefits that we identified from each of our locations, and in Virginia that's a marsh and shore identity, in Massachusetts, there's this value for serenity, and in Georgia, this notion of stewardship. And for me, I would want to learn more about how representative those are, how those particular cultural benefits from these habitats elsewhere in those states, as well as in the United States, in these types of settings. And that would be number one. Number two is I'd also like to try and test for how what we might find taking a similar approach in urban settings, more urban settings, or landscapes that are more urbanized than the places that we looked at. So at one end of the urbanized spectrum, you can imagine Manhattan or downtown Chicago. I mean not necessarily those types of landscapes but in more moderately urbanized landscapes, I would like to know if the same types of cultural-ecosystem benefits that we saw in these more rural settings emerged as well. Or if perhaps there are other cultural benefits in the different more urbanized setting.

Cameron Peters: This NSF Coastal SEES project led by researchers at University of Virginia, Florida Atlantic University, Clark University, University of Georgia, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, offers an essential foundation for future research investigating the relationship between communities and the marshes near them - one grounded in a more complex and complete understanding of the vital services marshes provide and their impact on us.

Alyssa Jones-Wood: This thesis is dedicated to the people of my study area, their ancestors, and the marsh itself. Cameron Peters: Home and High Water is produced, edited, hosted by Cameron Peters. Additional script editing by Alyssa Jones-Wood. Music and Sound Design by FAU Assistant Professor of Music Matthew Baltrucki, Zachary Binder, Brendan Lyons, and Matt Bielasiak. Theme music by Matthew Baltrucki. Special thanks to CES Director and FAU Professor Dr. Colin Polsky, Director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University Dr. Robert Johnston, and CES Assistant Director of Research Kimberly Vardeman.

You can follow Home and High Water on Twitter and Facebook @CESatFAU. You can email us at
 Headshot of CES Research assistant Cameron Peters Cameron Peters
Host of Home & High Water

S1 E3. Why Do We Care About Our Salt Marshes?

Publication date: May 2021

How do we value an environment? This is a question scientists and economists have been studying for decades through what's known as ecosystem services, a term researchers use to describe what ecosystems provide to humans. 
But, what about the things that aren’t quite as tangible? What if there are ecosystem services that the market doesn’t put a price tag on? What if those services are so fundamental to our daily lives and to our culture, we don’t even have the words to articulate their value? It might be more of a feeling: our mind and body feels healthier when we are in that space, it’s our home, it’s a part of our identity.     
What is the cost of not having a complete picture of ecosystem services? And, how can we create space for these missing pieces?  

Additional Resources:

  Featured in this podcast:


Alyssa Jones-Wood
City of Hallandale Beach (CoHB) Sustainability & Resiliency Officer


Dr. Robert Johnston
Director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University


Dr. Colin Polsky
CES Director


Check out our podcast newsletter for this episode:

May podcast newsletter


Neighborhood Climate Resilience, Part 2: “To Endure And Survive” Transcript

Cameron Peters: What does community resilience mean to you?       
Leslie Kevles: The ability for a neighborhood to endure and survive. And we like to think we do it together. I think that there's too many individuals, but I know from my street alone, I can only talk about my street, alright? That everybody knows each other and we're constantly looking out for each other, and I think that's where the resiliency comes in. I ask, "What are you doing? What are you planning? What are you getting ready to do right now?" And so, in that aspect, I think resiliency might be on the street by street basis, not so much in the entire community, maybe in total, it is. I don't know for sure.                           

Cameron Peters: Welcome to Home and High Water, a podcast by the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University about research that uncovers how we live, adapt, and thrive in a changing climate. I’m your host, Cameron Peters.

In our last episode, we dove into part-1 of a 2-part series exploring the assessment that enables us to map and categorize a community’s capacity to respond to natural hazards in one South Florida neighborhood. Today, we will focus on what our research team discovered about the local landscape when they began to collect information about community resilience at the neighborhood scale.                                                  
Leslie Kevles: My name is Leslie Kevles, and I live here in the Estates of Fort Lauderdale since 2014 when I move up from Key Largo.                          
Cameron Peters: The Estates of Fort Lauderdale is located in the City of Dania Beach, South West of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport. It’s a small mobile home community of 782 homes, about 5.5 miles from the beaches and ocean.   
Before meeting with the community, FAU’s Center for Environmental Studies, also known as CES, assessed the Estates of Fort Lauderdale’s vulnerability based on the widely accepted vulnerability indicators of age, income, education, and presence of mobile homes. Once completed, this assessment characterized the community within the moderate to high vulnerability category. Yet the CES team’s hunch was that this characterization was just the tip of the iceberg.         
Leslie Kevles: The Estates of Fort Lauderdale is a very interesting place. It has just about everything you could possibly want if you're a retiree. We have a pool that's larger than an Olympic-sized pool; we have a hot tub jacuzzi, which is the largest one in Florida, it's 30-some odd feet across with about 18 jets in it. We have a unisex gym, we have separate saunas for men and women, we have a bowling alley, a card room, a golf course, petanque, pickleball, tennis court...Did I mention golf course? If I didn't, we have that. Of course, it's 100% underwater right now.                    
Cameron Peters: The golf course is underwater because when I interviewed Leslie on November 10th, 2020, Hurricane Eta had just rolled through, causing flooded streets and yards.    

Leslie Kevles: There are certain sections of our community here in the Estates that I have noticed in the past two days that are completely flooded. They have water right up to their doors, I don't know what they're doing about it, I don't see any sand bags, of course, the water is now starting to recede a little bit. These are people right next to the lake, where the water has just come over the side.  

Cameron Peters: In recent years, Leslie has witnessed the flooding getting worse.

Leslie Kevles: Generally, I would say from May through September and parts of October is our rainy season. This year, it started earlier and it's still ongoing. I mean, we got a little rain this morning and we're gonna get more all week. Now we should be starting our dry season but it's not. I used to never complain about the rain and I used to actually like walking in it. It never bothered me, especially when it's not cold, but it got to me now, I had enough.
Cameron Peters: Over the last six years, Leslie has become an integral part of the community, serving as President of the Community Club. He was also one of the first community members to meet the CES research team and served as a Team Lead throughout the study, helping to organize and mobilize fellow neighbors during the data collection process. CES Graduate Research Assistant Bridget Huston first met Leslie and other key leaders during the outreach process.     
Bridget Huston: So when we first met with the community, it was just with a couple of the key personnel - it was me, Dr. Polsky and Jan Booher, and then a couple of the initial gatekeepers and it strangely felt so comfortable. This was like one of my first major meetings with community members and kind of starting that outreach process. So, I was a bit nervous and they made us feel so like at home, they offered us coffee. The conversation was just so organic and natural and comfortable...And I feel like they were super receptive from day one and I just felt kind of bonded with them. Like I wanted to help them, and they wanted to help us. So after that first initial meeting it kind of just ran from there. They expressed a lot of interest in the project and being involved in kind of the key motivators for why we were doing this study. You know, they felt resonated with them a lot.     
Cameron Peters: In June 2019, after this initial meeting with the community leaders, Bridget held a Listening Session where the whole community was invited to learn more about the research project and how they could get involved in the study.                              
Bridget Huston: So, from there we planned a community listening session, which basically was…a set time where we helped to convey our message and our project motivation to a bigger portion of the community. So, it was open to whoever was interested. We kind of just explain the research side of it, the environmental side, why this is important for them, what we want to get out of this project for them. And then it was also a time for them to tell us what's important to them and what they want to get out of the project and kind of just their way of life and their daily experiences. So I think the listening session was a big pivotal moment in kind of our engagement and partnership.   
Cameron Peters: At the core of this research project was collaboration to learn about and enhance a South Florida community’s resilience. By creating space for both an overview of the study and community member voices and stories, the Listening Session became the foundation for the workshop and the work of relationship building between the community and researchers. From here, the study took off.        
By September 2019, twenty community members were divided into two Outreach Teams, each with a Team Lead. Bridget trained each group on how to administer surveys to fellow community members.

Throughout October, team members were responsible for recruiting voluntary community survey takers at community meetings and events. Participants were asked to fill out a customized resilience survey with questions like, “How would you rate your level of attachment to the Estates of Fort Lauderdale.”

Each question could be directly related to varying dimensions of resilience such as a person’s preparedness and response actions to hazards as well as community accessibility, mobility, social capital, and communication.   

From the beginning, this on-the-ground research collection offered a unique perspective.               

Bridget Huston: From day one, I think the connectedness of the community and kind of the love for the community was super contagious. I just think that, you know, I felt their love. I felt their, you know, desire to protect their community and their neighbors. And that was just a really nice kind of essence to have for this project. It kind of leaked through a lot of different avenues of the project, even when maybe we weren't focusing on social capital or, you know, community connectedness or communication, like even things like mobility and infrastructure kind of, you know, circled back to this sense of, you know, community and social capital and all of those things.         

Cameron Peters: For Leslie, this connection and care for neighbors, and their ability to help each other in a wide variety of situations, is what he considers the community's biggest strength.              
Leslie Kevles: The fact that there are so many people here that you can talk to the right person if there's an issue. I know a couple of air conditioning people in here. If I had a question, I could ask them. We're not friends, but I can ask them. I have a guy a couple of doors away who's a retired electrician, and he has helped me on occasion when I needed help with something like that. Normally I'm the guy who does the fixing. When people's washers or dryers break, I'll go over there. I don't charge them to fix anything. I can usually fix it without parts, and if it needs parts, then they pay for the parts. I don't charge them labor or anything like that. I mean, I don't think that's what neighbors do. I wanna be able to ask them for a favor without worrying about would they help me because I charged them for something. I wouldn't do that. But there's always somebody to talk to, to ask a question whether it's political, health-wise.  
Cameron Peters: These are critical relationships, ones that are made visible when documented in a neighborhood-level assessment. Through this additional layer of information, Bridget was able to collect community-level attributes and processes of resilience, allowing her to produce a dynamic understanding of the Estates of Fort Lauderale’s resilience story.        

A key aspect of the study that enabled this to happen was having community research teams lead the data collection process. This was a dramatic shift in typical research design, encouraging greater buy-in from the entire community and also leading to community capacity building.

As data was collected by the community research teams, Bridget found herself observing the Estates of Fort Lauderdale’s strong sense of connection and communication in the structures, networks, and everyday interactions occurring in front of her. Factors that enhance resilience.            
Bridget Huston: The community itself has a monthly community newsletter. We got to see an example of the newsletter the first day that we went there. That's something they're super proud of and actually flipping through it, it was really awesome. You know, it detailed the major events happening, not only in their community, but the city, you know, special events, different governmental events, kind of just keeping people in the know. It shared resources and contacts.
I mean, it was hard to get them to, you know, focus when we were in session, just because they all just love talking to each other and sharing stories and talking about what they did yesterday, or, you know, just like normal friendship banter. And it was really fun to see because although most of the community is kind of on the older side, there is some variation in age and that kind of just went out the window when we were at these sessions. Everyone was talking to everyone and it, you know, they seemed very familiar with each other. It wasn't like they only see each other once a month and they're catching up. It's like they walk to the meeting together and, you know, that was really cool and special to see.
Cameron Peters: These are important elements of community resilience exemplified in everyday routines and relationships, one’s that can be especially vital in moments of change or hardship.         
Bridget Huston: So, you know, you could just tell that they were there to not only protect their homes and, you know, the community centers and other different areas in the community, but to protect their neighbors and their friends, and just, you know, work as a team. And that was evident from day one. And I think that was super pivotal and essential in their resilience story throughout, you know, all of the different elements and threads of their story.   
Cameron Peters: What Bridget was witnessing in the community listening sessions, training sessions, in the newsletter, and mailroom were networks of resilience not directly described by the census data driven vulnerability indices initially calculated. While the initial Census-driven vulnerability score was classified as ‘high’, this categorization didn’t seem to be revealing the full texture of the Estates of Fort Lauderdale's resilience story, specifically the lived experiences of community members on the ground.         
After community members collected surveys from 100 households under the direction of Bridget, Jan, and Dr. Polsky, Bridget began to analyze the information. She started by building a composite resilience score, an average of all the household surveys. Then, she began examining the relationship between different dimensions of resilience. For example, in general, greater social capital was associated with higher communication within the community. This was expected based on their interactions with the community. More surprisingly, greater infrastructure, such as community installation of hurricane shutters, led to greater weather related knowledge.   
Bridget Huston: And so I think that that really brought a different perspective and a different value to this project that could be provided by those kind of more broad community assessments. So like BRIC and SOVI, you don't really get that, you know, view or that lens into a community. And what's at the heart of the community and the people and their networks. And I think that was such a foundation to this project.  

Cameron Peters: The analysis of survey responses provided insight into community strengths and existing forms of resilience, revealing that the Estates Community is less vulnerable than the Census data-driven approach might suggest.   

In addition, by studying how different dimensions and factors of resilience interact, Bridget was able to identify areas where the Estates of Fort Lauderdale can increase resilience. Again, the seven major resilience dimensions highlighted within this study, include communication, knowledge, social capital, mobility, infrastructure, institutional efforts and financial independence. These dimensions reveal complex storylines that exist within the community. This shows how the processes of resilience go beyond what census data can provide.  

In both the typical Census-driven assessments and the CES study, 'social capital' (referred to as ‘community” capital via BRIC) is assumed to be an important resilience dimension. But the CES study presents a refined and tailored measure of 'social capital,' and incorporates richer measurements such as the frequency of involvement in community events, types of social activities and in person interactions and lengths of residency. By contrast, the Census-driven assessments operationalize ‘community capital’ simply as 'place attachment” and “involvement in civic, religious and disaster organizations”.
This information is important because it guides the necessary support from government and other stakeholders. When these Census based tools were used to map the vulnerability of Broward County, the Estates of Fort Lauderdale was depicted between moderate and high vulnerability.     

Bridget Huston: When we're bringing it back to the community we were able to really identify areas of strength within the community and then areas that potentially could use improvement. So things like making sure everyone's evacuating correctly and efficiently and making kind of a network of the resources available within the community. So, you know, not a lot of community members are using backup energy modes or safeguards for their home. Some of them don't really know a lot about flooding and have the knowledge of that and how that will impact them. So, you know, those were kind of areas that we could see them trying to improve on. Overall they did rank a 0.6 on a scale of zero to one for resilience, one being the most resilience. And so that's actually pretty great, you know, it's above that midpoint and these strengths that we identified specifically can really be kind of capitalized on. So, you know, that communication and connectedness to kind of fill in those areas for improvement and kind of, you know, propel them in the right direction to become more resilient in the future and in the years to come.           

Cameron Peters: Understanding a community's resilience and developing actionable and highly personalized ways to improve are especially critical as we face an increasingly changing climate.                

Leslie Kevles: Yes, I am a strong believer in climate change, and I see it happening. I'm not a puppy, I've been around for a little while, and I've seen everything. And the temperatures are getting warmer, the rains are becoming more frequent, with more density. I just see the air quality being poor, and I think that we are responsible. It's too bad that some people in government just don't see it, I don't know why they don't see it. I believe in the scientists and before too long, we're gonna have to do something or our great grandchildren are not gonna have air to breathe, they'll have to go outside with respirators on in order to breathe the air. Things are changing, I see weather is becoming more intense, and every year I see a little bit more.

Cameron Peters: For Leslie, the study offered him additional awareness.  

Leslie Kevles: But I think I thought about it more, I thought about what am I missing? Maybe I wouldn't have done that in the past, and I think the resiliency program may have made me more aware of my surroundings and my own responsibilities to me.

Cameron Peters: How does this study expand our understanding of community resilience?

When looking at the survey responses, three new patterns emerged.

First, having a strong connection to one’s community and their home in that community encourages residents to share information about the weather. Specifically, survey submissions showed that respondents with strong attachment to their community engage in a greater number of preparedness and response experiences, including safeguarding one’s home with shutters.

Second, limited experiences and skills are associated with reduced preparedness and response actions.

And, finally, greater preparedness and response actions were surprisingly related to lower self-reported evacuation than expected.

Such findings help us understand the complexity of hazard preparedness, response, and overall community resilience. By learning about the intricate web of community networks, structures, connections, and decisions, we are able to better understand the Estates community resilience story.  

Bridget Huston: So this study really helps to provide a richer representation of the lived experiences and capabilities of local citizens...So there's this huge kind of tapestry of interconnectedness between the different variables and compositions of an area. So I think that my study really allowed that to kind of come to light and we were able to kind of pinpoint what that looks like at this really local level, which can be, you know replicated for other communities and even more so, I think that the results from this study have proven to be a bit more policy and program actionable than results such as low or high resilience...
Cameron Peters: This research is exciting because after conducting highly localized studies with communities, we can then zoom back out with a possibly more complex and complete picture of resilience. Dr. Colin Polsky, CES Director and Professor, notes that this transition in scale offers research potential.    

Dr. Colin Polsky: Here in the U.S. you know, just looking in the Gulf coast, for example, Florida shares a kind of social economic, political, and geographic and environmental context with a large piece of real estate that goes all the way from Florida to Texas. And, you know, there's been a good number of hurricanes that have come barreling through this Gulf region since obviously hurricane Andrew, but certainly even just the time period since Katrina in 2005. And so the work that we're doing, that we did and hope to be replicating from the Estates is not a lot different from a bunch of the projects that have been undertaken say in new Orleans post Katrina or in starting to come out now or some studies about what happened, how people coped or didn't in Houston following hurricane Harvey, similar I think we'll find studies soon that are again, kind of local community based in Puerto Rico, following hurricane Maria. And then the list goes on. There's Michael that blew through North Florida. And then Sally, that just came through as well. So there's this kind of growing library of similar in spirit and nature community neighborhood level studies that are emerging. And what would be good to do that hasn't been done is to kind of put all of those into one big soup bowl and store them together and see if we can learn anything in common.
Cameron Peters: Even though the initial study has concluded, the relationship between CES and the Estates of Fort Lauderdale is ongoing. In Fall 2020, FAU held a Community Resilience Photo Documentary Workshop, a four-part series that provided an opportunity for Estates residents to share their perspectives and tell their climate resiliency stories. Through a series of workshops and photo assignments, participants provided glimpses into their everyday lives and their journeys through a changing climate. A culminating photo story was shared with the community this March.

And this brings us to the wider value of collaborative, placed-based research.    

Dr. Colin Polsky: Well, we really like to replicate the effort that we did in the Estates elsewhere in Broward County. And we'd also like to continue our relationship with the people in the Estates development as well. And there's kind of two goals here. One is to try and learn from a scholarly perspective, what are some of the granular explanations for how resilience gets produced or not? And that has some kind of intrinsic value for building on the knowledge base. It's also potentially of instrumental value for policy. But then there's a secondary motivation, and that is simply by engaging with people in this way. There's an awareness raising that happens and a visibility raising that happens about the topics in general. So through the awareness raising, we observe people are having conversations more about these topics which if nothing else gives them the kind of boost that they may have needed to feel ready to tackle these topics, because there's not easy answers to some of them and the topic is kind of scary. And so it's easy to ignore. I'm kind of hoping that the flood or the wind event won't happen. So by asking people to have these conversations for the research purposes, I think gets them to have the conversations outside of the research purposes, which should help them be more prepared.

Cameron Peters: In a changing climate, being able to assess and map a community's resilience is key to more effective hazard preparation and response.

Through research that recognizes not just the physical hazards or social demographics, but also the people and their strengths, challenges, complex interactions, and social networks, a more complete resilience story can be formed. And, with it, deeper environmental hazards awareness, response, and resiliency.     

Home and High Water is produced, edited, and hosted by Cameron Peters. Additional script editing by Bridget Huston. Music and Sound Design by Miles Shebar. This episode was engineered by Andrew Perelman. Theme music by Shane Wells. Special thanks to Jan Booher, Leslie Kevles, CES Director and FAU Professor Dr. Colin Polsky, and CES Assistant Director of Research Kimberly Vardeman.  
 Headshot of CES Research assistant Cameron Peters Cameron Peters
Host of Home & High Water

S1 E2. Neighborhood Climate Resilience, Part 2: “To Endure And Survive”

Publication date: March 2021

To better understand and document the resilience of a particular community, we need more complex and individualized information at the local level. In Part 2, we focus on what our research team discovered about the local landscape when they began to collect information about community resilience at the neighborhood scale.

Additional Resources:

  Featured in this podcast:


Bridget Huston
CES Graduate Research Assistant


Leslie Kevles
Resident at the Estates of Fort Lauderdale


Jan Booher
Heron Bridge Education, LLC


Dr. Colin Polsky
CES Director


Check out our podcast newsletter for this episode:

March podcast newsletter


Neighborhood Climate Resilience, Part 1: “Things Are Changing” Transcript

Leslie Kevles: Things are changing, I see weather is becoming more intense, and every year I see a little bit more. People here have told me, that are here more than 20 years, they have never seen the water in the locations that it is right now and the height that it is right now. This is the most we have ever seen here.                           
Dr. Colin Polsky: And so, if we don't dive in deep with the people at the people scale, you know, households and neighborhood then we would be left with making policy recommendations on the basis of these data products that we don't know how well they actually reflect what's going on the ground.  

Jan Booher: The piece that's missing is that it doesn't track ingenuity. It doesn't track innovation. It doesn't track people who have gotten together and are willing to work on something for the betterment of their community. And that is the genius of the community, and that is not being tracked.      
Bridget Huston: And I think, you know, bringing a voice and a story; multiple stories, multiple voices to the data helps to personalize resilience and Broward County as a whole, and not just kind of bucket everyone into the same grouping.                                                           
Cameron Peters: Welcome to Home and High Water, a podcast by the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University about research that uncovers how we live, adapt, and thrive in a changing climate. I’m your host, Cameron Peters.         

You are walking in the dark with a flashlight, but your mental map of the community is so clear, you don’t really need the flashlight. Maybe it’s your neighborhood, your workplace, or another place that you can not only walk through blindfolded while not missing a step, but know exactly who to find if a challenge arises.                  
How would you create a map of that community for someone new? It is also night. They have a flashlight. They probably need to know the physical geography, how to get from point A to B. But, is that all? What are the characteristics and networks of that place that are beyond the naked eye?                    
Understanding the social dynamics of a community: the people, their connections, interactions, strengths, and struggles, adds necessary texture to our map of a place. Without this on-the-ground information, without knowing what’s beyond a single flashlight’s beam of focus, our understanding of a place is incomplete.                    
In a rapidly changing climate, being able to map and quantify the vulnerability and resilience of a community is critical because it is often the first picture decision makers have of an area, shaping vital policy decisions from hazard preparation to response. To better understand and document the composite of a particular community, we need more complex and individualized information at the neighborhood level.
This week, we launch part-1 of a 2-part series exploring the resilience assessment that enables us to understand a community’s capacity to respond to hazards in one South Florida neighborhood and what a research team discovered when they began to shine the flashlight in new directions. In part 1, we learn about the resilience assessments that provide a crucial foundation to our understanding of community vulnerability and resilience. In part 2, we see what happens when we go deeper, collecting information at the community level.                   
[Music break]                
Bridget Huston: My name's Bridget Huston. I'm a graduate research assistant at the Center for Environmental Studies at FAU. And I've been there for about two and a half years now, working on community resilience projects and research that take place here in Broward County, Florida.         
Cameron Peters: Bridget spent her childhood in the South Florida ocean and mangroves investigating what was above and below the surface. This fascination led her directly into the natural sciences, exploring the physical environments she had spent her childhood uncovering. But, after graduating from university with a degree in ecology and conservation, she knew something was missing.         
Bridget Huston: When I graduated and tried to enter the workforce, it became very clear that, you know, there was a bigger picture going on and there always seemed to be kind of an element that I hadn't studied or kind of wasn't really aware of. And, you know, that would kind of refer to the like social aspect of environmentalism. So kind of the people that make up the environment, not just the physical environment themselves. So I think that just kind of realizing that that was a big piece of this puzzle in my career and in my evolution of, you know, my work, I got to open my eyes to like the different communities around where I live and how they're being disproportionately impacted by different climate events. Especially down here in South Florida with hurricanes, you know, just seeing how a hurricane would roll through and, you know, one community down in Southeast Florida, you know, maybe would be fine and, you know, would bounce back super-fast and then maybe on the panhandle, they would be experiencing those impacts for months. So just kind of having the academia background of knowing these things exist, but then actually seeing them on the home front catapulted me to make this my career.                 

Cameron Peters: Pursuing a graduate degree at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies, also referred to as CES, Bridget joined the lab of Dr. Colin Polsky, CES’ director and a professor of geosciences at FAU. As a geographer and climate social scientist, Dr. Polsky works at the intersection of the physical and social environments.   
Dr. Colin Polsky: Climate change is a threat multiplier, so to speak. And so anyone who's kind of living their daily lives where the thumb's kind of firmly on the scale against them to begin with before the climate change is considered, is going to experience climate change as probably a threat multiplier in their lives.              
Cameron Peters: What Bridget was observing around her – communities exposed to the same storm, yet ultimately feeling its impact in dramatically different ways – began to spark new questions for her, shaping into a master’s thesis.            
Bridget Huston: So are there certain characteristics that are helping a community fare against a changing climate? Are there characteristics that are making it more susceptible? We wanted to see how this characterization compares to and even goes beyond the current methods that are out there right now.     
Cameron Peters: In Fall 2019, Bridget and Dr. Polsky designed a new project.      
Dr. Colin Polsky: The two main concepts that drove our motivation to do the work in and with the people of the Estates of Fort Lauderdale are vulnerability, and then what we might think of as the flip side or the other side to the coin of vulnerability, and that is what we call resilience.                 
Cameron Peters: Vulnerability and Resilience. In hazard research, vulnerability is likelihood of harm or damage and is shaped by three factors: your physical exposure to a hazard, your susceptibility to that hazard, and your ability to respond to the hazard.  

Resilience takes a different perspective by encompassing a community’s capacity to prepare for and respond to a hazard. As Bridget explained, resilience is “those characteristics that are really working to the advantage of the community to help them protect and safeguard not only the community itself, but the people within the community.” Importantly, resilience doesn’t just open the door to understanding how a community can ‘bounce back’ from a stress such as a natural hazard. It also opens the door to understanding how a community can ‘bounce forward,’ so that when the next stress occurs, the community is in a better position to face the stress.
Bridget Huston: So we have these two terms that kind of oppose each other, but at the same time, we'll work together to create this kind of tapestry of how hazards are impacting communities and communities are interacting with hazards.

Dr. Colin Polsky: So once we have the idea of vulnerability and the allied concept of resilience in mind, that begs the question of, well, where do you see it? Where can you see places that are vulnerable or are resilient, and that presupposes an ability to measure? That in turn suggests, well, what kind of data do we have? And so there's this ongoing struggle in the literature between what kind of data we need and what kind of data we have.  
Cameron Peters: Historically, environmental hazard studies have determined an area's vulnerability and resilience based on assessments that utilize readily available data, such as from the US Census, like the Social Vulnerability Index, known as SoVi, and a related assessment called Baseline Resilience Indicators for Communities, coined BRIC. Beginning with both of these assessments offered an important foundation, one we will return to in a little bit, because they are extremely helpful in identifying areas of potential high concern and in pinpointing populations in need of greater resource flow and mitigation efforts.

Bridget Huston: These sorts of assessments and metrics really helped to kind of lay the land and kind of you know, serve as the foundation for my study, they really help to paint a picture of the composition of the area. So who's living in these areas? What does the physical environment look like in these areas? What kind of resources are available? And the resilience dimensions of my project were actually based on the concepts of BRIC. So I basically took the resilience types and the variables from BRIC and then kind of, you know, adapted them and tailored them to Broward County. So which variables, you know, do resonate with Broward County communities, which don't, how do we push these further and how do we kind of evolve them to dig a little deeper and represent just a bit more of, you know, the composition of our actual local communities?
Cameron Peters: And that's where this project offered to go deeper, to explore what new information could be collected and how that might contribute to a community’s climate resilience story.  
Bridget Huston: So the project basically looks at characterizing resilience to environmental hazards within Broward County, Florida communities. So when I say environmental hazards, I'm referring to kind of a big group of different climate events. So hurricanes, sunny day flooding, severe wind events, severe heat events. And we were basically just trying to kind of hone in on those different elements and characteristics of places and people and communities within Broward County and kind of how they work together to either help communities, you know, be more resilient against these climate hazards or maybe make them a bit more susceptible and just kind of to paint that tapestry of the area at a really localized, personal level.
Cameron Peters: To study the impact of a changing climate within the community, Bridget and Dr. Polsky carefully chose seven major resilience dimensions to examine before collecting the data. These dimensions, inspired by BRIC, included communication, knowledge, social capital, mobility, infrastructure, institutional efforts and financial independence. Bridget hoped to discover what was making a local neighborhood more and less resilient to climate change through a community-level assessment.
However, before this project could begin, they had to find a community to collaborate with.     

Dr. Colin Polsky: And so we partnered with a local activist and scientist named Jan Booher who helped us find a community where we could experiment with our ideas that ended up being captured by Bridget's thesis.            

Cameron Peters: Jan Booher is Director of Community Engagement and Training for Resilient American Communities, an initiative of Health Initiatives Foundation, Inc., President of Heron Bridge Education, LLC, Director of Unitarian Universalist Justice Florida’s Climate Resilience Ministry, and an External Research Coordinator with FAU. Her expertise in community resilience and bridge building between researchers and local communities paved the way for relationship development and growth throughout the study. Having worked with a wide range of communities across Florida, Jan has noticed shared experiences.   

Jan Booher: The most common thread is that there are people who are expressing a plague of some sort, something that's bothering them and they're expressing it in very colloquial terms. You know, it didn't use to flood on the playground and now every time that it rains, it's a swimming pool down there, or the you know, we didn't use to ever have anything coming up out of the storm drains, but they spit now. And I can hear it when I walk by that it comes up and then when it rains, it really comes out on the street. So they're not associating these things with climate change at all, but they're very bothered by them and they are trying to find solutions to them. And that's usually the way things are when I come into a community. Also people have stories about the difficulties they've had in heat waves. People have been trapped perhaps in the upper levels, upper stories of a building, and they had to be carried down because there was no way to get an elevator that was powered. They had to be carried down on somebody's back because it was too hot up there, that sort of a thing. And they're not associating it necessarily with climate change writ large.  
Cameron Peters: In collaboration with Jan, Dr. Polsky and Bridget began to search for that community partnership.             

Bridget Huston: So the selection process for the community was kind of twofold. On the front end, we did do a spatial analysis where we kind of inputted different criteria that are used in a lot of common assessments to pinpoint vulnerable areas in the research field. So those were criteria such as income and age and infrastructure. And this process did kind of view the Estates of Fort Lauderdale community as being more vulnerable than other communities within the area. So that kind of geared us towards this community to just kind of put out feelers and see if they'd be interested, but it was actually, I would say the Estates of Fort Lauderdale kind of chose us almost, just because within our first interaction, we had an instant kind of connection. They seemed extremely interested and concerned. It just felt very real to them, I guess is how I would say it. Like the moment we got there, bringing up the conversation, they had a lot of different things to say, they wanted to tell their story. They wanted to show us different areas in the community. So it just felt like they were invested in a way that we were invested and they were really interested in seeing how this partnership could, you know, help them protect their neighbors and their community members. They're really tight knit groups. So I think that it just kind of naturally evolved into this partnership.
Cameron Peters: To figure out what resilience and vulnerability generally looked like within The Estates of Fort Lauderdale, Dr. Polsky and Bridget used SoVi and BRIC, the two commonly employed tools that draw on data collected from the census to create a separate vulnerability and resilience score.   
Bridget Huston: You can basically think of it as, you know, putting groups of variables and parameters into a blender, I guess, and then whatever comes out, so your final smoothie or whatnot is that one combined single metric of either vulnerability or resilience. You know, that's such a great place to start because there is so much raw data out there, but, you know, data can only take you so far when it's produced at these kind of bigger scales. Especially if you're trying to be hyper focused and hyper localized at a community range.    
Cameron Peters: The census data is powerful because it is reliable and can give you a big picture, incorporating values for household income, individual age and education attainment. For example, for a category like age, an older resident might be considered more at risk because they are less able to escape a dangerous situation. However, this might not always hold true. Strong social networks can add a critical layer of resilience. In addition, ‘high education’ as measured by college or graduate degrees is often taken to correlate with hazard resilience. But the training one needs to prepare for or respond to hazards may not be part of university curricula. Instead, electrical, plumbing, nursing, or carpentry skills may be the key for resilience success.
Dr. Colin Polsky: The SOVI and BRIC and the other products basically point us to, for a neighborhood like the Estates raising an alarm about the vulnerability of such a place, because it's composed mostly of people who are senior citizens who may not have the highest formal level of education who may not be the wealthiest in the County, and also who tend to live in mobile homes. All of those factors from the statistical analysis are taken to be indicators of vulnerability. And what we found is working on the ground, a more nuanced reality.        
Cameron Peters: In investigating, for example, a generalized category like education, Dr. Polsky and Bridget found a more complex perspective of resilience.       
Dr. Colin Polsky: Sure. If, you know, you're quite old and maybe infirmed, you're less mobile and less able to react to a flood or a wind event that makes sense. And yes, if you're in a mobile home, certainly one that's not relatively new, then it's probably not built to withstand strong winds. So that's not such a good thing, but those things we can put to the side for the moment on the question of education and on the question of income which tend to be correlated, we found that those aren't necessarily reasons for concern on the kind of vulnerability resilience spectrum. Instead, we found that education is kind of independent. So one's education basically, what's the highest level you finished high school, some college, college, graduate school, that type of scale, which is what you find in the census is really at least in this case study independent of knowledge and also smarts. And you know, what you need to be adaptable and resilient is knowledge and smarts and motivation. And so education just turned out to be not as helpful and perhaps counterproductive if we had just taken it at face value and not spoken with the community.

Cameron Peters: General vulnerability mapping of the Estates of Fort Lauderdale places them in a higher vulnerability category.  

Bridget wanted to dig deeper: to uncover and figure out if what was happening at the community level was reflected in this categorization, and if the addition of other measurable components might reveal a more nuanced and accurate picture of resilience, one not initially visible using census data alone.      

Dr. Colin Polsky: So we were trying to learn with them and from them, what factors lead them to be, in their own opinions, more or less exposed to wind and flood, more or less sensitive to wind and flood, and more or less adaptable to wind and flood.      
Cameron Peters: To do this work, the research team needed to not only develop an assessment tool wherein a more nuanced picture of resilience could be captured, but also a method where on the ground data collection could be conducted in collaboration with the residents.     

Cameron Peters: Next time on Home and High a more nuanced assessment of community resilience offers a springboard to new ways forward.
Jan Booher: If you really want to know what's going on, you have to consult the wisdom of place that's held by people who have lived in a place over time.
Leslie Kevles (0:24:29): And so my fear is when a storm comes, will I make it through that storm? I can't do anything to stop it, that's my problem, I can't control it. My kids used to call me the fixer. I would fix things to avoid them if we knew something was happening. I'm helpless here. I'm at the mercy of mother nature.  

Jan Booher: So I would say if you look at community vulnerability as the aggregate of individual vulnerabilities, then you're mistaken because very often it is the group or groups within a community that really hold the resilience.

Home and High Water is produced, edited, and hosted by Cameron Peters. Additional script editing by Bridget Huston. Music and Sound Design by Miles Shebar. This episode was engineered by Andrew Perelman. Theme music by Shane Wells. Special thanks to Jan Booher, Leslie Kevles, CES Director and FAU Professor Dr. Colin Polsky, and CES Assistant Director of Research Kimberly Vardeman.
 Headshot of CES Research assistant Cameron Peters Cameron Peters
Host of Home & High Water

S1 E1. Neighborhood Climate Resilience, Part 1: “Things Are Changing”

Publication date: March 2021

In a rapidly changing climate, being able to map and quantify the vulnerability and resilience of a community is critical because it is often the first picture decision-makers have of an area, shaping vital policy decisions from hazard preparation to response.

This week, we launch Part 1 of a 2-part series exploring the resilience assessment that enables us to understand a community’s capacity to respond to hazards in one South Florida neighborhood. In Part 1, we learn about the resilience assessments that provide a crucial foundation to our understanding of community vulnerability and resilience.

Additional Resources:

  Featured in this podcast:


Bridget Huston
CES Graduate Research Assistant


Leslie Kevles
Resident at the Estates of Fort Lauderdale


Jan Booher
Heron Bridge Education, LLC


Dr. Colin Polsky
CES Director


Check out our podcast newsletter for this episode:

March podcast newsletter

 Headshot of CES Research assistant Cameron Peters Cameron Peters
Host of Home & High Water

Coming Soon: FAU's Home and High Water

CES is launching a new science podcast in March 2021! Subscribe to Home and High Water, a podcast by Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies about our research that uncovers how we live, adapt and thrive in a changing climate. As researchers, our job is to witness and study the impact of human development and a changing climate. What are the stories behind the research papers? Each episode, go behind the scenes with our diverse team of social scientists, geographers, architects, engineers, economists, and environmental scientists as we dive into the science of coastal resilience. Join us as we explore stories that will take you from a flooded neighborhood street in urban South Florida to Georgia's salt marshes.


Learn about the Home and High Water project through these five frequently asked questions.

Q: What inspired this podcast?
A: CES launched Home and High Water as a communication tool to bridge communities with CES’s science and research on coastal resilience and a changing climate. Producing monthly episodes rich with science storytelling, this project shares innovative research through an understandable format.  As a highly accessible medium for production and distribution, a podcast has allowed us to connect research voices and community experiences.

Q: What kinds of stories do we cover?
A: We cover coastal and climate resilience research. As an interdisciplinary center, FAU’s Center for Environmental Studies collaborates with a variety of departments and institutions, including social and environmental studies and science, architecture, engineering, urban studies, and economics, to study our changing climate and community-wide strategies for adapting to social and environmental changes. We are especially interested in stories that examine climate solutions, community resilience, and cutting-edge research at the intersection of environmental and social change. Our goal is to build curiosity and community engagement by sharing stories about the world around us, how it is changing, and how we can effectively respond and adapt.

Q: What is Coastal Resilience?
A: Coastal Resilience is our ability to adapt and thrive in the face of coastal challenges. We are living in an urban, coastal world. Cities are home to more than 80% of the U.S. population, and 39% of the nation’s population live in counties directly on the shoreline. Now more than ever, societal risks are increasingly defined by urban, coastal issues such as sea-level rise and flooding. Visit CES’s Coastal Resilience Research for more information.

Q: How do we produce an episode?
A: We create narrative-driven science storytelling that explores research from a diversity of angles and perspectives. To do this we talk to a range of researchers, experts, and community members. Throughout this process it helps to maintain evolving storyboards. After conducting interviews, we begin the scripting and editing process, where we go through all of the audio and determine the most meaningful and relevant pieces. Finally, we incorporate music and sound design to add further texture to the story. CES is excited to be collaborating with Matt Baltrucki from FAU’s Department of Music and a team of music students who create the fantastic sound design and music you hear. You can learn more about the team below in our "production team" section.

Q: How can you subscribe?
A: You can listen and subscribe to Home and High Water on Apple Podcasts , Spotify , Google Podcast , and Pocket Casts . You can also listen on our website where you will learn more about each episode and access transcripts.

Do you have more questions? We want to hear from you!
Email us a to share your questions, comments, and ideas for future episodes or fill out our feedback form here.
Home and High Water is produced, edited and hosted by Cameron Peters. Special thanks to CES Director and FAU Professor Dr. Colin Polsky, and CES Assistant Director of Research Kimberly Vardeman.
 Headshot of CES Research assistant Cameron Peters Cameron Peters
Host of Home & High Water
   Colin Dr. Colin Polsky
CES Director
   Kimberly Kimberly Vardeman
CES Assistant Director of Research


Music and Sound Design by FAU Assistant Professor of Music Matthew Baltrucki, Zachary Binder, Brendan Lyons, and Matt Bielasiak. Theme music by Matthew Baltrucki.

Matthew Baltrucki Matthew Baltrucki
FAU Assistant Professor of Music
  Musician, audio engineer and producer, Matt Baltrucki holds a bachelor’s degree in Commercial Music Technology from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, and a Master’s degree in Sound Recording from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. As a producer, recording, mixing and mastering engineer, Matt has, and continues to work with ensembles across many diverse styles of music, from traditional and modern classical chamber music, to contemporary tango, jazz, punk, metal, indie rock and popular music genres. Matt has worked on albums released on numerous record labels including Naxos, ATMA Classique, Centaur, Broken World Media, Top Shelf Records and Hoot/Wisdom Recordings. Mr. Baltrucki's audio for video post-production credits include many programs for nationally broadcast television networks including the Outdoor Channel and NFL Network.
Zachary Binder Zachary Binder
Audio Engineer
  Zachary Binder is a recent graduate from Florida Atlantic University with a Bachelor of Music degree in Commercial Music with a concentration in music technology. Zachary has worked with Hoot/Wisdom Recordings as an audio engineer, producer, songwriter, and musician. He has and continues to work as a freelance audio engineer, working on a variety of projects such as short films, recording small ensembles, and recording and producing popular music genres.
Brendan Lyons Brendan Lyons
Audio Engineer
  Brendan Lyons is an audio engineer, producer and songwriter from Coconut Creek, FL; and a graduate of FAU’s commercial music technology program. He specializes in Indie/Alternative Rock, and Folk music. He is the frontman and primary songwriter of the band Toledo and regularly participates in other local recording projects as a collaborator. 


 Last Modified 4/3/23