Daniella Hirschfeld Specializes in environmental planning, climate adaptation, urban ecology, hazard mitigation, and spatial analysis. In this episode, you will learn how she keeps communities safe from floods, droughts, and the guilt of living in imperfect systems.
Daniella Hirschfeld self-introduction
–I weave together the fields of urban ecology and environmental planning to investigate resilient systems. I approach this investigation through three interwoven tracks. First, I look at the adaptive capacity of systems to understand their ability to change to meet future conditions. Second, I focus on the decision-making environment, unpacking the use of science and the connections to the cost of proactive adaptation actions. My third area of research is spatial analysis, which is primarily a tool I use to support the other two areas of work.
More from Daniella Hirschfeld
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:00:00] When you're a mom with four kids, the thought that all of a sudden you should feel guilty because you forgot to recycle one item is, is not that effective. Spending all of our energy making people feel guilty for living within the system that they're in is not a particularly effective strategy for change.
Wyatt: [00:00:20] This world ain't what it used to be. And people love focusing on problems. Danniella, Hirschfeld. She likes focusing on solutions.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:00:29] I really focus on bringing an understanding of climate change impacts to the decision making environment in cities, design contexts such as a landscape architecture context and in regional decision making.
Wyatt: [00:00:49] Danniella helps people understand what can be done now to make things easier on all of us in the future.My name is Wyatt Traughber, and you could be beating yourself up for sipping a Pepsi through a plastic straw. But you are listening to this instead, a podcast from Utah State University's Office of Research. In this episode, you'll learn how Utah and other mountain states can be prepped for big droughts by making the most of big rains. You'll hear what happens when an area is no longer suitable for homes. And Danniella also talks about the information and mechanisms used to make these decisions. But before we get to that, let's figure out who Dr. Daniella Hirschfeld is to do that. I wanted to know what the fourth grade version of Danniella wanted to be when she grew up and how she found herself at the job she has now see in fourth grade.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:01:47] If somebody asked me what I wanted to be, I would have said a Supreme Court justice, which I do not want to be a Supreme Court justice anymore. But I guess that shows just how nerdy I was in that moment in time that I didn't want to be a firefighter or I didn't want to be a actress.I wanted to be somebody who made important decisions. And those decisions had influence on the way society functioned. I was the type of person who would go around when my parents were brushing their teeth and I would turn off the water. I just always hated the notion of waste and using our resources poorly, even at those young ages, and went on to college and I studied psychology and philosophy. I realized that was not actually what I wanted to do. And I realized that what I really loved was the earth.I loved places and beauty and scenery and being outside. And so when I finished college, I worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer for two years with the Nevada Conservation Corps, and I learned all kinds of things about conservation work. I was doing invasive species removal. I was also doing work on mitigating fire risk to homes. And then I went and got a Masters of Environmental Management at Duke and was really, really passionate about water and conservation. So I worked for NOAA and a coastal management fellowship and learned a lot about what government agencies do. I worked for the state of Massachusetts as well as working with local jurisdictions.And through that journey I ended up working for ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability and ultimately for something called Star Communities, where I helped to create the first rating system for sustainable cities in America. That rating system is now part of LEED for Cities and Communities. And that passion all drove me then back to academia, where I really wanted to understand more deeply and understand in a way that still was connected to connected to practice and to decision making.
Wyatt: [00:03:46] In what ways does your desire to not waste still annoy your family? Like, I'm sure like your great about reusable shopping bags or something like that. But like, are there any, like, really specific odd things that just drive the people around you a little nuts?
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:04:01] Oh, that's a really good question. We're actually far worse than I thought we would be even about grocery bags, which might be the the number one pinch point between my husband and I, since my husband does all of the grocery shopping for our family. And every time he comes back to the supermarket, I'm like, why did you not take our reusable bags with you? I don't understand. So amazingly, reusable shopping bags might be one of the things that drives people crazy. That said, I've. As I have grown in my understanding of where are the critical impacts, I've really shifted, tried to shift my focus not just on individual choices, but what collectively as a society we can be doing. And so recognizing that in reality, one paper towel used by my kids to clean up a little bit of a mess is not the thing that's going to change the course of mankind and the history that we're on. And it's much more about issues like voting in favor of solar energy, wind energy. There are much bigger fish to fry than a single paper towel.
Wyatt: [00:05:14] So what is spatial planning for long term environmental impacts? What does that mean?
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:05:20] Yeah, that's a that's an excellent question. So spatial planning is a matter of looking at maps and understanding the physical contexts of places. For example, looking at Cash Valley and understanding the geology that underpins it, understanding where does the water flow here? Where are the earthquake faults? Where is the homes currently? Where is the agricultural land? So really planning with that spatial understanding and then long term climate change impacts are a wide range of things. Sea level rise would be one long term climate change impact. Increased drought is another one. Increased wildfire. Those are all long term climate change impacts. Climate change impacts are usually thought of in the 30 to 50 year cycle as opposed to in five years. One of the benefits about thinking about the long term climate change impacts is that we have an amazing opportunity to make decisions today about known futures and then we can be more prepared for them.
Wyatt: [00:06:28] When I think about how space is used in the past I live in one day I realized that if the stairs were flipped the other way, my space would be much more usable if somebody would have thought about that better. Does that relate to what you do?
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:06:42] Yes, absolutely know. Oftentimes it is easiest to think about space in our very individual sense. And I my husband, I have definitely spent a lot of time thinking about the space of our home and how we would want that to be distributed. The way I think about the research is more about the space of a community or even a region and how we would want things to be distributed in the context of Cash Valley as both being residents here, although this this thought could apply to other places.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:07:14] Is that the way we currently have Main Street situated is that it is an enormous traffic space, which means that there is no place along what we call Main Street for people to walk, to mingle, to interact with each other. And instead, it's just looks I mean, if you almost look at it like one big, long parking lot, you know, it's a street and bunch of parking lots and there's no space for community to happen. And so that's the type of planning change that were we to either designate another location for more of that coming together and community. And there's a bit of that effort happening right now. We're on Center Street where you can start to see they've started to put in some basically sidewalk structures and ways to to bring people to that as a place to walk and create community. So that's a people centric point of view on the way space is used. One of the things that I think about is this idea of green infrastructure. And so that I'm thinking about when you're thinking about long range climate impacts, I'm thinking about changes in the hydrologic cycle and a shift from snow to more rain.So that would be a context in which we're going to experience more flooding and a lot of places and then thinking about putting green infrastructure as a way to slow down the water and avoid flood events downstream.
Wyatt: [00:08:41] How is your research adjusted to an inner mountain setting? And what is kind of fun about that for you? That is a great question.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:08:50] So my research here in Utah has shifted in two different directions. So I'm currently collaborating with Simon Wang and the Climate Research Center, looking at drought and trying to understand what what are the planning decisions that are around drought and what can we be doing about that? So one idea is looking at aquifer recharge, using the spring flows because of the shift in the snowpack and rainwater. We're going to see more river flow and higher river flow earlier in the season and then droughts later in the summer. And so thinking about taking some of that higher flows. And using those to recharge groundwater aquifers in order to save that water and have it available for later drought conditions is one planning and decision making context that I'm interested in looking at. You know, another one that I've been really interested in is fire. And how can we do a better job of preparing for those increased fires? We're going to start to see a lot more recognition that it is, in fact, a threat and need to have physical solutions and strategies to deal with that.
Wyatt: [00:10:04] What kind of mechanisms would be used to recharge the aquifers? Is it just like creating a piece of land where the water can sink on its own back into it? Or is it just let's build a pipe, just pump some water down there?Because the second option seems like a mistake to me. But.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:10:20] No, it is much more the first. I'm glad you asked that question. So it's much more a matter of finding lands where putting that water would make sense. So it's actually it's being done a little bit in it's already in practice a little bit, but there's just more research needed to to confirm how to do it and who to collaborate with. So the best example would be to be thinking about working with farmers and working with farmers to use the water on their land or to have a period of time in the spring where their land is maybe fallow. They have certain lands that they can put this on and that they could then recharge aquifers that way. So it's definitely a collaboration with farmers in terms of making that work. Not not deep pipes shoving water into the ground, that much of a natural settling into the groundwater as opposed to a piping it in. Now, there may be some infrastructure on the upper ground level to move water from one place to another. So one of the biggest things and we might put a grant together looking at this, but is actually more a matter of how much it would cost. And would there be a perfect alignment point for farmers who would need to get who might want to get paid for doing this? They would have to fallow some amount of land. And is there a price point at which it would make sense? Now, what are the costs for not doing it? I mean, the biggest costs for not doing it are the potential for flood events as well as the drought threats. And so what what is it? How costly is it once we enter an extreme drought context where maybe we need to be bringing in bottled water or we might get to a point of drought where farmers crops are dying. So the costs of not doing it are the impact costs of those losses, whereas the costs for doing it are the expenses of putting in the physical infrastructure in order to enable it to happen. And whose land is going to be used for that recharge process.
Wyatt: [00:12:40] How do different communities approaches affect each other? Because I know along the Mississippi River communities with lots of money, they build big levees and that protects them from flooding. But it also makes the other communities flood worse.So what things need to be handled more on a state or regional level instead of like a county or city level?
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:13:01] Yeah, that's you know, I gave a whole talk to a class of students last semester about really the the political ecology of these infrastructure solutions and the implications for different socioeconomic groups. And, you know, I think it's really important that we have regional and collective decision making and not just one city versus another city and whether or not they have the capacity in sea level rise, which is similar to a riverine flooding context, that really does need to be a shared decision making about where we protect and where we don't protect, because otherwise you will end up with the richer places getting protection and the poorer places not getting protection and the impacts happening to poorer and more vulnerable populations.
Wyatt: [00:13:56] How does that apply to us like here in the mountains? You know, because I feel like flooding isn't going to be as much of a thing for me as like the people down there.I don't know. It's just that we have a completely different relationship with water and we are not used to having too much water.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:14:11] Well, I mean, I think that we're not used to having too much water. And yet the only flood that I've ever experienced was here in Utah. There's a lot of. Misconception amongst people in terms of their own risk. You mentioned this earlier, but the misconception of our risk as it relates to fire here in the Valley is higher than one would expect. You know, it's sort of like we don't we all think we're immune to that until there is that fire event. And the same thing is true of flood events where it's like we think that we're perfectly safe until the flood event comes to our backyard. And so it's not just in coastal settings. I think it's in all settings where the misconception of risk is a big part of the of the challenge.
Wyatt: [00:14:58] Is it kind of on you to educate, educate people about that risk? And what is that like always having to ring the alarm bells of like, no, this can happen here.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:15:09] I mean, it's not exclusively on me, but I do think it is on us as planners, as academics, as people interested in improving society to remind people of those risks. And that's definitely something I've worked with a lot of city planners and developing guidance material and information that goes out to citizens to help them understand what their risks are within home buying process is.There is already some work at making sure that citizens know what their flood risk is, but I think that it's a matter of bringing that knowledge. Earlier into the process so that people aren't misinformed when they initiate the home buying process and that they understand what their risk is earlier, and in that process there are solutions. It's not a matter of saying you can't live here, period. It's a matter of saying, OK, you do live in a flood prone area. What are the things that you need to do so that you're prepared for that? What kind of insurance do you need? Or you live in a fire prone area? Here's how you want to manage your landscape around your house. None of those things are perfect guarantees, but they do help mitigate the risks.
Wyatt: [00:16:26] What is the check on an area? I guess, like when does an area become too prone to risks that it should be not developed or rewilding did?How does that happen?
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:16:40] Yeah, absolutely. So FEMA has some efforts at doing that. And there's some case studies that I was familiar with when I worked in Massachusetts of FEMA working with homeowners to buy out locations. So oftentimes there's something called a repetitive loss property, which is a property that has repeatedly experienced flooding. And those are ways of trying to identify places where where perhaps it is best not to have homes. And that can be an indication of saying here's where we shouldn't have homes. Similarly, there are places where we can say we shouldn't have any new homes. The one case study is a place called Chatham in Massachusetts where they they stopped putting new homes in the flood plain with a recognition. And one of the biggest things that really helped them make that decision is the ability to rescue lives in in those potential homes. So if you were to think about a road network and think about how long it would take a EMS person to rescue somebody there, that was what they used as their decision making criteria of saying if it was too hard to rescue somebody, then no home should be built in that location. It's not perfect, but it is easier to not build homes in a dangerous place than it is to remove homes from a dangerous place.
Wyatt: [00:18:05] What are some of the things that give you hope?
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:18:08] I think that my students give me hope. You know, every day when I go into teach and they're excited about what they're learning and they want to be making the world a better place, that that gives me hope.
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:18:21] And what changes are you seeing that people might not be aware of? I mean, I think that there's been a really big shift in terms of how we design buildings. And we've seen that with, I think, the great success of lead and other rating systems that have pushed buildings. And I think that that shift is starting to happen to places and planning and and larger scales. And so that is also a really great area of hope. Coming from San Francisco, I'd say, was just the number of green infrastructure. Regional work that I was seeing in that place was really amazing. You know, I think the L.A. Eppy house on campus is an amazing example of what a home not every home is going to look exactly like that. But, you know, what are physical changes that can be made at that home scale or at a regional scale when you start to scale those things up for all pieces of hope? My biggest research project right now is looking at the use of science in planning decision making internationally. And so I'm running a twenty one person team of international researchers. We have we've currently surveyed four hundred people in four different continents. And when we're all done, we will have surveyed in seven of the eight continents, no surveying Antarctica. And I'm really the thing I'm most excited about that research project is that we've actually gathered names of planners and decision makers and not just looking at the scientists. And I think it's just really important to engage the practitioners. Knowing what science is being used can be really informative in terms of developing science in a way that can then be practical and useful for decision makers.
Wyatt: [00:20:19] Yeah, just what are you looking to learn from that? Like what kind of information?
Daniella Hirschfeld: [00:20:23] We're really looking at understanding how the science is penetrating the decision making environment. And so there are, I don't even know, thousands of reports about sea level rise from the science point of view. But knowing whether or not that latest report is being used by a decision maker is an incredibly important thing to get information on. I think it will inform scientists iteratively over time to be like, hey, you've written 17 papers and not one of them is being used by a decision maker. Or you've written 17 papers and you've done an amazing job because you work at a land grant university or because you collaborate with your sea grant office. So thinking about what, what and how is that science penetrating the decision making environment I think is really important and will definitely inform the field of climate services and help understand, like, how do we get we're not going to get every climate scientist to all of a sudden be a distributor of their science. But how do we build that bridge from the science to the decision making space?
Wyatt: [00:21:34] That was my conversation with Daniella Hirschfeld. So instead of feeling guilty about individual decisions, let's share and support science so we can have communities ready for the future.In two weeks, we'll hear from Kelly Cope, another researcher at USC who she'll be talking about the ecological services that our lawns provide us and the best grasses for people looking to conserve some water, but also keep things green. Make sure to follow the instead podcast on Instagram. Instead podcasts, subscribe and share this podcast with a friend. Instead is edited and produced by Nick Vásquez and meet Wyatt Traughber as part of our work in the Office of Research at Utah State University.