Coastal growth planning project gets $100K grant

May 02, 2012

COLLEGE STATION, TX — Community leaders, elected officials and citizens in the Rockport area will work side-by-side using ordinary tables and light pens in new ways to crunch complex data and make far-reaching decisions about the area’s growth over the next quarter-century, thanks to a $100,000 federal grant.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded the grant to Dr. John Jacob, Professor and Coastal Communities Development Specialist with the Texas Sea Grant College Program, to use the Community Health and Resources Management (CHARM) model in conjunction with the innovative weTable during a series of development planning workshops during an 18-month period beginning this summer.

The weTable combines a laptop computer, a projector, a light pen and a Nintendo Wii remote to transform an ordinary tabletop into an interactive computer interface. Participants use the light pen like a computer mouse on the projected image of the computer’s desktop, which is shown on the tabletop. The Wii remote detects the pen’s position on the table and sends the location to the laptop via Bluetooth connection so people can turn complex data into a color palette that allows them to paint different versions of future development, and the resulting picture tells them the consequences of their decisions in terms of things like potential runoff pollution, flooding and flood damage, water consumption and even walkability. Participants exchange control of the weTable by simply handing off the light pen, allowing them to interact with data, maps and each other instead of trying to crowd around a computer monitor or passively sit through someone else’s presentation. It’s the kind of work that only highly-trained specialist would have been able to complete in the past.

The CHARM model uses a variety of data — like demographics, average water consumption per dwelling type, and topographic and bathymetric measurements — from a number of sources, like NOAA, to calculate the end result of development based on parameters fed to it by workshop participants. These parameters can include locations for growth, anticipated numbers of new residents and predicted hurricane storm surges.

The Rockport area was chosen in part because of its proximity to Texas Sea Grant’s Coastal Planning Specialist, Heather Wade, who will assist with the project. Wade is based at the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Port Aransas. Jacob also selected the area because he has worked with Rockport officials in the past and “they are very receptive to the process and have been interested for some time in growing while continuing to be a quality community.”

During the first series of workshops this summer, participants will talk about priorities for their communities, and get an introduction to the CHARM model and the we Table, said Steven Mikulencak, Watershed Program Coordinator for Jacob’s Texas Coastal Watershed Program, who will also be working on the CHARM project.

“We help workshop participants visualize the different impacts that future development can have in terms of issues like water quality, habitat loss and storm surge damage,” Jacob said. “The CHARM model allows them to see these impacts in real time.

“Often times what people find is that if they put the population growth in single family developments with big yards, they’ll end up paving over the entire area. The CHARM model lets them see the implications of their decisions — how many wetlands they destroyed and how many extra people they put in harm’s way of hurricanes and other coastal hazards.”

Jacob’s team will take what they learn during the summer workshops and return to the area next year with an updated model for another series of workshops.

Pictured:

A participant uses a light pen to interact with the weTable and see the impact of various types of community development. Photo courtesy Dr. John Jacob

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.