Guest Blogger Skip Stiles
October 13th, 2020
My day job with Wetlands Watch has me constantly confronting the reality of climate change, which manifests mostly as sea level rise here in coastal Virginia. As I drive through rising waters on the streets, near-daily reminders of what is coming, I feel a sense of dread. This work is draining and the more I understand the problem the worse it gets. Sometimes it seems overwhelming.
But then the optimist that got me into this endeavor kicks in and I get renewed energy from trying to create solutions to the challenges that face us. To paraphrase Pasteur, “Change favors the prepared mind.” Now all we have to do is get prepared.
We do a lot of listening, in community halls and church basements, as people talk about their experiences with sea level rise related flooding and what they need to deal with it. We started thinking about what it would take to meet their needs and also achieve our goals for “nature-based solutions,” resilient approaches that would allow the shoreline to grow its own protection and not just be turned into a concrete wall.
We needed some new adaptation designs but couldn’t find any. So, we turned to university students with design skills looking for projects to work on. We asked Virginia Sea Grant for support and they became our partner. We then met with Hampton University’s Architecture program and Old Dominion University’s Environmental Engineering program and suggested they come into Chesterfield Heights, a shoreline neighborhood in Norfolk. Each of these academic programs had a senior design project/studio required so instead of designing a shopping center, why not have these students design a resilient community?
The students worked for a year, talking to the residents, conducting neighborhood tours, making designs, discarding them, and starting over again. Engineers called the architects impractical and the architects complained that the engineers were unimaginative. At the end, the group came up with designs for this century-old, low/moderate income neighborhood that reduced the flood risk AND increased the environmental quality of the community.
The design work was recognized and celebrated. The students and their professors gained practical experience in adaptation design using natural features. The community had conceptual designs that allowed Chesterfield Heights to make the case for their projects, putting them at the top of the City’s funding list along with richer neighborhoods. And Wetlands Watch began to demonstrate new and exciting ways to develop community-driven, nature-based resilience designs.
That would have been enough, but then it got really interesting.
The designs were picked up by the City of Norfolk which further developed them in a larger design process, partnering with the Dutch government. Those plans were submitted to a national program, the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which used post-Hurricane Sandy money to help communities protect themselves from the next storm.
In 2016, the designs based on the students’ work won a $125 million award! The City of Norfolk has started to build out Chesterfield Height’s resilience plans. And a few of the students who worked on the project were hired by engineering and architecture firms working on the implementation!
Since that success, we have moved on to a number of other neighborhoods in southeastern Virginia with additional university teams. We dubbed this project the “collaborative resilience laboratory” or “Collaboratory”. For the Collaboratory work, we choose low/moderate income neighborhoods with modest flooding problems and put the residents in contact with student teams to develop resilience designs. We have used engineering landscape architecture, and geography students from Virginia Tech and architecture students from University of Virginia and James Madison University.
We haven’t hit the jackpot like Chesterfield Heights did but, in partnership with the Elizabeth River Project, these other neighborhoods have secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding to implement nature-based resilience projects.
This experiment is still being run. We’d like to bring social science students and finance classes into these neighborhoods to round out the resilience work. We are looking to scale up the work of the Collaboratory and broaden it to other parts of Virginia’s coastal plain, when things return to normal. For now, we are shifting the work to a virtual platform and working on line and with remote camera work for site visits.
For me, seeing the excitement of the students when they are working on these projects and seeing the energy that the community partners bring to the process is exactly what I need to keep plugging along in this often overwhelming work.
William A. (Skip) Stiles, Jr. is executive director of Wetlands Watch, a statewide nonprofit environmental group based in Norfolk, VA. Prior to his current position, starting in 1998, Mr. Stiles was an independent consultant, providing editorial and public policy services to a number of clients on issues related to science, the environment, and public policy. For the previous 22 years, from 1976 to 1998, Mr. Stiles served in a number of senior staff positions in the US House of Representatives.