Colonial settlers naturally built their town by the shore.
Do we have a shot at climate-proofing a community like that?

About 10 million of us live in the flood plain in the US. That number is rising as projections of sea level rise accellerate. Residents of at-risk communities can raise their homes, for $100,000 or more. They can raise their whole neighborhood if the political will can be found. They can try to find the tens of millions of dollars needed to build dikes that might keep the water out. And, of course, they can always move away.

But what about simply staying put and letting it flood?

Student teams from the Rhode Island School of Design looked at climate-proofing a community within colonial-era Newport. State authorities are predicting ten feet of sea level rise by 2100, so Newport’s Point district would be mostly underwater by then. I walk through the lovely Point district almost every day and cringe at the thought of a storm washing into those lovely streets.

The RISD designers took an unusual approach, not trying to keep the water out but instead Living With Water – the title of their recent design exhibition. Presented in a virtual reality format (above YouTube clip) and with time-lapse drawings, they use ‘blue streets’ and ‘green belts’ to accept floodwaters when necessary. Some of the stormwater defenses I’ve been writing about – backyard ponds, cellars that can flood, deep street gutters, large drainage canals – are included in the scheme. The neighborhood would be protected on the ocean side by battlements or barrier islands. These are not to keep water out but to dampen wave action in the streets during a storm.

Eventually some houses would be raised, and floating foundations might be inserted for others. Some might be moved away to higher ground. (A surprising number of Newport homes have been moved from place to place in the 18th and 19th centuries.) But the neighborhood could continue to preserve one of the highest concentrations of colonial homes in the country.

And Newport could avoid finding its historical buidlings – and its history-dependent economy – underwater a few decades from now. Would this approach to climate-proofing a community give ideas to your town planners?

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