It came in the night … Charles Gore had been a resident of Ingleside for nearly 10 years when he awoke suddenly at three in the morning to the sounds of a raging hurricane. Looking out of the window, he couldn’t see the pier that jutted from his backyard into Broad Creek—only the seething of dark waves.
The neighborhood of Ingleside lies in a waterfront suburb of Norfolk, Virginia—a city that simultaneously relies on and lies under threat from the sea. Sitting at the mouth of the Elizabeth River where it pours into the Chesapeake Bay, only just above sea level, her residents are no strangers to flooding.
In Ingleside, homes like Charles Gore’s, with backyards directly on the creek, risk flooding with nearly every large storm event. Hurricanes and nor’easters spinning into the coast trap the tidal waters against the shore, causing the creek to spill its banks into the neighborhood.
Residents further inland find their properties threatened by rainwater flooding as clogged drainage ditches allow stormwater runoff to flood yards and streets.
In the last century, Norfolk has seen 14.5 inches sea-level rise and the city is expected to experience another foot and a half before the year 2050. As the rate of sea level rise increases so too will the intensity of the flooding. Some sections of Norfolk will be relinquished to the water in only a few years.
Faced with a problem that was only getting worse, the residents of Ingleside decided to rise to the challenge of the water. Just as they were needing a solution, two non-profit organizations were looking for a neighborhood willing to tackle the flooding from a unique angle.
Wetlands Watch and the Elizabeth River Project were searching for a neighborhood to implement a new project that would address flooding issues on a hyper-local level. Using the expertise of Architecture students at the University of Virginia, the organizations were hoping to modify typical rainwater and erosion management techniques to solve Ingleside’s unique flooding issues.
The result was the Ingleside Project, a highly collaborative venture focused on the specific needs of the neighborhood. The project would bring together people and resources from different disciplines and through this collective effort, begin to make a difference in the way neighborhoods, the city of Norfolk, and cities across the east coast, address flooding as sea levels rise.
Each collaborator played a unique role in crafting solutions. Here follow the stories of the community, the non-profits, and the university research team.
As neighborhoods in Norfolk go, Ingleside is fairly typical. Though some homes were built as far back as the 1920s, most of the neighborhood was built out in the 1950s and 60s. The residents of Ingleside are representative of the full diversity of the city as well. As the sign in front of the Ingleside Baptist Church boasts, the people are “joyfully multicultural.” The houses range from million-dollar estates on the water to affordable apartments, which house retirees, young families and couples just getting started.
“Ingleside is very interesting,” says Nikki Southall, the Recording Secretary of the Ingleside Civic League. “I believe we have everything in one neighborhood. We are a multicultural, multi-server, socio-economically diverse community… We have million-dollar homes on the water and we have apartments. We also have a light rail stop. We’re in a major area of the City of Norfolk, we are pretty connected to any major highway in this area, and we have a good seniors club along with two schools and a church rec center.”
Of course, Ingleside is also typical because, like much of Norfolk, it floods. Neighborhood resident Southall lives out of reach of the creek and her property is one of the lucky ones that doesn’t experience regular flooding, but after 27 years living in Ingleside, she has experienced the full effects of the relentless waters.
In October of 2016, Hurricane Matthew defied predictions and directly hit Virginia’s coast, taking Norfolk residents by surprise and causing massive, city-wide flooding. For Southall, this was one of the scariest storms she has faced in her time in the neighborhood. “It was just supposed to be a little bit of rain and then you look up and you see cars floating in the water… Living in this area, you can’t get away from flooding,” she says. “It’s everywhere.”
Residents Ben and Kate Nielson dealt with nine days of water after Hurricane Mathew. Once the waters receded, the full extent of the damage became clear. Their fence posts had developed mold and toppled, and their crawl space was inundated, completely destroying their air conditioning ducts. “Mathew was certainly the worst,” says Ben Nielson. “That was the first time we really knew how much of a problem we had.” His wife Kate adds, “The water was two feet deep and flowing in from our neighbor’s yard because their yard is higher.”
Juanita Wharton suffers flooding every time there is a strong rainstorm. Water has seeped into her rugs and carpets and has damaged patio furniture in her backyard. ‘The water came up to my downstairs door,” she says, “and the backyard was flooded like a river.”
When the waters rise on the Reynolds property, Ricielle Reynolds says her husband must wade out into their backyard in hip boots to try and open the drainage, or else they have to wait a few days for the water to recede on its own. ‘We’re now getting more than we did when we first arrived,” she adds. “It covers the whole street and the sidewalks.”
The entire neighborhood has similar comments.
No Way Out
One of the more dangerous issues the residents face when it floods is the entrapment of Fontaine Avenue. Thirty-four homes in the West Ventosa subdivision are linked to the rest of the neighborhood by just one street—only one entrance and exit—and when the waters rise out of the river, that street gets cut off. In bad storms or strong northeasters, there is no way for residents to leave, or for any help to get in should there be an emergency.
A Solution on the Horizon
Recognizing that the problem will only worsen as sea levels rise, the Ingleside community began to discuss their options for mitigating the flooding. In addition to their many other amenities, the neighborhood also boasts an active Civic League, dedicated to the best interests of the neighborhood and its residents.
According to Southall, while the residents were ready for a change, the neighborhood wasn’t quite sure where to start. Fortunately for Ingleside, just as they were discussing how to address the flooding from a neighborhood level, two environmental non-profits were developing a project designed for just that.
"There was 22 inches of water in our garage." - Charles Gore
Their combined goals meant that both organizations were interested in working with a neighborhood on the Elizabeth River to improve its relationship with the water. Wetlands Watch had recently partnered with Virginia Sea Grant and the Hampton Roads Chapter of the Green Building Council to form a collaborative resilience design laboratory, the purpose of which was to produce innovative strategies and designs for adaptation to rising sea levels. The “Collaboratory” supports projects that link academic programs to real-world communities in need.Neighborhood by Neighborhood
Although it was the first undertaking of the “Collaboratory,” the Ingleside Project would be the second of its kind. A prototype project of sorts had recently run its course in a neighborhood called Chesterfield Heights. Wetlands Watch had been looking for opportunities to implement green design solutions to coastal flooding on a neighborhood scale for several years when, in 2014, they received a grant from Virginia Sea Grant to bring in students from Hampton and Old Dominion Universities to design nature-based solutions to their flooding problems.
According to the executive director of Wetlands Watch, Skip Stiles, Chesterfield Heights was the first project that really addressed coastal resiliency at the neighborhood level. “We wanted to see if you could use nature-based designs in these communities to control the flooding,” he says. “It was the first of the kind in the country. No one had gone into a neighborhood before it flooded to begin to develop adaptation design.”
This student design effort was immensely successful, winning a 120-million-dollar Housing and Urban Development grant in 2016 that would allow them to begin implementing the ideas that the students came up with.
Driven by the success of the Chesterfield Heights, Stiles was eager to recreate the process in a new neighborhood with its own challenges. “Ingleside is right next to Chesterfield heights so we wanted to see if we could do the same thing in Ingleside,” Stiles says.
Joe Reiger the Deputy Director of Restoration for Elizabeth River Project says, “Skip Styles and I started out by contacting the President of Ingleside Civic League and attended one of their meetings where we asked if there was interest within the community to enter this partnership. We wanted to make sure it was driven by them so the ideas that we chose would be accessible and affordable to the community.”
There was a lot of interest at the initial meeting and subsequently, three additional meetings were. “The University of Virginia [UVA] students from the School of Architecture came down and presented ideas and listened to what the issues were within the community.” The first priority was to identify the problems and the second was to produce a list of ideas to address them. The final solution which included a few unique ideas, an overarching strategy and budget were then be presented to the community to see if it was acceptable to them.
Phoebe Crisman is the Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia. She says, “The students that were involved in the project were participating in the fourth-year capstone seminar for the Global and Environmental Sustainability Program.” Crisman sought out a community where the class could work closely with them to think about what the future of their community could be in a more resilient and adaptive way.
Crisman’s work emphasizes including communities in the planning and design process. For her, the ability to produce effective sustainable design is dependent on working closely with the people who are directly impacted, to understand their specific needs. Her longstanding relationship with the Elizabeth River Project and focus on community-centered designs made Crisman and her capstone students a natural choice for the Ingleside Project.Adaptive Designs
Guided by the concerns expressed by community members, Crisman, and her students employed their knowledge of stormwater and tidal flooding management practices to devise solutions. Pinpointing key areas in the neighborhood, they proposed the application of nature-based elements such as rain gardens, bioswales, and living shorelines to address the community’s specific needs.An Exit Strategy
One of the community’s major concerns was the flooding of Fontaine Avenue. Over 30 homes in one subdivision of the neighborhood get trapped when the water rises out of Broad Creek and covers the road. In order to solve this problem, the students proposed constructing an emergency exit route, which would allow residents to safely evacuate in the event of a severe storm. The new road could be constructed on a marshy stretch of unused land that had once been a street but has long since lost its pavement. In its current state, this pathway is too soft for cars to drive on without getting stuck. Crisman’s class suggested that the new road be built from permeable pavement to avoid causing yet more flooding issues for the homes nearby.
The UVA students employed their knowledge of sustainable design to produce a thorough final report for the neighborhood of Ingleside, suggesting strategies for mitigating flooding. The community-focused nature of the project set a new precedent for adapting to rising sea levels at the neighborhood level.
"While the residents were ready for a change, the neighborhood wasn’t quite sure where to start." - Nikki Southall
“Mathew was certainly the worst. That was the first time we really knew how much of a problem we had.” - Ben Nielson
Joe Reiger says the final project included a number of things: suggestions on relocating roads to allow access in and out during storm events, on creating living shorelines, and retrofitting roadside ditches to allow for filtration of stormwater before it reaches the river among others.
“We wanted to make Ingleside a fully sustainable neighborhood from the front to the back with emphasis on improving water quality and mitigating flooding,” says Reiger. “But very quickly the community also talked about beautification and the aesthetic features of their community which includes bioswales, living shorelines and rain gardens.” So, the idea of greening Ingleside from front to back was added. “This marriage between local needs and university talents is going to create a model that works.”The Road Ahead
Although the school semester has ended and the project has wrapped up, the work in Ingleside has just begun. The next step for the non-profits and community members is to seek avenues for implementing the designs in the final report. With help from Rieger, Southall presented the proposal to the Norfolk City Council in hopes of earning Ingleside a spot in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. This would ensure that the neighborhood improvements would be factored into the annual city budget, providing a source of funding for larger, infrastructural changes like the proposed green street on Fontaine Avenue.
Wetlands Watch has also applied for a watershed restoration grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. If successful, this funding would help the neighborhood implement the first phase of the Ingleside proposal, which suggests retrofitting roadside ditches into bioswales. Overall, the members of the project felt that Ingleside has made real progress towards a sustainable future.
“This marriage between local needs and university talents is going to create a model that works.” - Joe Reiger