Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2012
By Margaret Pizer
A century from now, 18-30% of Virginia Beach’s current land area could be underwater. On a shorter timescale, many residents are already seeing increased flooding, erosion, and storm damage. A group of students and faculty from the University of Virginia (UVA) are now immersed in helping the city respond and adapt to these changes.
Last spring, supported in part by a grant from the Virginia Sea Grant (VASG) Coastal Community Adaptation initiative, the UVA team kicked off projects to address sea level rise in Virginia Beach from the diverse perspectives of city planning, community engagement, and landscape architecture. The group consisted of students and faculty from two graduate courses in the School of Architecture, and was led by facilitators and graduate associates from the UVA Institute for Environmental Negotiation (IEN).
In May, professor Tim Beatley, teaching assistant Emily Kilroy, and other project partners presented the results of the project to the Virginia Beach City Council. “We feel like you have a tremendous opportunity,” Beatley told the Council. “Comparing Virginia Beach to other highly vulnerable cities, there’s no one further ahead than you are, and we feel like you really have the chance to push the envelope and really set the example for other cities.”
Mayor Will Sessoms agreed, saying “We can sit back and do nothing, or we can try to get the best information and plan.”
Learning by Example
Students in Beatley’s coastal planning class began by comparing Virginia Beach to a number of other communities in the United States and around the globe that are under threat from sea level rise. In detailed comparisons to four other U.S. cities—Miami, Houston-Galveston, Sarasota, and New Orleans—the class concluded that local awareness of sea level rise in Virginia Beach is relatively high. A wide range of strategies are being employed in those other cities. These approaches include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, educating citizens about sea level rise, and implementing planning tools such as building codes and regulations on development.
Based on their research, the students made a number of planning recommendations that could help the city adapt to the coming changes. One major concern is the impact of hurricanes. “Areas of the city that were previously not vulnerable to hurricane damage will be with changing sea levels,” explained Kilroy. The class recommended improvements to the current hurricane evacuation plans for the city to provide additional resources to tourists, older residents, and non-English speakers, among others.
The students also worked in teams focusing on urban, suburban, and rural portions of Virginia Beach and made specific recommendations for each part of the city. These included ideas about how to discourage new development in areas where flooding is likely to be most severe and mechanisms to help residents in low-lying areas prepare for the possibility of moving if water encroaches on their property.
Listening to Residents
The IEN led a complementary piece of the project, holding four listening sessions about sea level rise in Virginia Beach. A total of 128 residents attended and gave their opinions and input through surveys, group discussions, and maps on which they could pinpoint places where they had experienced the impacts of sea level rise.
“We had two major goals for the listening sessions,” said IEN Associate Director Tanya Denckla Cobb, “to help residents gain an understanding about sea level rise and what is being done by the City of Virginia Beach and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, but also to help them think about what they can do,” Denckla Cobb noted. “Residents really appreciated being listened to.”
Participants expressed a high level of concern about sea level rise and flooding, and many said they were already experiencing the impacts firsthand. For example, about 60% of participants said they had experienced frequent flooding, erosion, and storm damage, and 70% had noticed changes to wetlands and beaches. The sessions also revealed a real hunger for information on the part of residents, with 90% wanting more information on sea level rise and 88% wanting more information on solutions to problems associated with rising sea levels.
Designing for Flexibility
A third and final component of the project was led by UVA Landscape Architecture associate professor Kristina Hill, who tasked her spring semester studio class with designing sand islands or promontories that could be placed off of Willoughby Spit as a substitute for traditional beach nourishment. The approach, modeled after one used in the Netherlands, is less expensive than typical methods of replenishing beach sand, because it allows the sand to move naturally over time instead of being distributed and flattened by bulldozer.
Hill explained that many communities are facing reduced funding for beach nourishment as federal contracts expire. “We were looking for a cheaper way to do it and something that would provide significant habitat benefits [for wildlife],” says Hill. Students were also challenged to include an educational component in their designs so that residents viewing the sand structures would learn something about the dynamic nature of the coast.
All three projects initiated last spring have evolved into continuing collaborations between students and faculty at UVA and local officials in Virginia Beach and other coastal communities. Professors Hill and Beatley have received additional funding from VASG to follow the model developed last spring. Next fall, two student-faculty teams, in the context of courses offered in UVA’s School of Architecture, will collaborate with Virginia Beach and other localities to work on adaptation to sea level rise.
The IEN team led by Denckla Cobb will receive funding from VASG to follow up on their listening sessions with focus groups in Virginia Beach, the Middle Peninsula, and the Eastern Shore. These discussions will drill deeper into public understanding, attitudes, and recommendations for shoreline protection in the face of sea level rise.
“There are clearly great opportunities for engaging students and communities in coastal adaptation research,” says VASG Director Troy Hartley. “These projects are a wonderful example of addressing community flooding, beach erosion, and other challenges through collaboration of students, communities, and researchers. These students are tomorrow’s workforce, and there will be tremendous economic development potential worldwide in adaptation planning and design. We want to ensure that graduates of Virginia institutions can lead the way.”
Virginia Beach City Council member Bob Dyer also emphasized the importance of student contributions. “Under the mentorship of faculty, students can provide a valuable resource not only to Virginia Beach but [to] many cities,” he said.