Showing Communities How to Live with Floods

DesignWeek Greenville winning team / NCSU master’s of landscape architecture student Rouqing Ke

Inland flooding caused by Hurricane Mathew wreaked havoc in many of eastern North Carolina’s communities. To bring attention to the issue and find new solutions, North Carolina State University (NCSU)’s landscape architecture program created a design competition focused on three towns most affected. Alongside town representatives and students and faculty from the University of North Carolina (UNC) department of city and regional planning and NCSU school of architecture, we worked with professionals from around the region, including leadership from North Carolina emergency management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Our interdisciplinary teams sought to address the impacts.

During the design competition, DesignWeek: Living with Floods, our team visited Greenville, where Hurricane Matthew brought the Tar River 11 feet higher than safe flood levels, the highest the river has been since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

We spent the day with the Pitt County planning department learning about their methods for assisting impacted residents. We heard about families who purchased lots inside the 100-year floodplain, only to find themselves in turmoil when they learned the cost to elevate their new home is nearly half the price of the house itself. For families in our study area, the cost to elevate their home consumes 10-12 months of their household income, which averaged $23,500 in 2015. We heard stories about renters and owners without insurance who are left swimming in debt. We listened as county officials put the responsibility on their own shoulders.

We left Greenville understanding that dealing with floods has both social and environmental dimensions, and so the means for change are rooted in the physical and human landscape. We learned that what seemed from the outside like a wholly-environmental problem had layers of complexity related to social equity, historic demographics, land-use patterns, and community perceptions.

A few short days after visiting, teams had concrete ideas at hand. The winners for Greenville looked at how the current policy framework surrounding flood prevention and response could be improved to serve the public at a community scale. The team proposed a collaborative, bottom-up approach to help preserve community cohesion through the process of migration away from risk-prone areas. The new program framework called Community Scale Assisted Migration (CSAM) would build community unity (see image above).

The winning team for the Kinston effort put forward a town master plan that bundled different scales of interventions into a cohesive approach. Their solutions would boost flood prevention, help Kinston’s citizens better understand the causes of flooding, and increase economic development through improvements in livability and recreation.

DesignWeek Kingston winning team/ NCSU master’s of architecture student Giti Kazerooni

In Windsor, the Cashie River runs through the center of town and recurrently floods the main streets and shops, causing structural damage and blocking the main road. Town leaders have considered an option to relocate the entire downtown away from the river, but the winning team’s design solution scaled out to the larger region of eastern North Carolina, offering an approach for upstream retention using “leaking dams” downstream that would create a windrow effect. Also, constructed islands would combat storm surge and multi-functional levees would protect the highest-risk areas.

Each of the design teams created interdisciplinary and innovative solutions that inspired local, state, and federal representatives to see their challenges through new lenses and look at different scales.

Although DesignWeek is over for the students, the ideas now serve as the beginning of a larger response to inland flooding in eastern North Carolina. Faculty from NCSU college of design will continue to work with Windsor, Kinston, Greenville, and state and federal representatives to marshal the power of design in large-scale problem solving.

Increasingly, landscape architects are taking flight far above our traditional scale of practice, and approaching sites as pieces of larger, interconnected systems where the needs and desires of our clients must be weighted against potential impacts to surrounding networks of humans and nature. More than ever, landscape architects are employing principles and tools from landscape ecology, urban planning, social sciences, systems engineering, and data visualization. This transformation in the role of the landscape architect, however real, has not yet captured the public eye and, thus, the value of our profession is more misunderstood than ever.

This guest post is by Adam Walters, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

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