Structures of Coastal Resilience, a new book by landscape architect Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, engineer Guy Nordenson, and architect Julia Chapman, draws on years of research in design, art, policy, and engineering to argue for a new vision of our coasts. As an analysis of trends in representation, mapping, and coastal design work, the book more than justifies its existence. But it is the thought paid to the evolution of these subjects over time that affords the reader a new view of coasts and establishes Structures as a significant contribution to the body of research on coastal resilience.
Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes in the book’s introduction that “there is no bigger challenge today than the management of coastal ecologies.” Landscape architects have laudably embraced this challenge and the attendant challenges of environmental and social justice, with no more recent and prominent national example than the Resilient by Design: Bay Area competition. Structures’ authors have concerned themselves with questions of coastal resilience for over a decade — and much of their own design work is featured in the book. The resulting research spans ecology, policy-making, engineering, and design, all of which contribute the physical and institutional structures of resilience.
For someone unfamiliar with the topic of resilience or wondering why the treatment of our coasts needs addressing, the authors’ premise is clear. Our attitude toward the coast has generally been to seek steady conditions. But ecological resilience theory, along with our own observations of this centuries’ worst flooding events, proves that the steady state is a myth. Ecosystems are in constant flux between states. Our coastal works should reflect this reality, with design leading the way.
In order to do so, landscape architects must learn how to better represent the dynamism of the coast. Historically, landscape architects, engineers, and cartographers have relied on motifs of the hydrological systems as static, with a defined line between water and land. This in turn has contributed to our proclivity for sea walls and levees for flood defenses.
Dynamic representations suggest and inspire dynamic treatments of the coast. The authors mine recent history for examples of dynamic representation, from Harold Fisk’s Map of Ancient Courses of the Mississippi River Belt to coastal section drawings produced by landscape architects Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. These drawings do away with the water/land boundary in favor of a gradient of conditions that shifts and pulses over time.
The authors provide a rich exploration of that gradient, its qualities and potential, in the chapter “Reimagining the Floodplain.” As they do with the subject of each chapter, the authors trace the history of ideas and attitudes towards the floodplain and evaluate new methods for engaging it as a site of design. The ideas profiled are speculative within reason, such as landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Rosetta Elkins’ coastal forests for Narragansett Bay, which faces issues of coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion. The strategy for increasing resilience varies along the bay’s length, but generally relies on the planting of forests and shrub lands that attenuate high winds, reduce erosion, and shield community assets.
The strategies Van Valkenburgh and Elkins employ also involve moving community assets out of the floodplain. This strategic retreat from the coast will become more common as climate change exacerbates flood events. The authors also describe a strategy of adaptation through vertical retreat, which sees the lifting of buildings and critical infrastructure above the floodplain and, in phases, replaces lots and alleys with a system of canals and protective wetlands. Such strategies will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but what emerges out of the book is a portfolio of ideas and novel thinking that one can imagine being adapted to certain contexts.
In the last couple of decades, the democratization of visualization technologies and data have helped to dissolve the boundaries between the disciplines involved with coastal resilience. This has provided landscape architects with exciting new ways of engaging with and designing for coastal environments. Using hydraulic modeling, bathymetric and topographical information, and environmental data, landscape architects can rapidly image an environment and the impact of proposed design interventions on that environment.
One crude example of this is the water tank model, which the authors used to evaluate a proposed intervention in Palisade Bay. While the method isn’t specific to the bay, the authors were able to design a series of wave-attenuating land forms, visualizing their effect on the Bay’s hydraulic conditions. The authors evaluate the impact of these and other technologies throughout the book.
Structures of Coastal Resilience is an excellent collation of current design research and trends related to our coasts. And through historical analysis, ecological research, and an exploration of representation, the book suggests new ways of seeing and responding to the opportunities our coasts provide.