Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.
To better prepare for a changing future, Norfolk has undertaken an impressive set of resilience planning efforts, which have culminated in Vision 2100, a comprehensive 2030 plan, a new green infrastructure plan, and, finally, a new resilience zoning code approved last year. These efforts were supported by Dutch government water experts through a series of “dialogues,” the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and a $115 million grant from the National Disaster Relief Competition, a program organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to build resilience in the Ohio Creek watershed, which encompasses the Norfolk State University campus and the low-income Chesterfield Heights neighborhood.
At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.
According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.
Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”
An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”
Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”
The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.
Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.
The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.
The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.
The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.
Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.
George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”
Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.
Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.
Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.
Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”
In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”
For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”