Resiliency Re-examined: How challenging the assumptions of resiliency can impact your Waterfront Design

With a changing global environment, and our growing understanding of natural, social, and economic challenges, resiliency, and our concept of it, is evolving. Resilience used to be about establishing a “fortress mentality,” of hardened edges that champion the separation of oceans, rivers, and streams from people and their surrounding environment whenever possible. Today, resiliency has evolved to provide us with fresh design approaches that demonstrate a more comprehensive understanding and implementation of social, environmental, and economic needs. These approaches intersect and lead us towards creating designs that are sustainable, acceptable, viable, and equitable. Moving beyond our conventional understanding and early ideas of resiliency, we have developed multi-benefit design solutions, equity-based design solutions, and process-based design approaches. In this blog, we’ll explore these three emerging design trends and how they might impact your waterfront design.

Dynamic Stability
First, we’ll look at an example of a process-based design solution. When we understand how the structures and processes of natural systems give form to the landscape, a great deal of information can be synthesized into establishing what is known as a a Living Shoreline. This type of designed coastal landscape nurtures a sustainable model of native vegetation and habitat. Evolving from the failed examples of form-based shoreline solutions – those that impose a predetermined and rigid design solution – we strive for solutions with deeper meaning, solutions that clients and communities will embrace. Where we would once establish a sterile seawall that divorces a community from the water, we now strive to initiate a dynamic system of lush vegetation and a thriving habitat. Beyond these obvious appeals lie a wealth of design thought and technical knowledge that creates a stable framework for a resilient shoreline. An approach that accepts and promotes dynamic natural systems, social engagement, and economic viability, while providing a dependable structure for a stable shoreline, is the key to a successful waterfront.

Retreat is not Defeat
When we view our coastal landscapes as a single-use response to a problem, such as flooding or erosion, we limit the scope of our resilient solutions. In our evolving understanding of resiliency, we are learning to accept and welcome our oceans, rivers, lakes and streams into our coastal landscapes as a positive resource for our shorelines, This new understanding leads to a multi-benefit waterfront design that opens up an array of design opportunities that improve the environmental, social, and economic viability of our waterfronts. My experience designing Hunter’s Point South Park in New York City, and GEI’s work at Finnegan Park in Boston, Port Lands in Toronto, and Monterey Bay, illustrate shining examples of accepting tidal flows into the landscape while, at the same time, allowing for an enriching experience for people, plants, and habitat, while also providing vigorous protection for both client and community assets.

An enhanced new era of resiliency will arrive when the Port Lands project reestablishes the environmental, social, and economic connections the Don River VALLEY once had with Toronto Inner Harbor


Photo courtesy: Michael Van Valkenburg Associates

Belts and Suspenders
Pursuing an array of equity-based design solutions is another key aspect of a successful waterfront. Tackling an urgent issue, such as flooding or erosion, is important as single issues. But losing sight of the environmental and social issues of a site can lead to costly failures. Waterfront designs that do not address the issues that combat climate change will only lead to worsening floods, erosion, and environmental degradation. Of equal importance, ensuring your waterfront designs address the social needs of the community they serve. When waterfront spaces are difficult to access or do not respond to community feedback, this often leads to forgotten and underfunded spaces in desperate need of a “do-over”. Even the most well-meaning multi-benefit design approach will not work if those benefits do not resonate with your site. For example, perhaps fishing opportunities should be limited on a waterfront community that places more value in kayaking.

The Future of a Resilient Waterfront
As the global climate changes, our ideas of resiliency and how we incorporate it into projects must also evolve and anticipate change. That’s why these three new design approaches (multi-benefit, process-based, and equity-based) could help your project. Flood and erosion control projects must address these environmental, economic, and social challenges by incorporating accessible living shorelines into a layered and robust Waterfront Design Program that integrates climate change considerations into design standards, asset management practices and recovery procedures.

To learn more about how to find a sustainable balance for resilient waterfront design, please join me for my presentation, or contact me.

In short order, the living shoreline at Finnegan Park erases industrial scars of the past, and reconnects a salt marsh to its community.

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