Reinventing the language of coastal resilience

When Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, professor and adjunct professor of landscape architecture, respectively, at Penn’s School of Design, were asked to devise strategies that would build resilience in the face of rising sea levels in Norfolk, Va., they felt compelled to depart from the idea that sea level rise is a problem that needs solving.

Instead, Mathur says, they saw “an opportunity to move beyond the current imaging and imagining of the coast as a line.” The pair realized that such a radical idea could revolutionize the field of coastal planning. 

In September 2013, Princeton University invited Mathur and da Cunha to join the Rockefeller Foundation-funded “Structures of Coastal Resilience” project aimed at generating resilient designs for cities along the North Atlantic coast that are vulnerable to rising tides. Internationally known for their expertise in creating innovative designs for hostile waterscapes, Mathur and da Cunha were asked to bring to the Tidewater region of Virginia the sensibility they had brought to other estuaries around the world. 

“We had never really looked at the Chesapeake before,” says Mathur, “but when the project came to us, we thought it was a significant and challenging territory for us to leverage our ideas and design process.”

With the help of their team, which included recent PennDesign graduates Caitlin Squier-Roper, Jamee Kominsky, and Graham Laird Prentice, as well as graduate student Matthew Wiener, they conducted extensive research and documentation of the region, and tested design possibilities for a number of sites in Virginia.

“This method is a little unusual, even in the design field,” Mathur says. “Our grant states we are now meant to be in the third phase of the project, the ‘representation and verification phase.’ But we have been doing this all along. It’s not as if we’ve done the research and are now going to get somebody to draw it up for us in order to apply it to design. Drawing and visualizing are the mediums of our thinking, for ourselves as much as for the people we present our work to.”

This highly visual, unusually integrated approach enabled them to see early in the process how the land and sea in Norfolk met through a number of discrete, fractured pieces of land that sloped toward the sea, rather than a continuous, unbroken piece of land. Mathur describes these “Fingers of High Ground” as “gatherings of gradients working to structure a coast that is more fractured, cumulative, and diverse than it is continuous, linear, and absolute.”

The pair proposed a comprehensive design strategy that they called “turning the coast,” in which the natural shape of the coastline is augmented with similarly shaped engineered landforms. Da Cunha says this design allows for species migration and plant and animal adaptation when sea levels rise, which may not happen in a system closed by levees and gates.

“Levee systems work well if you’re just talking about storm surges,” da Cunha says, “but when you have a consistency like sea level rise, no storm barrier is going to help. And so we find that changing the vocabulary of design from ‘coastline’ to ‘gradients,’ which will work in a completely different direction, is really the way to go.”

Mathur and da Cunha found that the change in their design vocabulary opened up an entirely new—and more accurate—way of understanding the interaction between land and water as dynamic rather than static. From there, the whole language changed: “Accommodate” replaced “confront,” “adaptable” replaced “fixed,” “soil” and “pine hummocks” replaced “steel” and “concrete.”

They believe that if the sea can be seen in a new way, it can provide a different basis for talking about the coast in history, geography, and other areas, even though “the mental construct of a coastline is so deeply embedded in all of our imaginations that dismantling it is a big project,” says da Cunha.

They realized that first, they had to displace their own imaginations before introducing the idea to others.

Their next hurdle was to propose the “Fingers of High Ground” design to skeptical coastal planners and scientists at the Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Old Dominion University. To this end, they developed two projects in Norfolk and schematic proposals for vulnerable places near the site to demonstrate how infrastructure, built incrementally, can nurture a new orientation to the sea.

“It was completely outside their framework at first, and they probably thought we were crazy,” Mathur says, “but the power of the visual material we developed to document our investigations and illustrate our argument ultimately convinced them of the design’s potential. By the second or third time we met, they were taken up with the idea and began to consider it a viable option.”

The researchers have found the idea to have wide applicability.

“The unique features of the Chesapeake region ultimately became the possibility of a new language for the entire coast,” da Cunha says.

The project has even shed new light on their Ganges River project in Asia.

“We found that the investigation in Norfolk has helped us clarify the ‘edge of the sea’ idea in our work in the Sundarbans at the mouth of the Ganges River,” da Cunha says, where the complexity of water and the way it ruptures the coast call for a design solution similar to the one they developed for Norfolk.

“It’s really opened up thoughts that are much more global,” da Cunha says.

Coastal story