Living With Sea Level Rise: Visions for Coastal Adaptation

by Eric Ellman

Rebuilding communities in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in a way that prevents similar damage from recurring is a job for the world’s best architects, engineers and scientists. So last year the federal government partnered with philanthropies and think tanks to sponsor a competition to attract them. One hundred and forty entries came from fifteen countries.  In August ten “Rebuild by Design” teams composed of planners, architects, designers and scientists emerged as finalists, candidates to receive hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their respective visions for how coastal cities from New Jersey to Connecticut can live in harmony with a dynamic environment.  On April 6, a team that includes Yale FES and School of Architecture professor Alexander Felson and the City of Bridgeport will learn if they’ve won. 

Should Bridgeport’s entry be selected its use of coastal adaptation to stimulate economic, environmental and quality of life improvements could turn one of Connecticut’s largest and poorer cities into a world-class model. Their bid is informed by the experience of others who’ve had to hold back the sea.  The Deputy Mayor of Amsterdam and Directors of Spatial Planning for the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment in the Netherlands have all visited the project site.  Katie Hagemann, a student member of Alex’s Coastal Resilience Team who’s studied in Holland, points out the contrasting challenges that Bridgeport and other coastal Connecticut cities represent. 

“Whereas the Netherlands has a long history of public investment to protect its cities and towns in low-lying areas and create wide buffers from the sea. The situation in the US is very different where local governments are actually incentivized to put new developments in vulnerable areas to increase their short-term tax revenue.”

In introductory remarks at an open house for the community to meet with the planning team, Bridgeport Director of Planning and Economic Development David Kooris explained that the city only has 17 square miles from which to collect taxes.  Demographics and industrial decline require them to hold on to what they’ve got.  Retreat from the shoreline is less of an option than living with it.  “Living shorelines,” whose elements include oyster reefs and wetlands that respond to sea level rise, are therefore an integral part of the Bridgeport plan.  The “building with nature” ethic extends from Long Island Sound upstream through the Pequonnock River, its tributaries and manmade infrastructure that may be day-lighted or restored to a more natural condition. 

Plans for revitalization include Bridgeport’s troubled economy.  A local high school’s aquaculture program and other existing oyster seeding operation would help restore a shellfish industry in waters cleansed by upstream improvements.  A green jobs training center is part of a complex that provides shelter for the community’s most vulnerable residents when the inevitable storm does come.  Numerous measures leverage Bridgeport’s status as Connecticut’s most ethnically diverse community.

Katie Hagemann tells me about her Spring Break homework to design experimental components of Bridgeport’s Living Shoreline.  Which marsh grasses should be planted where? Which molluscs should clean the water? What interventions will work best across the city and across the region?  How do you merge green infrastructure on land, using ponds, channels and rain gardens to create a storm water chain that links intervention on the land with intervention in the water?

Bridgeport can be gloomy.  The view from the highway is as depressing as the city’s Department of Labor statistics.  Travelling through by train is a bit different.  The elevated rail creates a hydrologic barrier that’s a challenge for evacuation during storms but a bulwark from the sea.  Up and down the train line peninsulas, estuaries, wetlands and other Connecticut towns are similarly divided, and in many cases the train cuts off marshes from changing environmental conditions in the Sound, making them more vulnerable in the long run.  Norwalk. Stamford. New London.  They’re all subject to the same potentially catastrophic event as Bridgeport, so all could benefit from the answers to the questions Alex’s students are posing.


Rebuild by Design competition winners will be April 6 at the conclusion of three days of closed door presentations.  There is an April 3 open house at 250 Vesey Street in New York for the public to see all ten finalists’ work on display.  RSVP to attend by clicking here.