Coastal cities need to rethink how they deal with rising waters San Francisco bay (Thinkstock)
Coastal cities need to rethink how they deal with rising waters
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Paul Olsen is an environmental engineer by trade. He has spent the last few decades helping people understand how rising seas threaten the places we live.
 
"I still use Tangier as my closer," Olsen says of one of Virginia's most notable sinking islands. It is in the Chesapeake Bay, which is home to a historic community of oystermen. Tangier helps illustrate his point: rising waters aren't just a fear for the future. "It scares the heck out of people."
 
If that doesn't do the trick, Olsen invokes the memory of Holland Island. It was home to a thriving fishing community for a century. That was until its last house succumbed to the bay. It happened in 2010.
 
"They failed to adapt, retreat or defend," says Olsen. He has spent almost 30 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Now he is helping Virginia navigate rising seas. He is a program director at Old Dominion University.
 
In San Francisco's Bay Area, landscape architect Kristina Hill agrees on the options water-threatened communities must consider. But she might disagree on which ones are worth shoring up.
 
She believes "we're going to withdraw from a lot of places where there are small towns and vacation homes. Because they won't have the capital to do big projects," says Hill. She is an associate professor at the University of California-Berkeley. The towns that need saving on Chesapeake Bay islands are smaller villages. They have populations of less than 300. According to Hill, moving earth to protect those towns isn't the best use of public funds.
 
But for population centers like San Francisco, New York City, New Orleans and Norfolk, Virginia, she adds, architects are looking to adapt their structures, "to keep developing in a way that is ready for sea-level rise."
 
Somewhere between retreating and building a giant wall to keep the waters at bay is a middle ground. It acknowledges inevitably higher waters or periodically devastating storms. And it builds with them in mind. In American cities dealing with rising seas, sinking landscapes and increasingly intense squalls, "transitional architecture" is one way to inhabit the treasured coastlines as long as possible.
 
The approach is already being implemented in parts of Europe.
 
In the Netherlands' port city of Rotterdam, architects have begun building ultramodern homes. They have been built on pilings in ponds. The new homes are accessible by earthen berms. They create a honeycomb-like pattern of water-absorbing ponds.
 
HafenCity is in Hamburg, Germany. The town is recruiting residents to modern apartment buildings. Instead of shielding the buildings from storm surges, architects designed them with parking garages on the first floors. Elsewhere in the city, they placed metro stops on higher levels. Parks feature few trees. Playgrounds are built to withstand gushes of water during heavy rains.
 
"They call this 'tiered development,' because it's set up in vertical layers," Hill explains. "There's a layer that can be flooded, (and) one that's protected and only in a huge emergency would be flooded. And then a layer that would never be flooded."
 
The concept of structures built to withstand intermittent flooding isn't new. David Waggonner is president of New Orleans-based Waggonner & Ball Architects. He says that's how residents of the Bayou used to build their homes, too.
 
"Maybe it rained hard. But if it was masonry at the bottom and your principal living areas were above that, you could live on," Waggonner says. "You can learn a lot from the past, the way people built."
 
In response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans and the federal government built an even bigger floodwall to defend the city. Waggonner says residents still would be wise to have a backup solution for the water.
 
"You need to know where you're building, what the landscape is and has been," says Waggonner. Otherwise, "you're working against it."
 
Hill isn't a supporter of the New Orleans floodwall. She prefers other solutions. She likes those that encourage cities to work within their natural settings. Like the solutions put in place in HafenCity and Rotterdam.
 
Hill says many American cities will require a mix of defensive and adaptive structures to endure higher waters. One natural line of defense is wetlands.
 
In San Francisco's Bay Area, wetlands are a subject of debate. Some argue that the development and highways that have filled them in over the years should be removed. They believe it would return marshes to their natural state.
 
Wetland restoration projects in northern parts of the Bay Area already have returned thousands of acres of former industrial salt ponds to marsh habitat. But imagine San Francisco's iconic coastline highway giving way to lush bay grasses and fishing egrets, along with the city zoo and multi-million-dollar Sunset District homes.
 
Even after a city concedes that it already built where protective wetlands once were, "it's difficult to pull up stakes and allow a wetland to take over," says Hill.
 
It's especially difficult to pull up stakes when they involve national assets. Those could be shipping ports and the world's largest naval base. Such is the case in Norfolk. The Hampton Roads region where Olsen and these landmarks are based has seen water levels rise 14 inches since 1930.
 
Olsen is preparing for a future in which some of the naval base's piers will be abandoned. They may be rebuilt elsewhere. And the Navy will have to double down on protecting the rest. The roads that carry military personnel to their vessels will need to be raised above flood levels. Some homes will need to be built on pilings or with flood vents to minimize damage to their foundations.
 
If those waters continue to rise at a rate of six millimeters per year, the base and surrounding area will need to prepare for another foot of water in the next century.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why wasn't this an issue before?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (35)
  • keewon0801-byo
    6/28/2016 - 02:35 p.m.

    The rising waters wasn't a problem because it hasn't been rising and rained a little bit. But then the water increased and heavy rains have come down to us or them (Because we don't live there). People tried to think modern while others thought natural. My opinion is that may we reinforce the house with maybe the frame of the house with steel? Actually, I don't think that'll work because it'll just drown that house.

  • johannaw-cel
    8/15/2016 - 10:26 a.m.

    I didn't know that rising waters is such a big problem and that some city have to think about how to deal with it. Maybe some city will not exit anymore in the future... I already was a few times in Hamburg (Germany) and I never thought about the problem with the rising water and that they already built some houses with a new architecture, the "tiered developement".
    The article was really impressive, frightening and it was really interesting to see some solutions of a few city.

  • zakrym-ste
    12/19/2016 - 02:04 p.m.

    They need to bottle this water up. They should give it to the homeless. That would be a good way to deal with it.

  • dallasr-kut
    5/28/2017 - 02:18 p.m.

    It was solved but the water level has rised even more now than before.

  • dominickc-kut
    5/29/2017 - 06:20 p.m.

    I feel that This could be a major setback to all costal communities. If the rising sea levels get to high we could have all of our trade become worthless. If you have a costal community and it is going under water what are you supposed to do? This is why we should be prepping for all of these major cities to go away as we build communities ready to become the new trade capitals.

  • eileeng-kut
    5/29/2017 - 07:50 p.m.

    Water flooding and rising to high is a very bad for large cities. If the water level rises because of it raining or something else, this could be a very bad out come for cities because many buildings can get destroyed and many people could get hurt. I think that people should start taking some of the water and clean it and use it for drinking water for people in the city.

  • tylerm-kut
    6/01/2017 - 08:03 a.m.

    I find it interesting that they talk about how to fix the problem and the article gives a lot of info

  • breannam-kut
    6/04/2017 - 10:35 a.m.

    if the water level keeps rising it could lead to a lot of problems and what happened if you live by the water if could damage your home.Or it could flood the streets if it is close to the water.

  • avah-kut
    6/05/2017 - 09:04 p.m.

    The sea level (or rising waters) wasn't really a problem until events like hurricane Katrina. Lots of people have lived by the water and they haven't had many problems like losing their homes. Lots of resorts had been by a lake or ocean and haven't had problems. Why it wasn't an issue before is probably because the sea levels have rose as much as it is now, so i think people need to be more prepared for the road ahead and rising sea levels. They also might not of had problems because they weren't worried about it because they had tourism and that wasn't really on their mind. So that's why people didn't recognize it as an issue before.

  • paigem-kut
    6/06/2017 - 06:36 a.m.

    I didn't know that rising waters is such a big problem and that some city's have to think about how to deal with it. I think the rising water issue wasn't a problem before because a first it wasn't rising until the water increased and heavy rains came down causing all this water to rise.

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