The most important profession fighting sea-level rise you’ve never heard of

By: - October 2, 2019 12:02 am

Inspection of an underground stormwater detention and treatment structure in Phoebus, Va., designed by a landscape architect. (Mike Fox/WPL)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Billy Almond knows Virginia Beach.

He knows where the roads meet the water and where, increasingly, the water is rising to meet the roads. He remembers what the city looked like when he was a child on 84th Street, where when he stepped out of the house he saw the Atlantic Ocean in one direction and First Landing State Park in the other. Now the work he’s doing is dedicated in large part to ensuring that those two things — land and sea — remain in balance.

“With dollars and engineering, you can probably do anything,” he observed on a sunny Saturday last month inside the Virginia Beach Convention Center, a modern glass and metal building designed to look like a ship, where dozens of members of the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects had gathered for their annual convention. “But at what cost?”

The question isn’t rhetorical — especially when posed in the Hampton Roads region, which is experiencing the second-highest rate of sea level rise in the nation, after the Gulf Coast, and is the country’s second-largest population center at risk, after New Orleans. Flooding, whether triggered by storms or by winds blowing ocean water north from Albemarle and Currituck sounds (a phenomenon known as “sunny-day flooding” because it has little to do with rainfall), is becoming a regular feature of life in places like Virginia Beach.

Although “climate change” continues to be seen as a political issue to be debated — “I will very rarely mention climate change,” Virginia Beach stormwater engineer C. J. Bodnar said during one of the Virginia ASLA’s convention panels; “I’m not getting into the science, and I’m not getting into the middle of it” — no one in Hampton Roads debates sea level rise. They can all see it. It is, sometimes quite literally, on their doorsteps.

But if the reality of sea level rise represents a rare point of consensus, ways to protect communities against it remain contentious. The “cost” invoked by Almond is more than financial, although the price tags for any solution are enormous, amounting to billions of dollars. It’s also a measure of the risk that attends any bad decision about infrastructure that could route floodwaters away from one place, only to inundate another.

That’s where landscape architects come in.

A profession that focuses on forming and shaping spaces, landscape architecture is architecture with a broader scale, one that incorporates both buildings and the environment that surrounds them. Parks, public plazas, school campuses — all of these places are designed by landscape architects. So too are a fleet of strategies to mitigate flooding, from stormwater management systems to “green infrastructure” elements like living shorelines, marsh restoration and dune enhancement.

“We need to rely on the experts that are out there — the landscape architects, the engineers. We need to bring those folks in to solve those problems, not bureaucrats,” said Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, whose Middle Peninsula district is also grappling with rising sea levels.

It’s a new level of attention for a group of practitioners that historically has received little. (Even today, many landscape architects, who are licensed in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., say they are confused with landscapers.) But, as C. L. Bohannon, the outgoing president of ASLA’s Virginia chapter and an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, noted, “The challenges of today force us to be out in the forefront.”

‘A better way’ to approach sea level rise

Nowhere have landscape architects been more at the forefront than in their promotion of green infrastructure, a form of design that attempts to mimic naturally occurring features of the environment rather than relying solely on mechanically engineered solutions like sea walls.

If the use of “green” as an adjective invokes a squishy sense of idealism unmoored from the world of data, dollars and cents, it shouldn’t. Green infrastructure may not be familiar to most Americans, but it’s become a foundation of flood defense in one of the world’s leaders in fighting rising waters: the Netherlands.

With about one-third of its land lying below sea level, the Netherlands has been devising ways to hold back the waters for centuries. In the 1950s, after a disastrous flood killed an estimated 2,000 people and overran hundreds of thousands of acres of land, the nation embarked on the Delta Works project, constructing a spiderweb of levees, dams and other flood control structures so impressive that the American Society of Civil Engineers in the 1990s lauded it as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

But while the Delta Works is still key to the Netherlands’ flood defenses, climate change has fundamentally altered the Dutch approach to sea level rise. Whatever wall that is built today, the government has realized, will inevitably be overtopped by rising waters tomorrow — and with growing evidence that sea level rise is accelerating, that tomorrow will likely be sooner than expected.

Consequently the Dutch have turned toward solutions designed less to combat floodwaters than to manage them. Through their (quite literally) groundbreaking Room for the River project, they have reclaimed thousands of acres that can be used as public space during good times and absorb or mitigate high waters during flood times by allowing rivers to spread over their natural floodplains instead of confining them to narrow levee-lined channels that will speed up water flow and pose greater danger to nearby inhabitants.

In Virginia, landscape architects are eager to see some of those solutions applied to the Hampton Roads region. Almond, whose firm has served as a subconsultant on the multi-year sea level rise study conducted by architecture and engineering firm Dewberry for the city of Virginia Beach, expressed fears about an overreliance on traditional flood control structures like gates and walls, known as “gray infrastructure,” which is also generally more expensive than green alternatives.

“We think there’s a better way to do this,” he said.

living shoreline
Construction of the Fog Point Living Shoreline Breakwater on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Living shorelines, an element of green infrastructure, control erosion and can help act as a buffer against flooding. (Matt Whitbeck/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Mintai Kim, a landscape architecture professor at Virginia Tech who runs a land planning studio that focuses on large urban environmental issues, has brought students to Virginia Beach for four of the past eight years because the scale of the city’s climate change problem makes it one of the best examples of the issues landscape architects are grappling with today.

“Sea walls would be a trap,” he said. “The best thing would be to gradually move people out” from the most vulnerable zones, and “as they move out we can restore the landscape,” creating a buffer zone.

It’s unlikely that Hampton Roads will relinquish plans to build sea walls. Under federal guidelines, Bodnar told landscape architects Sept. 21, “there’s got to be some type of structural mechanism” included in flood prevention and mitigation plans.

Attitudes appear to be changing, however. New York’s Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery after Hurricane Sandy turned to green infrastructure as part of its rehabilitation of Staten Island’s shoreline, engaging landscape architecture firm SCAPE to execute its Living Breakwaters project (the firm also has a hand in a waterfront effort in Norfolk). Boston’s mayor last year announced a major plan to design waterfront parks as a defense against floodwaters.

Collaborations known as the Dutch Dialogues between U.S. landscape architects and policymakers and the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have increased awareness in American cities of techniques to stem floodwaters while also developing new public spaces accessible to all. In 2015, the city of Hampton hosted a Virginia session of the Dutch Dialogues, prompting both that city and Norfolk to declare a renewed commitment to resiliency.

Even the notoriously conservative Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the bulk of the nation’s major internal improvement programs, seems to be coming around to green infrastructure as a useful complement to traditional gray installations.

“We want to keep developing, and we want to keep building things, but we want to do it in ways that are sensitive to the environment,” said Jenn Hare, a landscape architect with Timmons Group, a firm that works closely with many local governments across Virginia.

What may be emerging is an acceptance of what has come to be called hybrid infrastructure — an approach that incorporates both green and gray strategies to protect coastal areas from rising waters. Such a strategy uses sea walls and gates as the first line of defense against floodwaters but relies on elements like restored marshlands and living shorelines to slow waters’ advance, reduce their force and more quickly absorb their flow so that neither the walls and gates nor the land feel as much of an impact.

Landscape architects, because of what Bohannon called their “synthesizing” nature, may be well positioned to take a lead in such projects. Dewberry’s Virginia Beach study, for example, includes a report exclusively devoted to natural and nature-based strategies for addressing sea level rise, while the national ASLA is helping push federal legislation encouraging the use of green infrastructure through Congress.

Fragmentation, however, may prove an ongoing problem. Because of their density and greater proportion of public space, cities are currently the most promising avenues for green infrastructure development. But sea level rise afflicts counties as well, where private ownership of waterfront is more common. For context, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimates that 85 percent of the Chesapeake Bay shoreline in Virginia and Maryland is privately owned.

In Virginia, where state law encourages the use of living shorelines, counties have sought to encourage the adoption of that form of green infrastructure through shoreline management plans. But without a statewide plan, rollout will necessarily be piecemeal.

Health, safety and welfare?

Landscape architects may be a natural choice to help coordinate any large-scale plans to develop green infrastructure in the state. Yet even as their role in infrastructure planning has become more critical in response to climate change and sea level rise, the state has sought to deregulate the profession.

Since 2010, Virginia has licensed landscape architects in recognition of their influence on the “health, safety, and welfare of the public.” Currently the state is home to 928 licensed landscape architects, a 5 percent increase over 2018 numbers. Nationally, job growth in the almost 25,000-strong field is expected to grow 6 percent by 2026.

Students, said Bohannon, are increasingly interested in the field, arriving with concerns about the environment and “questions I don’t think people were asking 10 years or 20 years ago.”

But lawmakers seem uncertain about what exactly landscape architects do and whether they truly are involved in health, safety and welfare. Legislators have several times added landscape architects to the list of professions that ought to be deregulated, and an October 2018 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission asked that the state formally review its inclusion in the ranks of licensed professions.

“A poorly designed feature, such as a hill with an overly steep grade, could create a safety hazard. Other design flaws, such as improper drainage, could lead to property or environmental damage,” the report conceded. But those risks aren’t fully addressed by licensure, it concluded, “because some of the same work can be performed by unregulated occupations.”

Landscape architects say their architectural training and education puts them more on par with other architects, engineers and surveyors, with whom they work closely on projects. Under state law, a licensed landscape architect’s seal on site or development plans, whether for public or private projects, is considered an official and legal guarantee accepted by local and state authorities. And that’s for very good reason, they argue — just as the public would be at risk from poor design of a sea wall, so would a bad breakwater or a shoreline that increased erosion pose harm to people and the land.

Whether deregulation will occur is uncertain — the Board of Professional and Occupational Regulation is scheduled to begin reporting its findings to the General Assembly by the end of 2019. But Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach and a member of JLARC, told Virginia’s landscape architects that, when it comes to their licensure, “You all need to be prepared to defend this every single year. It’s not going to go away.”

Almond, who spent a decade fighting to get the profession regulated, is prepared to continue the battle. Now, watching the contours of his hometown change with every storm, every southerly wind, he’s convinced more than ever of its importance.

“The truth of it is,” he reflected, “in landscape architecture, everything we do is for the next generation.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.