Coastal communities face unprecedented risks

from short-term extreme natural events such as hurricanes, coastal storms, and landslides, as well as longer-term impacts of coastal erosion and sea level rise. Losses from catastrophic recent hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria) are likely to be the costliest ever in terms of economic, social and physical impact. Also, half of the U.S. population can be considered as coastal regions and vulnerable to flooding from increased sea level rise. Protection against one additional foot of sea level rise is estimated to cost $200B nationally. Funding flood protection programs will be a priority in many communities, putting funding of other community interests at risk. There is clearly a need to safe guard the infrastructure systems in coastal cities but do so in a way that promotes health and wellbeing benefits to coastal communities 

Resilience thinking needs to go beyond maintaining the status quo to understand how communities can be transformed in the context of adversity i.e. to thrive beyond crisis. Creating landscapes that people value and care for strengthens a community’s ability to absorb impact and bounce back from disaster.  Communities may protect themselves from coastal flooding using “soft” green infrastructure (GI) (e.g. wetlands, coastal parks, rain gardens, berms) or “hard” infrastructure like sea walls to reduce flood risk or hybrid infrastructure e.g. (living dikes). Historically, municipalities have focused on building “hard” infrastructure to mitigate flooding risk, and return on investment (ROI) for these projects has focused solely on protection of built capital. However, these investments can be made strategically, using in-depth understanding of the engineering possibilities, combined with decision-making at the community level, in order to build resilience. By doing so, a community can benefit by adding amenity in the near term and build resilience to long-term coastal risks. 

The CoH-N CoLab is working with communities in south eastern Virginia, exploring the linkages between their natural and human systems. The expertise included in their team spans engineering, environmental science, psychology, and urban planning. By using a team approach, the CoLab is able to explore the resilience of coastal cities using scenario analyses with state-of-the-art hydrologic models to stimulate community engagement and help communities understand their changing environmental landscape. At the same time, the CoLab members identify coastal urban design options, utilizing novel hybrid GI/hard infrastructure approaches, to enhance both flood protection and the health/wellbeing of its citizens. This novel approach to flood protection design works towards increased social, environmental and economic resilience. ERI CoLab funding has enabled critical reflection among project partners and deepened integration between disciplinarily perspectives.