With the Climate Crisis Already Here, States Work to Adapt

Posted Jan. 27, 2016

MP3 Interview with Alex Felson, assistant professor at Yale University and head of Yale’s Urban Ecology Design Lab, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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As much of the East Coast was digging out from the historic snowstorm and coastal flooding that hit the region in late January, the federal government announced that it has awarded $1 billion to 14 states through the Department of Housing and Urban Development's National Disaster Resilience Competition. Connecticut, where 95 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of the coast and has suffered massive damage to its coastline in several recent storms, received roughly $54 million. Those funds will be spent developing a project in Bridgeport, based on the state's resilience corridor concept and developing a regional planning effort for 13 municipalities in Fairfield and New Haven counties. The federal grant will also finance the development of a climate change adaptation framework through the Connecticut Institute for Resilience in Climate Adaptation at the University of Connecticut.

Alex Felson, a registered landscape architect for the past 15 years, worked closely with the University of Connecticut and state agencies on the HUD grant application. Through his own firm and the Urban Ecology and Design Lab at Yale that he runs, he's focused on coastal adaptation, green infrastructure and constructed ecosystems. He earlier won a $10 million grant to construct "bio-retention" gardens at Seaside Village, a residential complex in Bridgeport.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Felson, who describes how his work is helping the region adapt to severe weather events caused by climate change.

ALEX FELSON: A bio-retention system is essentially like a swale; it's an earthwork that includes vegetation and it's intended to help manage storm water in an urban areas. And so you're designing it to perform a function for water infiltration and nutrient uptake. So I designed it as a public amenity, a public park in Seaside Village, working with the community, so it was a bottom-up approach, so it was a catalyst for the community to develop a dog park and a community garden.

BETWEEN THE LINES: They do sound like nice amenities, but they don't sound like any match for the climate changes that are coming. How does this HUD grant address those big issues?

ALEX FELSON: So for the HUD National Resilience Disaster competition, I worked with UConn to develop the Phase 1 proposal, to develop what we call resilience corridors. When you look at the risk the state faces across these coastal areas, there are some tremendous risks for Connecticut. It's second to Florida in terms of the amount of investment along the coast that's insured property. There's a lot of concern essentially with Metro North and Interstate 95 running parallel to the coast, with the functionality of the transportation infrastructure under future storm events and sea level rise. So we developed what we called a resilience corridor, which builds on transit-oriented development as a concept, so it's really an economic development proposal to connect resources and access upland to the shorefront communities or to the shorefront conditions. So rather than investing in repetitive lost housing along the shorefront or investing directly in these neighborhoods, we're investing in the connecting corridors to these neighborhoods and looking at ways to use coastal adaptation funding as a tool to promote economic development, building on Metro North as a kind of connector across Connecticut.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are people in your field talking about moving people and infrastructure like railroad lines away from the immediate coast and abandoning it? I know after Superstorm Sandy, Gov. Cuomo talked about buying up coastal properties and letting them go back to nature as a way of providing a storm buffer. Is that something that's going to be necessary in Connecticut or other regions? What's Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy's take on this?

ALEX FELSON: The governor talks about building up, not back. And Connecticut has a unique condition in contrast to New Jersey or Florida or other locations. You know, Florida and New Jersey, the other coastal plains, coastal piedmonts, they're fairly flat topographically. Connecticut, because of the glacial landscape and the historic geology that was the basis of how the state formed over time, creates these kind of ridge lines that run north-south and have more of a patchy network of low-lying areas along the coast. So the risks along the coast are smaller patches, so it's less of an issue than what you're describing. So in other words, with some strategic reorganization and restructuring as well as some effective economic revitalization strategies in these corridors that create egress from areas at risk, the idea is to really reframe it and value the land we have and the housing stock we have along the coast effectively for future conditions and to become coastally adapted for the future, partly to address some of the concerns current homeowners have as well as future home buyers in terms of the value of their property and the risks they might face. So it's pretty distinct from New Jersey or Florida and elsewhere in terms of the framing, the adaptation strategy that we're proposing.

We're not really looking at retreat as an agenda. We're looking at economic revitalization as a tool to structure relationships between the upland resources and upland connections and down to the shorefront communities.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is there anything else you or people in your field are working on regarding coastal resilience?

ALEX FELSON: You know, there are all kinds of opportunities for establishing strategic phasing for how to adapt to future conditions. The challenge is that there's been a lot of build-out and a lot of infrastructure development and critical facilities built in coastal areas. And so with homeowners and property ownership and private property, it creates a conundrum at the local scale for how to navigate and negotiate land use changes. That's where I think the value of landscape architecture and planning fields come in, where it's not just an infrastructure solution, but it's really an issue of communicating across stakeholders and establishing solutions that are co-generated at a local level that can promote or allow for adaptation over time, but that can also use the funding toward ecological benefits and social benefits. So in Connecticut, the idea of the resilience corridor, while it functions as an egress to help alleviate some of the risk within each municipality, it also allows for access to the coast, which is one of the issues we have in Connecticut is that we have limited access to the coast, so it adds a social value while also creating risk reduction. And I think that idea of multi-functional landscapes and developing these ecologically rich and socially rich solutions are the way to move this forward.

For more information, visit the Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory at uedlab.yale.edu; Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) circa.uconn.edu; and read about Alexander Felson, Yale Climate and Energy Institute at climate.yale.edu/people/alexander-felson.

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