Jessica Kimball is a landscape architect with experience in community and municipal planning. She is particularly interested in the intersection of design and land use policy, as well as New England waterfronts.
Climate change and sea level rise have significantly impacted the way we approach planning and design along coasts, riverfronts, and lakefronts. In this Reflections on Resilience series, a broad range of practitioners share ideas and insights on how planning and design can help us create a more resilient future.
Today, coastal areas in New York and New Jersey are still rebuilding from the destruction of Superstorm Sandy. While Sasaki is honored to be contributing to this work through HUD's Rebuild by Design competition, we also hope coastal cities that have so far been spared devastation will take the opportunity to develop proactive strategies that will protect them from the inevitable rising sea level and increasingly dangerous weather.
In thinking about design strategies, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The eastern seaboard is full of unique communities that face very difference challenges related to sea level rise—and other significant factors. Here, I'd like to share highlights of my graduate thesis, which focused on the adaptation of the commercial waterfront in Portland, Maine.
Portland faces two challenges: the threat of inundation from rising water levels and a changing waterfront economy. The conditions in Portland present an opportunity to explore the role of landscape in improving the physical and economic resiliency of the urban waterfront. My concept is to address both land and economy through the development of a phased adaption strategy at the scale of the commercial waterfront and the single wharf.
Current data projects two to six feet of sea-level rise in the Gulf of Maine over the next 100 years, depending on the rate of glacial ice melt. My thesis assumes a six-foot rise to prepare Portland for the greatest potential amount of inundation. This increase would affect Portland's existing infrastructure at risk on a daily basis.
While tidal waters are rising, the city has experienced a decline in industrial activity over the last century. Though residential developments commonly fill in vacancies exposed in post-industrial waterfronts, Portland has restricted residential development in an effort to sustain the working industrial waterfront. Without opportunity for new economic activity, this loss of industry has allowed for the development of large surface parking at the water's edge, dilapidated wharf infrastructure, and vacant buildings.
My proposal reshapes the landscape to encourage an alternative form of the working waterfront: a waterfront that makes public access and recreational tourism the new economic driver. The traditional activities of the working harbor (commercial fishing, passenger transport, marine repair, and deepwater berthing) will co-exist with this new program of recreational tourism. This would all be achieved through a phased adaptation strategy for the working waterfront to improve the city's resiliency against sea level rise and economic change. The primary objectives are to:
(1) Protect the vulnerable infrastructure from sea level rise inundation (2) Encourage new forms of economic development that capitalize on the growing tourist industry, and (3) Improve the commercial fishing operations that that define the history and character of the working waterfront.
In achieving these three objectives, an entirely new identity for the city is realized.
The implementation of this approach is broken down into four construction phases:
Phase 1: Relocate parking and valuable structures. Phase 2: Elevate the major street along the commercial edge and establish a new linear park. Phase 3: Construct a tidal channel that separates the wharfs from the main land, opening up opportunites for recreational tourism and creating and providing a naturalized edge to absorb the force to storm surge Phase 4: Recognizing that each wharf is independently owned and operated with various intention, each wharf will continually evolve based on its location and programmatic constraints.
The planning and design of this work occurred at two scales: the entire city waterfront and a single wharf (Customs House Wharf, centrally located in the historic downtown district). The design process operated simultaneously at both scales. Ideas at the large scale were tested at the scale of the wharf, and analysis of the single wharf informed the approach at the scale of the waterfront. The small scale of the single wharf allowed this speculative vision of the waterfront to be realized in the detailed adaptation strategy. The planning and analysis of this project proves the value of working at multiple scales when working with an issue of this magnitude.
Many speculative projects looking at sea level rise adaptation have pushed the boundaries of landscape architecture, but without any consideration of an implementation strategy. By making a speculative proposal one that can physically be implemented over time, I hope to underscore that such work is feasible. And—because of what may happen if we don't take proactive steps—it's necessary.
Jessica presented her thesis at the recent Waterfront Visions 2050 symposium, hosted by the Portland Society for Architecture on November 7 and 8. Her work is also on display at Portland's SPACE Gallery through December 21.