When hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the US in 2012, I knew that I wanted to use the time in my master’s thesis to contribute to more sustainable shores in the area. Now, 3.5 years after the storm, I was able to return to the Jersey Shore with my research, film and design.
October 2012, ‘Frankenstorm’ Sandy flooded over 360.000 homes in New Jersey and damaged three coastal states for an estimated 65 billion dollar. Storms are not new to the East Coast: Every year has a hurricane season, every ten years the barrier islands can flood and every other decade a larger storm comes by. Despite this repetitiveness, many towns struggle to prevent flood impact of the next storm.
In this thesis I research the reasons behind this repetitive cycle of storm and rebuild. What is keeping towns from taking on a more sustainable way of coastal management? If we could do it after the flood of 1953, why not one of the largest and richest countries in the world?
American way of coastal management
The answer to that simple question is very complex. In the natural realm, the Jersey Shore is a coastal landscape with very little sand influx, geological dune growth or sand reserves in the sea bed. This results in only very young and very small natural dunes, if present at all.
In the cultural realm, the value of having ocean view has turned many risky coastal zones into highly build areas. There is little room for creating dunes because of protesting homeowners when their property value diminishes by a million dollar when losing their ocean view. Also, the American culture is much more focussed on short-term fixes than the Dutch society. This attitude can for example be seen in the large use of credit cards in the US, compared to the very modest way of living of Dutch people. This same attitude of quick fixes versus responsible saving for the future is represented in the way both countries manage their coastlines.
Politically, the shore is very fragmented by the large say that local governments have in the coastal management of their part of the shore. Where the Dutch have an overarching national government to keep the entire country safe, in the US every town has its own plans and solutions. Local governments often rebuild the same after a storm because they need to get their boardwalk back up and running for the next summer season. If they miss the summer season, it means a large strain on all the livelihoods in their town.
Emotionally, the Jersey Shore is a place where many people have great memories of growing up on the Shore or the boardwalks. Rebuilding their home after a storm and the need of getting back to normal after a traumatic event of this magnitude, seems like a very human thing to do.
Interestingly, many of the reasons behind building back the same after a storm are very understandable and hard to refute. Personally, I would also want to rebuild my childhood home after a storm and being able to view the ocean is something humans will always be drawn to. So how should we move forward in this complex but very understandable situation?
Academic filmmaking: from paradox to common ground
The research showed many paradoxes in the complex New Jersey coastal landscape: The need for coastal protection vs. the attractiveness of and ocean view; A regional threat of flooding in a very fragmented landscape; and the importance of a long-term sustainable solution in a society that wants to see succes right away. To get from these unsolvable paradoxes to common grounds where design choices can be based on, used academic filmmaking with the help of filmmaker Anouk Saint Martin.
Academic filmmaking shows the location in a holistic way by adding sound, movement and context. Participants can express themselves in their own voice, gesture and nuances and viewers experience the world through the participants’ eyes with more empathy and understanding. In addition, film can challenge social norms and trigger discussions on how things are done.
The final documentary creates a stage for the stakeholders to explain their perspective and expands the audience to more than just the academic community.
The final documentary shows many stakeholders surrounding the topic of climate adaptation of the Jersey Shore after Sandy. This way, we want to create understanding for the complexity of the issue and spark discussion on the current norms of coastal management in the US.
Besides applying a discourse analysis to the filmed interviews to extract design guidelines, another way of using film in design research was through community outreach posters. The posters showed different flood protective options and participants could vote for their favorite option. Half of the participants were shown a short clip where landscape architects of H+N+S explained long-term strategies and the local city councilman explained why short-term choices were made. After seeing the video, more people voted for long-term options, larger investments and even voted less divided. So, through film more people agreed with each other on more sustainable options!
All the results of the analysis and academic filmmaking were used as a basis for the design. Sandy Shores focusses on the coastal town of Asbury Park: a touristic fun town where the shoreline consists of boardwalk and shops instead of the needed protection to limit coastal flooding.
The dune landscape is inspired by the Double Dune Landscape of Ian McHarg. The dunes widen the feel of being on the beach, so the demands and pressure that is on the Shore can also be spread out to a larger coastal zone. The outline is made by adding all applicable space like parking, empty lots and green space. Especially for the empty lots -that are a result from the economic crisis- it is crucial to heighten them now, before new developments take place in these risky areas.
The buildings that are already present can stay, but are now seen as hard structures that can strengthen the protective dune system. When there is no building, the dunes can be combined with other functions. In front of the boardwalk are only smaller dunes to keep the ocean view from the boardwalk.
On the west side of the boardwalk is currently an ocean of parking and empty lots. This might not seem ideal, it also means that there are not a lot of lives or money at stake when it floods.
If we redesign the parking lots with an innovative technique containing permeable asphalt, this zone turns into urban flood plains. In summer, these parking lots provide parking space close to the beach. Outside of peak hours the lots can also be used to host concerts or food festivals. And in storm season, the materials can take up large amount of water that otherwise could end up in someones’ basement.
To link the dunes to the local needs and identity of Asbury Park, every part of the dune landscape is used for multiple purposes. Besides flood protection and permeability of the soil, it encourages the touristic economy, unique town branding and a fun experience of the shore that is accessible to all parts of the local community. Examples of where the fun character meets the dune landscape are the biking boardwalk through the dunes, viewpoints from high up the dunes and event spaces in the dune valleys.
To really change the way coastal management is done in the US, a paradigm shift needs to happen. Although there is still a long way to go, more and more people are seeing the benefits of a multifunctional and sustainable Shore. With the film and the design, we want to keep contributing to discussions and solutions that will open more eyes to a safe and sustainable future for the Jersey Shore.
Last April, with the support of the Wageningen University Fund, I got the chance to return to the Jersey Shore. During this follow-up visit, I got to present at the NGO the Surfrider Foundation, community group OBVTA, research institute Sea Grant and as a guest lecturer at Penn School of Design. It was so rewarding to get the reactions from the people that are actually dealing with the issues first hand. Many people reacted positively on the outsider perspective that the research provided, the documentary triggered much discussion and will have possible further use for local education and awareness creation, and especially the permeable parking design and multi-functionality of the dunes broadened peoples views on possible solutions.
Want to know more or see the documentary? Wednesday June 8th at 20:00, Marit will give a WUtalk at Forum. More information on http://www.wageningenur.nl/en/activity/WUtalk-New-Jersey-after-Superstorm-Sandy-1.htm
Visit the project website . This project was made possibly by NH Bos and EFL stichting.