Landscape architecture team develops models for coastal resilience along historic waterfront

Peter Miniutti at School of Law
Peter Miniutti presents the New London waterfront project at Creating a Resilient Connecticut: A CIRCA Forum on Science, Planning, Policy & Law on Friday, May 11, 2018 at the UConn School of Law in Hartford, CT.

Coastal communities face tough decisions on how to reduce the impacts of encroaching seawater caused by climate change. As oceans rise shores will transform, leaving residents of many low-lying areas struggling to adapt.

To meet the challenges brought by a changing climate, the city of New London is working with UConn’s Community Research and Design Collaborative (CRDC) to re-envision part of their historic waterfront district. The city wants to mitigate the negative consequences of sea level rise and flooding while finding opportunities to promote economic growth and improve urban form.

The CRDC is the umbrella organization for the outreach work of the landscape architecture faculty and students in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. They offer sustainable planning and design services to assist a variety of clients, including citizens, landowners and public officials, with creating affordable, equitable and ecologically healthy environments.

Associate Professor Peter Miniutti of the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture is director of the CRDC and leads a transdisciplinary team on the New London project. The group is working with city officials, business owners and stakeholders on ways to improve coastal resilience and encourage economic development along Bank Street, a business route that runs through the heart of downtown.

Bank Street Site
The waterfront site includes Bank Street, between Howard Street and State Street, down to the city’s Waterfront Park, including South Water Street and Discovery Pier.

“The CRDC is a bridge between the academic world and the real world,” says Miniutti. “We provide our clients with specific land use plans to help guide their future development. We bring together undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff from other UConn departments and units as well as personnel from state organizations, depending on project needs. For this waterfront project, a major partner is UConn’s Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA).”

Miniutti says collaborating with CIRCA is essential for accurate data on projected sea level rise and flood risk mapping. CIRCA has updated mapping on Connecticut’s shoreline and inland waterways that incorporate the latest climate science. The New London site sits at the mouth of the Thames River, which empties into Long Island Sound.

“CIRCA was founded to engage the capacity of UConn’s faculty, staff and students with state agencies to help towns figure out how to adapt to the impending consequences of changes in climate,” says James O’Donnell, CIRCA executive director and professor of marine sciences at UConn. “New London faces challenges from flooding like many of Connecticut’s cities and Peter’s work to provide the city leadership with imaginative and climate science informed options are exactly what we had in mind.”

CIRCA’s maps of the New London area indicate that by 2050, sea level rise will cause flood events to reach twelve feet. The data also indicates a higher probability of 100-year flood events, estimating they are more likely to occur once every twenty years. A 100-year flood event means the probability of serious flooding in a given year is one percent. CIRCA projects this risk has climbed to five percent. The next step for the CRDC team was discussing these findings with stakeholders.

Flooding Diagram
The CRDC team uses a variety of visuals to present design challenges and opportunities to stakeholders.

Miniutti used the CIRCA data to produce graphics illustrating how sea level rise and flooding have already affected, and will continue to affect, the New London waterfront. Along with aerial and ground photographs and historical documentation of previous flood damage, he presents the opportunities and constraints in potential planning and design scenarios.

“We employ an inclusive and community-based approach to design,” says Miniutti. “It’s important for everyone to have a voice.”

After studying the waterfront and receiving input from stakeholders, the CRDC team began proposing a variety of solutions for two general areas of unimproved city land, public land and the Bank Street building owners’ properties.

New London Model
One proposed design for the New London waterfront.

The CRDC designs recommended a raised berm and floodgate system combined with natural elements, which would protect inland areas from regular flooding. They also proposed raising a street and transforming it into a pedestrian-friendly area where businesses could introduce inviting spaces for their properties that face the water. This would convert what is now essentially a service road into an area with outdoor seating and recreation. Three-dimensional models of the most popular designs were constructed using paper materials cut using laser printing.

“People have a hard time visualizing, so this helps everyone better understand what we’re proposing,” says Miniutti. “We create these models with interchangeable parts so we can propose many different options and refine them as we get feedback.”

The designs will not prevent all potential flood scenarios, such as from storm surge, but proposals offer subsurface draining solutions to minimize damage and increase resiliency from flood events.

PhD Students Tao Wu and Mariana Fragomeni
PhD students Tao Wu (left) and Mariana Fragomeni (right) are part of the New London team.

After several meetings with stakeholders for feedback, Miniutti says they have built strong consensus and are close to selecting a final design plan.

“Peter and his team have been great partners on this important initiative,” says New London Mayor Michael Passero. “This effort is helping our city design and fund the infrastructure we will need in the years ahead to preserve the historic business district along our waterfront. We appreciate their hard work and continued commitment to bringing this project to fruition. We thank UConn for their assistance in helping New London plan for the future.”

Once the final design receives approval through a vote, the CRDC team will meet with public works and city engineers for their input and then submit a final report that details the process, recommendations and schematics. Part of the CRDC’s role is to position and support New London to attain grant funding to complete the project.

“We consider this project a kind of prototype for ways other coastal communities might be able to work on coastal resiliency and confront the challenges rising seawater will bring in the coming years,” says Miniutti.

“UConn is Connecticut’s land grant university, so we have a commitment to outreach,” says Miniutti. “The CRDC and landscape architecture program allows our students to learn the importance of service learning and community involvement. We’re able to utilize the tools and resources of the university and its partners to create sustainable designs and beautiful spaces to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public.”

By Jason M. Sheldon