Site Selection and Analysis

Eastern and Western Passage to Narragansett Bay
Eastern and Western Passage to Narragansett Bay

Rhode Island—the Ocean State—is a small state with a long shoreline which extends inland to include multiple waterways, most notably, the 342sq km Narragansett Bay. Shoreline types on the bay include fringing and meadow salt marshes, bulkhead and other modified perimeters and the coastal areas feature a combination of disturbed sites, preserved marshland, and post-industrial fill. Current shoreline planting strategies offer few solutions for wide ranging conditions and focus on preservation rather than creating solutions which might yield robust landscapes which are resilient to climate change. Rhode Island was not subject to the worst losses from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and thus it is an exemplary site for developing structures of coastal resilience, which can be advanced gradually and through systematic evaluation and adaptation.

Storm surge and upland flooding in the Narragansett watershed pose a considerable risk to coastal towns along the Bay. As increased urban runoff and higher salt water levels merge on the coastal zone, some species are threatened while others adapt. Marsh and dunes recede while weedy forest cover creeps closer to the beach front. Plants with high salt tolerance that are capable of rapid establishment have begun to colonize areas with accommodating soil. Designers can capitalize on this process, deploying plants to prevent erosion and build resilient coasts.

This project proposes a combination of large stands of vegetation with minimal, precisely located, hardened coastal structures to provide cost-effective redundancy to coastline protection measures, add to the life span and effectiveness of traditional coastal structures, limit coastal erosion, and provide habitat and recreational space. The project focuses on three sites representative of three coastal conditions: Warren in Upper Bay is prone to seasonal flooding; the Greater Hummocks in Mid Bay is undergoing salt marsh migration; and Sachuest Point in Lower Bay is threatened by coastal erosion. The Graduate School of Design envisions coastal forests and shrub lands as a novel ecosystem, a cultural resource, and a social and economic opportunity.

Download Phase 1 Report here


Sassafrass Albidum

A stand of Sassafrass albidum, as observed in Hummock formation, located adjacent to oceanfront. The plants were disturbed by wind and salt spray during Hurricane Sandy, but as a result of their inherent resilience have not only survived, but prospered. In particular, this stand of Sassafrass albidum prevails due to its assertive root suckering performance.

Rosa Rugosa

A large thicket, primarily Rosa rugosa. Although listed as a noxious weed in 46 states, R. rugosa has naturalized throughout the northeast. A vigorous sprouter, this rose is so well adapted to salt spray, sandy substrate and disturbance, that it provides erosion control without the need for costly installation strategies. The image above shows a two-year old, self-regulated regeneration following Hurricane Sandy.


Area of interest 1- Sachuest. The relationship between a critical drinking water reservoir for the Newport area, and its proximity to open water is explored in this survey, indicating critical but conflicting adjacencies. A remnant coastal forest can be observed at high ground towards the West, indicating a former shoreline condition that would have existed prior to the filling of this marsh, and the construction of the reservoir.


Area of interest 2- Hummocks. Formerly a seasonal fishing village, ‘The Hummocks’ is also known as Island Park Cove. Low elevations are clearly identified in this survey, which tracks the upland marsh, the reinforced circulation routes and the narrow effects of tidal fluctuation, making it an area prone to seasonal flooding and heavy rates of surge along the Sakonnet River.


Area of interest 3- Warren. Public beaches, primary residences and tides convene in this survey, explicating conflicting cultural and ecological imperatives. While public beaches ought to remain a resource, edge conditions necessitate multiple functions. Warren is positioned in a complex of waterways and population density, making relocation not only a consideration but also a certainty.

Design Panorama

The Graduate School of Design approaches Natural or Nature Based Features (NNBF) not as a construction detail or as a hardened assembly, but as a durable bionetwork, which will necessitate long-term thinking and large-scale action. A series of designed forests can become a public resource- a novel ecosystem that not only anticipates disturbance, but thrives on it.

What is Resilience?

USACE Construction section; Hardened Structure: Armored Berm.
GSD Design Section; Rhizomatic Structure: Attenuation Forest.

What is Resilience?

“Resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance of stochastic nature by resisting damage and recovering quickly.”

Folke, C., Carpenter,S., Elmqvist, T., Gunderson, L., Holling C.S., Walker, B. (2002). “Resilience and Sustainable       Development: Building Adaptive Capacity in a World of Transformations”. Ambio31 (5): 437–440

“The ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions.”

Executive order-Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change, White House, 2013

Resilience is typically associated with the scale of an ecosystem. However, resilience can also be a micro-condition. By nature competitive, plants emerge and ‘spring back’ based on regimes of disturbance; a characteristic which be managed to fuel a community-based resilience strategy without resorting to the restrictive procedures of conservation. Recognizing the opportunities afforded by Natural and Nature-Based Features (NNBF), the designs we propose for Warren, the Hummocks, and Sachuest acknowledge adaptation and welcome modification.

Trees with a single stem and a high canopy are particularly susceptible to environmental disturbance. In our proposed design, we specify trees that break or fall and then re-sprout secondary trunks, making them resilient in the face of strong winds and erosive waves. Forests of multi-stemmed, disturbance-adapted specimens will reproduce readily. Shrubs, by contrast, develop a thicket or a mass of offshoots which yields a horizontal spread, rather than a vertical elevation. Most shrubs require a complete disturbance (often being cut to the ground) in order to reemerge as larger and hardier thickets. The combination of a dense, rhizomatic substrate and a copse-like arrangement creates a layer of growth that will both attenuate and mitigate the effects of storm surge. These planted barriers will be activated by disturbance, generating larger, more productive environments as they develop.

“Sprouting in trees, which results in the production of secondary trunks, is an induced response to injury or to a dramatic change in surrounding environmental conditions.”

Peter Del Tredici Sprouting in Temperate Trees (2001)

Click on the plant images below to view their root morphologies.

Ocean State


“The chance of a specific outcome occurring, where this might be estimated probabilistically.”
IPCC, 2013

Coastal planning projects first emerged as a form of military defense and fortification where land was prioritized and accordingly protected. The next generation of projects positioned the sea as the enemy, aiming to construct projects that would keep water out, forming a hard line between water and land. The third generation of projects is now emerging, and developing flexible systems that offer a threshold between land and water.

The Graduate School of Design examines the Coastal Engineering Manual (CEM) in order to add significant detail to this shifting paradigm, incorporating an active role for designers to take a lead role in anticipation and adaptation projects. The manual is available here and described in a diagram here .


“In Biology, an adaptation, also called an adaptive trait, is a trait with a current functional role in the life history of an organism that is maintained and evolved by means of natural selection. Adaptation refers to both the current state of being adapted and to the dynamic evolutionary process that leads to the adaptation.”

Huxley, Julian 1942. Evolution the modern synthesis. Allen & Unwin, London. p449

“Adaptation.. could no longer be considered a static condition, a product of a creative past, and became instead a continuing dynamic process.”

Mayr, Ernst (1982). The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution, and inheritance (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press. p. 483


To view precedent studies from around the world, click on the images below.

Design Area of Interest: Sachuest

Coastal Erosion

The loss of soil at the interface of ocean and land due to wave action.

MSN Encarta Dictionary. Erosion.  Retrieved on 2014-07-14. Archived 2009-10-31.

Sachuest Bay is home to two large fresh-water reservoirs that supply drinking water to Newport and other nearby towns.  Due to their proximity to the coast, these reservoirs are vulnerable. Our proposal for Sachuest isolates and relocates the freshwater resources to an upland and accessible condition. As a result, the former reservoirs are poised to become extensions of the remnant coastal forest. A coastal forest will extend the interests of The National Wildlife Refuge and the Norman Bird Sanctuary, effectively offering a reserve that will dampen, delay and potentially reduce incoming storm activity.

Design Area of Interest: Hummocks

Salt Marsh Migration

  1. The expansion of coastal wetland habitat due to sea level rise.
  2. The inland movement of salt marsh habitat and wetland platns as a consequence of global climate change.

 Feagin, R. A., M. Luisa Martinez, G. Mendoza-Gonzalez, and R. Costanza. 2010. Salt marsh zonal migration and ecosystem service change in response to global sea level rise: a case study from an urban region. Ecology and Society 15(4): 14.

Located within an area locally termed the Hummocks, Island Park Cove is a non-sewered former fishing village with a population of 1,250 and an area of 560 acres. Bands of former wetland have been backfilled to encourage high-density development, which has greatly impaired its waters.  Route 138, a critical infrastructure and evacuation route for the entirety of Aquidneck Island, splits the Hummocks in a North-South direction. Any proposal for the area must ensure that evacuation routes are maintained while protecting fragile communities from storm surge.

Design Area of Interest: Warren

Seasonal Flooding

  1. To cover or submerge with water on a cyclical basis due to warming climate; to regularly inundate with water.
  2. An overflowing of water that submerges land which is usually dry on a seasonal basis.

MSN Encarta Dictionary, Flood, Retrieved on 2014-07-08. Architeved 2009_10_31.

Located adjacent to salt marshes, Warren is an urban site with a rich industrial past as a port and manufacturing center.  Currently, it is home to nearly 11,000 inhabitants (2010 census). However, much of the town is located on a floodplain, and so the first step towards surge attenuation is a viable housing relocation strategy to move residences to higher elevations.

Studio Work

Excerpt from Studio syllabus: The orchestration of diverse disciplines (as a means to generate and test design ideas) is emerging as the future of landscape architectural practice. Sites, now more than ever, are not defined by fixed boundaries, but rather emerge out of the assembly of essential conditions and the confluence of processes and engaged stakeholders. These factors will require new models of practice and cooperation to address the complexities of climate change. This studio will explore and enable landscape architects to be more powerfully positioned to define – from ecological and economic perspectives, – how project sites are defined and how design is articulated as a result.”

The studio pedagogy is centered on guiding the interpretation of these evolving modes of knowledge and testing and retesting ideas for the physical forms of a project: anticipating the incremental changes that will happen in coming decades and shaping an evolving landscape response.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, Charles Eliot Professor of Landscape Architecture

Rosetta S. Elkin, Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture

Gullivar Shepard, Guest Critic

Team, Sources, and Further Reading

Harvard Graduate School of Design

Rosetta S. Elkin

Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture,
Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Rosetta Sarah Elkin is Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where her instruction and research is focused on innovative applications of ecological and vegetative technologies, which consider the role of plants from innovative seed mechanics to bionetworks. She also teaches in the core studio sequence and leads seminars in representation and photography. Rosetta is a registered landscape architect in the Netherlands, and her work has been featured internationally, including installations at Les Jardins de Metis, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Chelsea Garden Show, as well as in publications such as Topos Magazine, Lotus International. Rosetta also served as faculty editor for Platform 6, recently launched by GSD and Actar publishers.

Michael Van Valkenburgh

Charles Eliot Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture,
Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Principal, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Michael Van Valkenburgh has taught at the GSD since 1982, served as program director from 1987-89 and for a term as chairman of the department from 1991-96. As founding principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA), with offices in New York City and Cambridge, Van Valkenburgh has designed a wide range of project types ranging from intimate gardens to full-scale urban design undertakings. Some of his recent projects include Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, the Lower Don Lands in Toronto, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) in St. Louis. MVVA has received numerous ASLA design awards, including the Design Award of Excellence for the Wellesley College Alumnae Valley Restoration in 2006. Van Valkenburgh was the 2003 recipient of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Environmental Design, and in 2010 became the second landscape architect in history to receive the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for contributions to architecture as an art. In 2011 he became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Peter Del Tredici

Vegetation Consultant, Plant Biologist, Harvard University

Michael J. Luegering

Research Associate, Harvard University

Marissa Angell

Manuel Cólon-Amador

Michalis Piroccas


Grover Fugate, Executive Director
James Boyd, Coastal Policy Analyst
Janet Freedman, Coastal Geologist

Department of Environmental Management
Janet Coit, Director
James Colt-Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination

Chris Miller

SaveThe Bay
Jonathan Stone, Executive Director
Tom Kutcher, Baykeeper
Wenley Ferguson, Habitat Restoration Coordinator
Rachel Calabro, Community Organizer and Advocate

Michael Riccio

Jon Boothroyd
Richard Sheridan

and with Special Thanks to:
Malcolm Spaulding, Jen McCann, Bryan Oakley, Pam Rubinoff, Teresa Crean, James Boyd, Michelle Carnevale

Additional Readings

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Sea Level Rise and Rhode Island

On Resilience

Coastal Resilience

World Risk Report, 2012

New York Times Article, “Can Scientific Advice on Coastal Risk Reduction Compete with ‘We Will Not Retreat’ Politics?”

New York Times article, “Can Cities Adjust to a Retreating Coastline?”

Open Democracy: Resilience of Neoliberal Urbanism

On USACE response to climate change

USACE, Climate Change Adaptation

USACE, Coastal Risk Reduction

On wave attenuation by vegetation

Watson, James: Ecosystem-Based Adaptation in Marine Ecosystems in Response to Climate Change

Storm Surge Reduction by Mangroves

USACE: Nature and Natural- Based Features

On monitoring and modeling climate change

Climate Change and Modeling

On Rhode Island

Coastal Geology

Water Quality of the Sakonnet River

Narragansett Bay




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