Site Selection and Analysis

Raising Ground in Norfolk
Raising Ground in Norfolk

Norfolk is situated at the meeting of the James and Elizabeth Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. It is a place of strategic importance, being home to the largest naval station in the world as well as one of the most important commercial ports on the eastern seaboard. Sea-level rise here has been unusually high, and amplified by land subsidence. In the last 80 years it has been measured at 14.5 inches——5 inches more than in New York. Norfolk and the region of the Lower Chesapeake is an opportune place to investigate structures of coastal resilience.

In a storm event, but increasingly in a regular rain, people in Norfolk are caught between high seas, particularly in a time of high tide, and rain backing up in creeks and stormwater drains. The city is considering walls, gates and pumps in various locations. But this can only be a short-term solution. In the long term, Norfolk does not call for barriers and protection; it calls for design interventions that stem from a new visualization of the coast and coastal settlement.

This project visualizes future settlement on the coast not on a continuous ‘front’ between land and sea, but in a series of discrete ‘fingers of high ground’ (FHG). Each FHG, raised with the addition of soil, is a gathering of gradients between land and sea, structuring a coast that is more fractured, cumulative and diverse than it is continuous, linear, and absolute. Extensive dredging operations in the rivers and bay adjoining Norfolk provide material for these FHG which in the immediate can serve as places of refuge in times of storm and surge. In the long term they can become grounds for new settlement and ecologically sensitive infrastructure.

Download Phase 1 Report here

Turning the Coast

The University of Pennsylvania School of Design team reimages the coast of Virginia as a fractured, cumulative, and diverse field of transverse ecological gradients rather than a continuous line. They demonstrate the efficacy of this alternate visualization of the coast through specific design projects.

While the projects are focused on coastal Virginia, the strategies they employ can be used elsewhere along the East Coast of the United States and beyond. They assume that sea level rise is not a problem to solve but an opportunity to move beyond the current imaging and imagining of the coast as a line—a line that all too easily becomes a battlefront between land and sea.

Turning the Coast

When European settlers arrived in Tidewater Virginia in the 1500s they brought with them the idea of a coastline, a line dividing land from sea. This line would become the first of many continental frontiers that would gradually move west. Each new frontier fulfilled prospects and opened new horizons; each also reinforced and hardened that ‘first’ line that would become the east coast of the United States

In Tidewater Virginia the sea extends deep into the continent, creating a dynamic and porous coast of gradients in space and time —gradients activated by animals, plants, and also vessels. This coast is not a line; it is a series of points that are open to accommodating the sea. It calls for a strategy that facilitates land meeting the sea in discrete “fingers of high ground.”

Fingers of High Ground

Fingers of High Ground: A Structure for Coastal Resilience

Fingers of High Ground (FHG) are natural features of Tidewater Virginia. They can also be a design feature and the basis of a systemic strategy for building a resilient coast.

FHG: A Natural Feature

FHG are landforms that result from the way land fractures toward the sea in Tidewater Virginia. Here, rivers meet sea, creeks meet rivers, and rills meet creeks between grounds that are endlessly divided by ever smaller runs of rain and sea.

FHG: A Multi-scaled Natural Feature

FHG operate at many scales simultaneously. They also facilitate intricate ‘gradients’ in topography and salinity that harbor unique ecologies and species, many of which move between the sea, coastal Virginia, and the Piedmont Plateau.

A Design Feature

FHG can be engineered landforms that meet the sea, river, or creek along their narrower dimension and extend inland between lower grounds. In the process they construct gradients along their length and width that in the short term can provide places of refuge for coastal communities, create retention areas for rain, and provide protective barriers and exit routes. In the long term, they can be new grounds of settlement designed with ecologically sensitive and economically productive infrastructures and practices, wave attenuators, and habitats for migrating ecologies.

FHG: A Design System

FHG construct a coast that is not a continuous line between land and sea, but rather a series of alternating high and low grounds. Unlike a system closed by levees and gates that require ‘completion’ in order to be effective, FHG enjoy an autonomy that allows their conception and construction to be open to time, growth and replication with a sense of experiment, adaptability, learning, and strategy. They protect by accommodating rather than confronting the rise and fall of rain and tide. They also avoid the catastrophic failure that can result from a system closed by levees and gates.

Closed System

Defining Risk

Open System

Fingers of High Ground
Building Resilience

FHG: Building on Existing/Potential High Grounds

Potential sites for FHG already exist in Norfolk and the Lower Chesapeake. For example, the loblolly pine hummocks can be raised to restore and prestore ecologies and communities endangered by rising seas. Elevated highways can be modified and extended to do more than facilitate traffic. Ridges can be thickened to provide critical services and shelter-in-place opportunities. FHG can also be raised strategically and opportunistically in existing voids in the city fabric.

FHG: A Way Forward

FHG provide a new reading of the coast and open four possibilities for a new approach to coastal settlement:

1. As a system of coastal resilience, FHG can be initiated through specific design projects in Norfolk and the Lower Chesapeake.

2. As a re-visualization of the coast, FHG can be developed as a collaborative enterprise through public exhibitions, workshops, and competitions.

3. As an idea with a broader applicability, FHG offer research opportunities and design possibilities in a range of situations and locations in the Lower Chesapeake and elsewhere on the Atlantic coast.

4. As a new mode of settlement, the regulatory, legal, economic, social, and planning frameworks of FHG can be developed by a transdisciplinary team.

In dialogue with local institutions and stakeholders, we have developed designs for FHG at Lambert’s Point and Willoughby Spit in Norfolk. We have also investigated the broader applicability of this idea in other areas in the lower Chesapeake including along the lower James River, Eastern Shore and Elizabeth River, and in Virginia Beach.

Test Sites

Sea level rise in Norfolk must be seen as an opportunity to reconfigure coastal settlement. We chose two sites in Norfolk to demonstrate how FHG can produce this reconfiguration. Each site presents unique topographical challenges and has inherent infrastructural, ecological, productive, and ‘emergency’ value.

While the two projects demonstrate the nature and potential of FHG, they also initiate the process of ‘turning the coast’ in Norfolk and in the region.

Lambert’s Point

Lambert’s Point is a meeting of rail lines and shipping piers on the Elizabeth River. Home to a coal-exporting facility, a waste water treatment plant, one of the highest points in Norfolk (a landfill that is now a golf course), and further inland, rail lines on a ridge flanked by warehouses in transition to post-industrial uses, Lambert’s Point is an opportune site to initiate a FHG.

Our project proposes Lambert’s Point as an FHG that accommodates emergency facilities and public amenities, but also wave attenuation possibilities, rain water holdings, biotic cleansing of waste water, parks, forests, and eventually, mixed development. The project is organized along a raised spine that begins in a ‘living barge/raft pier’ in the Elizabeth River and continues inland as an infrastructural corridor along the rail track. This spine, upon which we propose a public walk/bike way, sets the elevation of the FHG and defines the surrounding low grounds.


On the Elizabeth River we extend and support an existing waste water treatment facility with a pier and wetland. Designed as an overflow system, the wetland holds rain runoff and cleans waste water by biotic means. The pier anchors sewage treatment barges and rafts and is itself anchored in a field of low and high ‘pins’ that act as wave attenuators and provide a habitat for ecologies in the gradient between saline and fresh water and shallow and deep water. The wetland and pier create a ‘living shoreline’ that will, in time, improve the water quality of the Elizabeth River.


Where the rail tracks fan out to piers on the Elizabeth River, a former creek now floods with rain. Here we propose a holding ground and wetland with multiple outlets. We envision that in time another FHG will develop between the rail lines and that this wetland will evolve into an extension of the estuary.


Further inland from the wrist, where the rail tracks pass through a warehouse and post-industrial district, we propose to raise ground incrementally and strategically. The spine here operates as a rain holding and overflow system as well as a vegetative barrier to filter out coal dust. This part of the FHG can serve the immediate need for emergency services and shelter-in-place. In the longer term it can develop into neighborhoods, urban forests, and mixed development.

A Sectional Strategy

Sequential sections cut across FHG as one traverses their length from land to sea. They draw out existing conditions and proposed topographical gradients across specific sections as well as across the entire sequence of sections from land to sea. Sequential sections are a mode of representation particularly well suited to demonstrating the siting and incremental construction of FHG. Click on the bold blue boxes to view particular sections that depict potential changes in topography, use, and vegetation at 2025, 2050, and 2100.

Section Sequence

Click on dark blue locations to view detailed sections at each phase of the project.

Willoughby Spit

Initially created by a hurricane in the mid-1700s, Willoughby Spit is a sand bar that formed and re-formed until recent settlement has held it in place. This settlement is comprised primarily of beach houses and fishing facilities, including a fishing pier that extends into the Chesapeake Bay.  Route 64, a US highway and existing spine of high ground in an otherwise low and vulnerable area of Norfolk, can anchor a FHG that accommodates emergency facilities, provides shelter-in-place and an evacuation route, but also holds rain water and supports wetlands and urban agriculture.

The project is organized along a raised spine that begins in a ‘living research pier’ in the Chesapeake Bay and continues inland as a road and bicycle path, servicing a beach and elementary school. Further south it connects to Route 64, a transportation corridor, and a rainwater holding and overflow system. We see this project realizing the first of a series of FHG that will ‘turn’ settlement on Willoughby Spit from facing the sea to meeting the bay at points, thereby accommodating rather than resisting sea level rise.

Highway/Wetland Route 64 can be more than just an evacuation route on high ground; it can also be an armature for collecting and holding rain coming off the highway and neighborhood streets in a series of reservoirs. It also provides an outlet for Mason Creek, which currently floods for lack of an adequate link to the sea. The system is designed to eventually reach a wetland comprised of salt marshes and loblolly pine forests on the bay south of Willoughby Spit.

School We propose moving the elementary school from its current location on low ground to the top of the FHG. On the low ground to the east, a series of forested lateral finger break surges. These low grounds serve as recreational areas, sites of urban agriculture, and storm water holdings. In emergency situations the school and its grounds would also provide shelter to the Willoughby community.

Pier The high ground of the school area extends into a pier protruding into the turbulent waters of the Chesapeake. The pier is a field of high and low ‘pins’ that break waves but also provide a surface and habitat for ecologies and fish who inhabit the gradient between saline and fresh water and shallow and deep water. It can be a place for fishing, education, and research.

A Sectional Strategy

Sequential sections cut across FHG as one traverses their length from land to sea. They draw out existing conditions and proposed topographical gradients across specific sections as well as across the entire sequence of sections from land to sea. Sequential sections are a mode of representation particularly well suited to demonstrating the siting and incremental construction of FHG. Click on the bold blue boxes to view particular sections that depict potential changes in topography, use, and vegetation at 2025, 2050, and 2100.

Section Sequence

Click on dark blue locations to view detailed sections at each phase of the project.

Operational Gradients

Ecologies and economies in the Lower Chesapeake perform not across lines that divide but within gradients – saline to fresh, wet to dry, surface to depth, solid to liquid, immediate to long term. These gradients occur against the rich material backdrop and multiple waters of the Chesapeake. FHG engage with, construct, and operate on these gradients.


Dredging Channel // Building Ground

FHG in the Norfolk area can gain from the extensive dredging operations in the Hampton Roads area. The soil gathered by these operations is collected at Craney Island, across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk. This dredged soil can be remediated for use in FHG. It can be sorted, treated, and combined with other soils and materials so as to be made appropriate to a range of cultivations from urban agriculture and forestry to infrastructure and building.

Holding Rain // Working Tides

People in Norfolk are often caught between high seas and back up of rain, particularly during storm events. FHG are designed to accommodate this rain and tide on an operational gradient. Situated between holding rain and attenuating waves, FHG accommodate both extremes. For example, a parking lot can hold back rain and contain sea surges that come up through creeks; a highway can collect and channel rain away from vulnerable areas; a wetland can hold rain; and piers can attenuate waves.

Processing Water // Prestoring Ecologies

FHG need to be designed to accommodate shifts in gradients that will occur with rising sea levels. On the one hand, this will involve facilitating species adaptation and migration in the wake of increased wetness and salinity. On the other hand, it will involve accommodating saline water in filtration and treatment processes of grey and black waters as well as in areas with uses that can operate under temporary inundation.

Short Term Tactics // Long Term Strategies

FHG yield emergent processes in their construction and accommodation of evolving risk even as they transform the coast from a continuous line to a series of dynamic gradients. They begin with opportune sites that can fulfill immediate needs for emergency services, shelter-in-place, fresh water holdings, and evacuation routes. In the long term, they can evolve to meet the needs of particular communities and initiate ecologically sensitive infrastructure.


Tidewater Country

Tidewater Country is a place where the sea extends deep into the continent via rivers, creeks and rills in an ever-transforming pattern of shoals, marshes, sand bars, and islands. To those who view it from above in plan and seek a clear coastline, Tidewater Country presents a challenge and a problem. But to those who view it in section and engage its temporal rythm and gradients, it presents opportunities and possibilities.

Off-sites: Four Design Fields

Norfolk is at the center of geological and geographical features of Tidewater Country: the Fall line to the west, the Swamp Canal to the south, the Beachfront to the east, and the Eastern Shore to the north. Each offers a language of resilience as well as a range of issues and opportunities to configure FHG with specific operational gradients.Each is also a ground of research by design.

Research by Design

It is often assumed that the design process involves analyzing a site and laying out a design in response to that analysis. In the face of storm events and sea level rise there is the added challenge of identifying, mapping and modeling sites based on their vulnerability. This approach front-loads the design process with measures of a problem that design must address and to which design is held responsible. Sea level rise, however, even more perhaps than storm events, calls for more than addressing the vulnerability of sites; it calls for challenging the visualization and language of design that made sites vulnerable in the first place.

The Penn team’s approach has been to test out an alternate visualization of the coast structured by fingers of high ground. They do this in the four design fields they identified, in each case seeking opportunistic and latent possibilities for the structure, program, and location of FHG. The purpose was to refine the language of their design, catalogue their applicability, and, importantly, develop a new lens through which to see a place on the coast. It is important to the larger aspiration of coastal resilience that FHG do more than raise land; they must perform richly as the future DNA of the coast.

Team, Resources, and Further Reading

School of Design, University of Pennsylvania

Anuradha Mathur

Architect and Landscape Architect, Professor

Dilip da Cunha

Architect and Planner, Adjunct Professor

They are authors of Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (Yale University Press, 2001), Deccan Traverses: the Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2006) and Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary (Delhi: NGMA and Rupa & Co., 2009). They have recently produced an edited volume titled Design in the Terrain of Water (AR+D publishers, 2014) which followed from an international symposium that they conceived and directed at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 and 2012.

An underlying thread in Mathur and da Cunha’s work is a concern for how water is visualized and engaged in ways that lead to conditions of its excess and scarcity, but also the opportunities that its fluidity offers for new visualizations of terrain, design imagination, and design practice. They are currently working on a project provisionally titled The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent. It stems from questioning the natural status given to rivers and river landscapes and the imaging and imagining that this assumption has inspired. Through the alternative of rain and rain terrains – the appreciation of water everywhere before it is somewhere – they argue for an alternate ground for design and planning.

Caitlin Squier-Roper

Lead Research Associate / Project Coordinator

Jamee Kominsky

Research Associate

Graham Laird Prentice

Research Associate

Matthew J. Wiener

Research Assistant


Center for Coastal Research Management (CCRM), Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute (MARI)

City of Norfolk, Coastal Flood Mitigation Program. March 13, 2013. Accessible here.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Center for Coastal Resources Management, Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia. 2013. Accessible here.

US Army Corps of Engineers, Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, Sept. 2013, p.2-3.

David A. Clary, Fortress America: the Corps of Engineers, Hampton Roads, and United States Coastal Defense (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990).

Department of the Army, Corps of Engineers, Beach Erosion Board, Shore Protection Planning and Design, Technical Report No. 4 (Virginia: U.S. Army Coastal Engineering Research Center, 1961).

Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, The Potential Economic Impact of Hurricanes on Hampton Roads, E06-02. July 2006. Accessible here.

Management, Policy, Science and Engineering of Nonstructural Erosion Control in the Chesapeake Bay, Proceedings of the 2006 Living Shoreline Summit, CRC Publ. No. 08-164. Ed. Sandra Y. Erdle, Jana L.D. Davis, Ph. D., Kevin G. Sellner. Accessible here.

The Port of Virginia, Infrastructure Update-Norfolk. Heather Wood. February 16, 2012. Accessible here.

Thomas C. Parramore, Norfolk, The First Four Centuries (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

William B. Cronin, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Ecological Restoration, Vol. 21, No. 3, Ecological Restoration in the Face of Global Climate Change: Obstacles and Initiatives, 2003.

Lavendel, Brian. “Ecological Restoration in the Face of Global Climate Change: Obstacles and Initiatives.” Ecological Restoration 21.3, (2003)

Center for Coastal Research Management (CCRM), Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Climate Program Office, NOAA. “Tidewater VA Case Study Factsheet Extreme Weather Events.” Jan. 2013. v1.

Telesh, Irena V., and Vladislav V. Khlebovich. “Principal Processes within the Estuarine Salinity Gradient: A Review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 61 (2010): 149-55.

Reay, W.G. and K.A. Moore, 2009. Introduction to the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Reserve in Virginia. Journal of Coastal Research, SI (57), 1-9.