Virginia Tech students develop strategies to address flooding and sea-level rise in the city of Hampton
Virginia’s thriving Hampton Roads region is home to the cities of Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and Hampton, as well as major ports, historic sites, military bases, NASA’s Langley Research Center, and other notable assets.
Many areas in this important region, however, are threatened by tidal flooding, extreme rain events, tropical storms, hurricanes, nor’easters, and sea-level rise.
“The whole area is highly susceptible to coastal flooding due to higher rates of sea-level rise and land subsidence, as well as frequent storms,” said Anamaria Bukvic, research assistant professor of geography in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.
The course takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying multidimensional aspects of climate change and adaptation, as well as related interactions, complexity, uncertainty, and possible outcomes for different societies. Bukvic obtained funding to allow graduate and undergraduate students to apply their classroom knowledge to real-world case studies.
The course’s applied component reflects a partnership with the Resilience Research and Design Tidewater Collaborative Laboratory, better known as the Tidewater Collaboratory. A partnership among several organizations, including Wetlands Watch, Virginia Sea Grant, and the Hampton Roads chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, the collaboratory creates adaptation strategies and workforce development programs to aid in the region’s resiliency efforts.
Looking at three different case studies within the city of Hampton, students explored the complexity, uncertainty, and possible implications of flooding on demographic and socioeconomic neighborhood fabric, land use, and overall livability in this coastal municipality. Several resiliency projects are already underway in the city, including the installation of new waterfront parks, living shorelines, and even raised roadways.
“The city of Hampton has been dealing with flooding for a long time, but the changes are more accelerated now, and the whole problem is becoming more visible and pressing for local governments,” said Bukvic, who is affiliated with the Global Change Center, housed in Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute.
In early October, Bukvic and the six graduate students in the course met with city officials and representatives from Wetlands Watch. During their two-day visit to Hampton, they learned about the historic context, emerging issues related to accelerating coastal flooding, and existing partnerships and efforts to solve the problem. They observed socioeconomic and demographic changes in the city, as well as the community’s long-term commitment to invent a way to successfully live and thrive with more water.
“People’s daily lives are being affected. Some local businesses are at the point of not accepting their employees saying, ‘I couldn’t come to work because the road was flooded’ as an excuse because it happens so frequently,” said Zoe Schmitt, of Larchmont, New York, a civil and environmental engineering graduate student in the College of Engineering.
After meeting with local officials, the graduate students visited three Hampton communities to learn about specific flood-related challenges residents are facing and the importance of scale and context in the efforts to increase resilience and successfully adapt. They also gathered information on flood risk and vulnerability to share with the undergraduate students enrolled in the course.
Aaron Updike, of Madison, Wisconsin, a geography graduate student in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, led the group of undergraduate students who looked specifically at the Fox Hill and Grandview neighborhoods. According to Updike, these neighborhoods are well-established, with homes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
“This is the lowest lying community we visited, and people here have been dealing with this for a long time,” he explained. “They don’t complain about a couple inches of flooding, but they have problems with main roads flooding and the power substation that’s close to the creek getting flooded and shut down. We’re looking for ways to help with that.”
Schmitt led the group of students working on the Buckroe Beach and Salt Ponds neighborhoods, which are closer to the coast and include a popular public beach and fishing pier.
“We’re trying to figure out how to keep the functionality of that area and the beach neighborhood feel in ways that are sustainable and won’t cause problems in the future. We want to provide solutions that can be implemented on different levels, from individual households all the way to regional strategies,” Schmitt said.
“The city is interested in moving away from hard-structured engineering solutions toward more natural answers to these problems. They’re excited about using biomimicry to deal with some of these issues,” she added.
The graduate and undergraduate students worked throughout the semester to develop recommendations for promoting resiliency and mitigating the negative effects of flooding in each community. In mid-December, the six graduate students returned to Hampton to present their recommendations to city officials and other stakeholders.
The students developed recommendations that would have physical, social, and economic benefits for the area. Their recommendations included the implementation of a flag system to warn drivers when roads are fully or partially submerged and the installation of living breakwaters along the coastline. These partially submerged structures reduce wave energy and erosion. Once installed, the water on the inner side of the structure would be much calmer, creating ideal spots for fishing and other recreational activities.
For the Fox Hill neighborhood, the students suggested adding solar panels to nearby playgrounds and recreational facilities to help residents deal with power shortages. Another group suggested repurposing open spaces as wet playgrounds, which are designed to encourage children to play regardless of weather conditions.
According to Bukvic, recommendations that incorporated social elements were particularly well-received, including a community festival focused on building social capital with some educational elements to improve social cohesion and help residents learn about measures that can be taken on a household level.
“The officials seemed to appreciate the fresh perspective,” she said. “They liked the level of optimism the students brought to their resilience strategies and the fact that they connected them to other community development goals. People helping and supporting one another is a vital part of resiliency.”
“The students were energized by the whole experience, as they got an opportunity to collaborate with the real decision-makers and observe the complexity of how localities deal with the emerging coastal challenges,” Bukvic continued. “The city has a number of other initiatives, so we’re hoping our perspective complemented the other plans they are working on.”