Fluid Futures: Regional Urban Resilience in Hampton Roads

Civil Engineering; Engineering and Society; Systems Engineering; Urban Studies and Planning; Physical and Environmental Geography; Human Geography; Urban Studies; Resilience

This project aims to catalyze a regional urban design and qualitative decision analysis framework for socio-environmental resiliency in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

Research Interests
  • Design
  • Urban Planning
  • Systems Engineering
  • urban design
  • Coastal resilience
  • Infrastructural Systems
  • climate adaptation
  • Qualitative Analysis
  • Urban Resilience

The environmental and social challenges of our time, including climate change, environmental degradation, housing inequality, and racial discrimination, are often studied separately and are siloed within disciplinary boundaries that undermine the inherent links and common threads running through them. Urban space and its organization through social and technical structures (e.g., infrastructural systems, zoning laws, impermeable surfaces, post-industrial and residual spaces) heavily contribute to these issues and have often exacerbated their severity and impact. In coastal cities of the US, sea-level rise, as well as increasing extreme weather events, threaten the heavily built-up centers of population and economy. Yet, urban development in this country has been slow to respond and come to terms with the impending climatic and social upheavals facing these coastal communities. This is partly due to the one-dimensional and defensive-minded way we have historically built infrastructures and urban spaces which prioritize efficiency and cost-effectiveness over social benefits. By externalizing climatic and ecological dynamics —through hardening of edges, undergrounding of creeks, filling in wetlands, overdevelopment and sprawl, just to name a few— we have made our urban environments more susceptible to the smallest climatic shocks.

To fully capture the extent and gravity of impending climatic and social upheavals facing coastal areas, this project will bring together technical, environmental, and grounded socio-spatial analysis to catalyze a much-needed interdisciplinary lens. While interdisciplinary work in response to climate change has recently increased, this work is often isolated within scientific and technical disciplines and seldom includes design as an active participant. This project highlights the role of design as a critical spatial field combining a qualitative understanding of social needs with technical know-how to complement and extend the applicability of scientific research by proposing equitable spatial strategies that create livable and resilient communities. 

The project will operate based on a series of principles: 1) We believe these issues are regional in nature, hence localized and piecemeal interventions are temporary solutions and are likely to only relocate the problem instead of addressing it. A more regional understanding of issues, as well as the stakeholders and forces involved, can provide a more effective scale of operations. This will entail typological and replicable strategies that expand the scope of operations from individual sites to the entire region. 2) Interventions need to achieve more than just defend against rising sea levels. Adoption of a holistic socio-technical perspective will allow for a more robust set of interventions that leverage the economic and political need to address environmental issues to also respond to the social needs of under-served communities that are historically positioned at the frontline of environmental crises. 3) Matching the fluidity of the climatic crisis facing coastal regions, our interventions and attitudes towards the environment need to become more fluid. This includes how interventions move across scales and respond to a multiplicity of stakeholders and forces, as well as proactive strategies that promote flexible, dynamic interventions that work with water as opposed to constantly defending against it.

To establish an initial urban design and decision-making framework, this project will look into the Hampton Roads region in Coastal Virginia. The threats facing the region are symptomatic of the complex socio-environmental issues with which other coastal regions of the United States are grappling. Working with local and regional stakeholders, the team, from architecture, urban design, urban studies, civil engineering, and systems engineering, will develop a qualitative, multi-criteria decision analysis and urban design framework for the region. The team will use the qualitative framework to guide the selection and establishment of pilot sites for further analytic and qualitative work.

Desired outcomes

  1. Catalog of sites (with a variety of land uses and physical conditions, as well as development potential) and strategies (from hard/infrastructural like seawalls, levees, raising grade, to soft/ecological like wetlands and living shorelines, daylighting creeks, and storm water management through green infrastructure) in Hampton Roads that identifies, categorizes, and prioritizes sites of intervention based on risks, physical and environmental attributes, as well as potential social, economic, and environmental benefits to the region.
  2. A qualitative multi-criteria decision analysis framework at a regional scale that is informed by various stakeholder groups (e.g., local governments, military, public) and reflects socio-environmental needs (e.g., affordable housing, access to open/public space, flood protection) and threats (e.g., sea-level rise, flooding, water pollution) as well as economic potentials (e.g., protection of real estate assets, tourism, energy production). 
  3. Organization and moderation of interdisciplinary workshops that will expand the expertise of the original team and will invite colleagues from Landscape Architecture, Engineering, Environmental Science, Public Policy, City Administration, Economics and others to evaluate and enhance the developed multi-criteria decision analysis framework. This will strengthen the multidisciplinary design approach for urban resilience in coastal areas. 
  4. Informed by the catalog and the qualitative decision analysis, the project will propose a series of hybrid design strategies for a set of selected sites that combine grey/hard/infrastructural with green/ecological/landscape approaches to respond to the social and environmental needs of each site. These strategies will operate at various scales and will incorporate a multi-criteria approach to maximize the potential economic, ecological, and social impact for each site.
  5. Application for major grants such as NSF Coastline and People (CoPe), NSF Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment (HDBE), and the Virginia Sea Grant. Publications and presentations will communicate the findings of the research and lay the groundwork for engaging additional stakeholders towards expanding the work.