And there are more ambitious design ideas, too. Ivor Van Heerden of Louisiana State University has urged massive restoration of the barrier islands in the Gulf Coast; along with the coastal wetlands (sometimes called “nature’s levees”), he considers these the first, best defense against floods. Sufficient funds have been hard to come by, but Van Heerden is optimistic: “We firmly believe [that with] Obama in office, we”ll start to see the federal government putting a lot more attention on this area. Conceivably, within two years, we could be rebuilding the barrier islands,” he says.
Many of the new designs for rising sea levels grapple with the side effects of other designs. Seawalls are dependable against storm surges, but they severely disrupt coastal ecosystems (which the world’s seafood industry depends on). Kristina Hill, associate professor and director of the Program in Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia, has designed floating sea grass beds to use in combination with dikes as a possible solution. She calls them “living sea walls,” which she describes as “a kind of a “skirt” of living systems that we can bring inland with us as our shoreline recedes.”
While these designs hold real possibility, implementation has been slow to follow. “At this point we’re at what Disney calls the “imagineering” level,” says Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The commission intends to hold a design competition this year. “Our hope is we”ll get architects, engineers, students, innovators and others coming up with ideas,” says Travis. “The commission will then publicize and award stipends to the best ideas, which will be applied to a specific site along the bay.” The design process will probably be evolutionary, suggests Travis, who points to the analogy of designing for earthquakes. “No one dreamed that the solution would be to design buildings that can move, but that’s what we’re doing now. It’s almost counterintuitive, the way seismic design has evolved.”
One constant source of flood-battling ideas is the Netherlands, where 60% of the country sits below sea level. One ascendant Dutch strategy is, like seismic design, counterintuitive. They adopted a program called “Living with Water,” deciding to allow certain amounts of water into their cities when sea levels rise. Leading solutions include green roofs covered in water-absorbing vegetation (reducing the impact of heavy rainfall) and a novel idea called the “waterplaza,” a city square specifically designed to flood and become, essentially, a temporary pond, helping to relieve stress on the city’s drainage system. The Dutch have even experimented with floating architecture, using a material called aerated concrete.
Dutch scientists Pavel Kabat and Pier Vellinga, in a 2005 article in Nature called “Climate-Proofing the Netherlands,” envisioned a possible “hydro-metropole,” which they say could be a “world in which we have learned how to live with—and make a living from—water.” That last idea—that enterprising minds might find a way to make the coming floods profitable rather than disastrous—is perhaps the most counterintuitive, and intriguing, of all.