Leave it Better

In the face of likely climate retreat, student design studios explore ways to improve Nantucket’s coastal resilience.

By Zach Mortice

Inhabiting Instabilities posits vast pierscapes that reach out into the ocean. Image courtesy Gena Morgis and Caleb Negash.

On Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts, half of the 10 highest-ever tides arrived in 2018 alone, and flooding is a constant worry that imperils the tourist economy and historic buildings. “But that has not slowed down the real estate market,” says Cecil Barron Jensen, the executive director of the local nonprofit ReMain Nantucket. It’s been a “banner, record year” for buying and selling houses, she says. The average home price in Nantucket is nearly $1.8 million, according to Zillow, up almost 10 percent over the past year.

Real estate brokers on the island, Jensen says, talk about the flooding in terms of timelines. “How long do you want to enjoy this house? You can enjoy this house for this long,” she says. Even for the rich, the good life on Nantucket is becoming a finite commodity, as the dissonance between the hearty trade in beachfront views and climate cataclysm becomes harder to ignore.

Finding ways for Nantucket to coexist with rising floodwaters is the purpose of the Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge, an initiative by Jensen’s ReMain Nantucket to bring aboard teams of design students in a collaborative design studio to propose solutions. Overall, these propositions, on exhibition at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Thomas Macy Warehouse through December, are focused on soft edges, careful retreats, and ways to get habitats, native ecologies, and people to mix and mingle with water productively. Students from five design programs (Yale, Harvard, the University of Miami, the University of Florida, and Northeastern University) presented their work—all produced remotely—to the Nantucket community in early June.

Flooded conditions in Nantucket, which has been pummeled by half of its 10 highest ever tides in just the last few years. Photo by Kimberly Rose.

Absent Nantucket’s plans to implement winning projects, Jensen sees these proposals as a jumping-off point for exploration. “When we asked the students to participate, we promised them that we would untether them from the reality of Nantucket’s planning matrix, so that allowed them to be really free with using their imaginations,” she says. “The reaction from the community has been wide-eyed wonder.”

The Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge focused primarily on three coastal sections of the island. Photo by Maggie Janik.

Nantucket can afford to dream big. ReMain Nantucket is backed by significant philanthropic support and was founded by Wendy Schmidt, the wife of billionaire and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, one of the richest people in the world.

Envision Resilience Nantucket, the umbrella organization for the challenge, has secured the support of local preservationists and ecologists. Both aspects are represented in the proposals from the Northeastern University studio of Sara Jensen Carr, ASLA, which explored three categories of interventions: housing, hybrid engineering, and transitional ecologies. This last category contained some of the team’s most extreme transformations, including the Pocket Ecology by the landscape architecture undergraduate Cassandra Lanson, which recasts much of the island as a bird sanctuary, embracing the landscape architecture cliché of “put a bird on it!” Carr says.

The Pocket Ecology imagines much of Nantucket as a bird sanctuary. Image courtesy Cassandra Lanson.

“I went into the project thinking, ‘Let’s propose the most drastic idea,’ because of course it gets pared down,” Lanson says.

Nearly half of Nantucket is already composed of conserved land, and Lanson imagines this vast habitat expanding in stages, beginning with pocket marshes and vacant land. Eventually, the ocean takes up permanent residence on what were Nantucket’s streets, and debris from abandoned homes becomes habitat for underwater ecologies, with seagrasses doing the work of phytoremediation.

Nantucket Island, where impending sea-level rise hasn’t done much to slow the real estate market. Photo by Maggie Janik.

Stoss Landscape Urbanism founder Chris Reed, FASLA, says his Harvard Graduate School of Design studio was looking for ways to untangle the web of connections between the island’s land, ecology, and economy. For example, one proposal by Fabiana Casale, Student ASLA, and Maria Ulloa, Student ASLA, addressed the barrier peninsula that protects Nantucket. “If you’re going to lose the barrier, the impact is going to be tremendous,” Reed says. “The erasure of that is going to impact the port, it’s going to impact private property, it’ll induce further bluff erosion.”

Inhabiting Instabilities by GSD students Gena Morgis and Caleb Negash proposed networks of pier platforms that reach far into the ocean to create a porous edge. These piles and platforms are both a tectonic (but mutable) basis for architecture and also a habitat-crafting tool. Piers, or simple piles of rock, can slow down water and let sediment drop before being carried out to sea, “a rumble strip underneath the surface of the water,” Morgis says. Extending piers outward with a renewable resource (wood) is also a way to conserve ecologically sensitive interior land elsewhere on the island.

But what if people, unlike some privileged Nantucket residents, don’t have the resources to relocate even once? How applicable are the projects for this exceptionally affluent town to communities with all of the coastal vulnerability and none of the resources? “I struggle with it,” says Carr. “We don’t want this to be about protecting rich people’s houses.” The Pocket Ecology’s bird-first approach makes that clear, but Nantucket’s path to resilience is unlikely to be very similar to anywhere else. Reed says he hopes that the what, if not the how, of developing coastal resilience in Nantucket will be transferable to less privileged communities, which leaves the question open of who gets to use what’s learned on Nantucket.

The Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge focuses on both architectural and ecological preservation. Photo by Maggie Janik.

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