A riverfront neighborhood at risk: Fortifying Chesterfield Heights

Chesterfield Heights, Hampton University

The Chesterfield Heights neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, a historic community that student researchers assisted in preparing for sea level rise.

Student researchers from Hampton University and Old Dominion University collaborated on design solutions for a community at risk from sea level rise

As the impacts of climate change and hazard risk grow in the national consciousness—due in large part to our understanding that many disasters are no longer isolated events but part of an ongoing pattern with complex challenges—architects around the country are working toward solutions. Many of the schools in the National Resilience Initiative are tackling specific regional climate challenges, including Hampton University in southeastern Virginia. Architects and architectural students from Hampton University and Old Dominion University are working on specific sea level rise and flooding studies that have broader applications, research that facilitates the sharing of best practices nationally and identifies policy and legislation issues impeding sensible response to an array of challenges caused by climate change.

Collaborating for a more fortified Virginia

The Coastal Community Design Collaborative (CCDC)—headed by Mason Andrews, associate professor of architecture at Hampton University (HU), and Mujde Erten-Unal, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Old Dominion University (ODU)—is a cross-university and cross-disciplinary entity poised to carry out sea level mitigation design efforts. Both departments are pursuing the creation of the first cross-disciplinary cross-university concentration in adaptation to sea level rise, a first for the region. As part of the CCDC, HU students designed a public park in a historic neighborhood of southeastern Virginia that will mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. It was thanks to their proven years of field research on sea level rise that the HU Department of Architecture was invited to join that National Resilience Initiative network.

Southeastern Virginia is a flat, tidal region with a predicted four-to-six feet of sea level rise over the next 100 years. It currently has the highest measured rate of relative sea level rise on the Atlantic Coast at 4.45 millimeters per year. The region has been ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as 10th in the world for “assets at risk from sea level rise in port cities.” Most of the economy in the area is water dependent (military bases, ship building, ship repair, shipping, ocean tourism) and at high risk from sea level rise. Most of tidal Virginia is still at the beginning of any sea level rise or flooding adaptation planning phases, with few robust plans in place. The region’s communities, and specifically neighborhoods, are in dire need of designs for smaller, distributed solutions that are available at the neighborhood level and engage the public, businesses, and local governments in a conversation about designing for adaptation.

Historic Chesterfield Heights

The riverfront neighborhood selected to study was Chesterfield Heights in Norfolk, Virginia, a historic middle-and-low income, civically engaged predominantly African American community on the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River. The community was built starting in 1915, with neighborhood plans filed as early as 1904, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This location was selected for the project site because of active community involvement, presence of a vibrant civic league, a mix of both historic and later in-fill homes, and vulnerability to tidal and rainfall flooding. The neighborhood’s century-old architecture still filled many of its original structures, including local interpretations of Colonial Revival and Queen Anne architectural styles. According to Paige Pollard, an architectural historian with the Commonwealth Preservation Group, “historic houses [such as these] tend to be more sturdily built, which makes them more resilient, but also more expensive to address,” something that the community struggled with when designing mitigation strategies.

Community vulnerabilities

In Chesterfield Heights, issues related to sea level rise are occurring at an accelerated rate. The HU Department of Architecture’s Adaptation to Sea Level Rise program was designed to help specific communities locally, as well as serving as a model for emerging challenges globally. In addition to local subsidence issues—in part caused by human water usage, resulting in the drawdown of the underlying, supporting aquifers—the region suffers from the confluence of several phenomena contributing to its frequent flooding.

Much of the area is built on filled creeks, the soils of which wick water and refill during flooding. The nearby harbor faces northeast, regularly causing higher tides and increased storm surge when inclement weather blows in. Continuous northeastern winds cause tide cycles to stack up within the harbor, resulting in flooding in nearby low-laying areas until the storm subsides. Average annual rainfall is also increasing, overtaxing the existing—and now undersized—stormwater system. Furthermore, the stormwater line outfalls are frequently below sea level and act as conduits in reverse, bringing flood waters into neighborhoods. Coastal science researchers also forecast that the intermittent but increasingly frequent slowing of the Gulf Stream will add to the sea level rise East Coast communities face.

Engaging the community

The proposed project for Chesterfield Heights involved studying adaptation and mitigation strategies in this historic neighborhood before a catastrophic storm. The CCDC student researchers worked to collect data firsthand, conduct site visits, witness extreme rain and flooding events whenever possible, interview residents, and meet with local civic groups. This included listening sessions about flooding at the local community center, asking residents to fill out questionnaires about their flooding experiences, and adjusting design plans per resident feedback.

Many residents were concerned about how traditional home elevation might affect the neighborhood’s historic status, or diminish its strong porch culture, so the team adjusted its elevation design to include a gradual grade from street to home. The researches were mindful of involving the local community throughout the entire design process. Early design work explored immediate mitigation issues and the possibilities of elevating existing houses before turning to design solutions that would both preserve and enhance the neighborhood’s unique character.

A resilient neighborhood

The final design proposal emphasizes adaptation solutions that protect the region’s coastal ecosystems, as well as conducting flooding and sea level rise adaptation at the street and parcel level. The proposals for Chesterfield Heights included:

  • The installation of a living shoreline to halt erosion and restore habitat, while at the same time maintaining the neighborhood’s access to the waterfront
  • A flood gate to allow an existing wetland to be used to store stormwater until flood conditions abate after storm conditions pass
  • A series of strategies to store water until stormwater systems can resume functioning after storm and flood waters abate

The latter included below-street cisterns and a parcel by parcel program to keep precipitation on individual lots rather than discharging to storm systems. Additionally, elevating houses would provide an additional 75 years of protection. Flood modeling (EPA’s Storm Water Management Model program) showed a dry neighborhood into the next century, should these interventions be put in place. In January of 2016, the Governor and Secretary of HUD announced that the Chesterfield Heights proposal was elected for funding and was to be granted $120,000,000 for implementation.

Christine Morris, the chief resilience officer of the City of Norfolk, noted in a report that the program has succeeded in providing a “safe place” for community members to begin to come to terms with, and plan for, changing conditions. It’s also helped them better understand what lies ahead, which city-led initiatives had struggled to communicate. Resilient programs such as this help citizens start to talk, to plan, to prepare to be a community that survives and thrives.

Savannah Tarpey is a sustainability specialist at AIA.

The National Resilience Initiative (NRI) is a joint program of AIA and the Architects Foundation, with support from the Association for Collegiate Schools of Architecture, that unites six university-led architecture studios to develop new designs, approaches, and policies that bolster resilience in the built environment. The Hampton University Department of Architecture is a member of the National Resilience Initiative network, representing the Mid-Atlantic region, and the designated center on the study of adaptation to sea level rise due to climate change.

Image credits

Chesterfield Heights, Hampton University

Hampton University

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