Nature versus a Sense of Place

A plaque in St. Augustine, Florida reminds us on a sunny day that not so long ago the “oldest city in the United States” was under several feet of water.

Choosing where to settle and live is complicated, not a simple task of technical analysis and check boxes. Competing factors include affordability, convenience to work, school systems for our children, public water and sewer systems. But isn’t there something about the character of a particular neighborhood that convinces us between two otherwise similar choices? Some want the close community of a small town, others prefer the liveliness of a city. Sometimes it is the physical appearance—the architecture or the presence of trees or green spaces—that attracts us.

Once we have moved in and become part of that local fabric, developmental pressures may shift the neighborhood’s character away from what initially enticed us. Changes to zoning and planning are probably the most common factors altering the quality and appeal of a locale. But acts of nature play an increasingly large role in such alterations.

Back in 1900, a hurricane nearly wiped the island city of Galveston off the coast of Texas, killing thousands. Rather than move inland, the wealthy community decided to rebuild by elevating the entire island, a plan that raised the city by 8 to 17 feet, several blocks at a time, from 1903 to 1911. A new seawall added extra protection. Despite the buffer against tides and storms, however, salt water intrusion into the groundwater meant a lot of the replanted greenery did not survive.

Few areas have the dollars needed to undertake such a massive confrontation of nature. But many of our early communities are built on fill (Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Annapolis, Maryland; the list goes on), encroaching into spaces water used to occupy. As we increasingly confront sea level rise, subsidence, and changes in weather patterns, it isn’t just present assessments of flood risk we need to address in our mitigation plans. This is particularly important when assessing how best to protect structures we consider most valuable to protect against disasters, and often these are buildings that are historic either by their age or their role in the back story of the community. How we go about that assessment sometimes saves buildings but loses the integrity of the sense of place.

Galveston, TX: For a visual tour of the historic recovery project 1903-1911, see youtube.com/watch?v=6DexSKxY2Nc

Historic preservation has generally been about keeping things (buildings and their art, fashion, or style) the same, ignoring what goes on in the streets, the people who live in the area. But people are the “why” of preservation: what makes a place important to people tips the scales in favor of rescuing one feature over another. Nature has been changing that equation.

Our laws and regulations address our built environment but don’t accommodate community values. Here in the U.S., we confine ourselves to three main approaches to protecting structures from flooding: elevate, relocate, or abandon. Sometimes none of these options are particularly viable.

Consider the Pointe-aux-Chien and Isle de Jean Charles Tribes in the bayous of southern Louisiana, who have no place to go beyond their ancestral lands—subsiding land unprotected by levees, exposed by shrinking barrier islands, and subjected to increasing salinization (so no fresh water replenishes the soil) and rapid loss of solid land by erosion from marshland dredging and canals dug by oil and gas companies. Their only option is to elevate their homes, some of which have been raised as much as 13 feet. Floating structures are not insurable in the U.S., even when buoyant foundations are anchored in a way that allows them to rise with inflows and descend as water retreats. As subsidence and sea level rise continue to exact a toll on the land and threaten the roads to the mainland, eventually the only currently allowable form of elevation (permanent) will fail in practicality here.

Annapolis, MD: For an overview of how one city tries to balance nature, culture, and technology, see annapolis.gov/885/Weather-It-Together

What is historically significant to one may not even be of passing interest to another. What is an architectural gem to me may be dreadful, dull, or lacking distinction to you. Do the church and cemetery in Smithville, Maryland (all that is left of a former slave community) not deserve preserving because they do not meet the “integrity” standards of the state’s historic preservation office? Does Little Haiti in Miami, historically significant to the community established by refugees in the 1970s, not deserve recognition by the National Historic Register merely because the minimum “50 year” standard has not been met? Who should make decisions about what and how to save our built environment?

We have lots of technical and regulatory “answers”. But do we have the social ones? “Resiliency” is more than simply re-opening the grocery store and shoveling mud off the roads. Full recovery requires a sense of cohesiveness, the ability to adapt to changes together, and a firm understanding of what is most important to a community to regain the reason people want to be part of it.

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.