Continuing the conversation about preservation and climate change
11 September 2015 – Kelsey Mullen
Newporters like to boast that their city is home to the largest concentration of American buildings pre-dating 1800. It’s a hard claim to verify, but tallies aside, the City-by-the-Sea in Rhode Island is undoubtedly a patchwork of architectural delights reflecting its history as a powerful colonial entrepôt, a Gilded Age resort, a naval base, and currently a vibrant tourist destination. The streets along the waterfront are a charming jumble of historic wharves, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes, commercial spaces, and houses of worship that are as active today as at any point in the past. Newport has always drawn its vitality from the sea, and this same element now poses a serious threat to the city’s heritage. That threat–and possible responses to it–will be the focus of an upcoming conference called Keeping History Above Water.
As will come as no surprise to those of us who call coastal communities home–which is about 40% of the US population–climate change is altering what it means to live on the coast. Although timelines vary, climate scientists predict that sea levels will rise anywhere from three to ten feet in the not-so-distant future. Storms will continue to increase in intensity and frequency. Coastlines will continue to erode. The effects of climate change are so dire that even Rolling Stone is writing about them.
In Newport, municipal leaders and homeowners alike have already seen the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. Major rain events have increased nearly 70% over the last twenty years, flooding basements and inundating storm sewers. Newport’s high tide mark has risen eight inches since 1930, and significant hurricanes have brushed the coast five times in the last seven years. And everything from “nuisance” flooding to superstorm devastation has a very real impact on the cultural resources and historic structures of the region. We are not alone in Newport, nor are we even the most severely affected, but sea levels are rising and we’re in the Ocean State. So what do we do?
At the Newport Restoration Foundation, a historic preservation organization which currently owns nearly 80 eighteenth-century buildings (making it the fourth largest property tax payer in the city), our stake in the stewardship of this heritage is clear. What’s clearer, however, is the importance of multiple perspectives in planning for coastal and cultural resilience. The questions we’re asking in Newport are also being asked in Annapolis, Galveston, New York City, St. Augustine, and, of course, New Orleans. And solutions will come from city planners, engineers, preservationists, oceanographers, landscape architects, and elected officials, among others. Good ideas are literally all over the map, and the solutions may not even lie within our national borders.
In April 2016, the Newport Restoration Foundation, along with our colleagues at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Park Service, Roger Williams University, the University of Rhode Island, and Salve Regina University, is convening a conference to explore the role of historic preservation in safeguarding coastal heritage. Keeping History Above Water will assemble multi-disciplinary experts from across the US and Europe to outline the problem and then to consider prototype solutions through lectures, workshops, and tours. Our goals are to advance the conversation (already well underway at organizations like the National Trust, National Park Service, and the National Council on Public History), to learn from each other, and to start charting out possible adaptation strategies.
The conversation will only be as dynamic as the speakers involved. The conference program committee is currently soliciting short paper and workshop/seminar session proposals for the Keeping History Above Water conference. Graduate students and experts from far-ranging fields and experience are encouraged to help lead this timely conversation. Proposals will be accepted until September 15. We hope to see many of you there!
~ Kelsey Mullen is Coordinator for Academic Programs & Special Projects at the Newport Restoration Foundation.
 For more on flood recurrence levels in general, see Howard Perlman, “Floods: Recurrence intervals and 100-year floods (USGS).” Studies of Newport’s specific situation include Julia Forgue, Rob Schultz, JR Frey, Peter von Zweck, Becky Weig, Suibing Liu, and Chelsae Durante, “Drainage Investigation and Flood Analysis: Wellington Avenue and Bridge Street” (City of Newport and CH2M, Pell Elementary School, Newport, RI), July 15 2015, Public Informational Meeting #1. Sea levels have risen 1/10” per year on average for the last eight years, suggesting an 8” in sea level rise since 1930. Water levels are exceeding Mean Higher High Water (MHHW) elevations 200+ days per year as opposed to 50+ days per year in 1930, a drastic change in high tides. The projections for sea level rise vary widely, both locally and nationally. For Newport by 2100, the 2014 US National Climate Assessment predicts a global increase of 1’-4’, US EPA predicts 2’-6’, and a detailed study by RI Sea Grant predicts 3’-5’.