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Turning the tide: Helping shoreline communities create ecologically balanced seawalls

February 28, 2017

Stantec’s Gary Sorge looks back on the “a-ha moment” that broadened his team’s research from case study to “something much greater”

Part eight of our 10-part Stantec R&D Fund 10th Anniversary Series dives deep into the world of guidelines for shoreline restoration.

Katrina. Irene. Sandy. Tropical storms that hammer the US East Coast show how ill-prepared communities are for the devastating impacts. For decades, the engineering solution was to build hardened structures such as concrete-only seawalls for shoreline communities to hide behind during storms. But seawalls contribute to erosion, degrade ecosystems, and compromise resilience.

The ideal solution is to create living shorelines, which use a mix of natural materials such as plants, sand, wetlands, reefs, stone, and more to absorb storm impacts. The benefits of living shorelines are many: reduced erosion, improved water quality, environmental protection, community aesthetics, habitat for marine and wildlife, not to mention valuable recreation space for the community.

Stantec’s Gary Sorge looks back on the “a-ha moment” that broadened his team’s research from case study to “something much greater.”

If landscape architects like Gary Sorge had it their way, the entire US east coast would be one long living shoreline. But for many of Gary’s clients, living shorelines are often too expensive to engineer or formulate for long-term performance—given the amount of hardened infrastructure that abuts our coastal waters—are not always the most practical solution.

So where is the middle ground? Existing seawall guidelines don’t account for any balance between the natural and built environments. Yet. “We’re expanding the focus on living shorelines to include living seawalls in urban communities” says Gary. 

What is a living seawall?

“Living seawalls” conjure up images of towering seaweed structures or masses of sea creatures stacked like bricks. In reality, living seawalls are vertical walls that allow for tides to flow in and out naturally. Various textures and notches applied to the wall can support life such as barnacles, mussels, and lichen. This sea life in turn serves a dual purpose, purifying water and attracting other marine life higher up the food chain to create a diverse marine habitat. When designing seawalls as part of an interdisciplinary team, landscape architects consider the needs of people, plants, and wildlife, finding ways to satisfy each group and create ecological balance along urban shorelines.

Gary has been leveraging funding from Stantec’s Research & Development Program (now Greenlight) to explore the value and strength of living seawalls, expand the conversation with colleagues and community leaders, and develop new strategies to tackle existing and future challenges. “We’re hoping to turn the design and regulatory communities’ attention to practices beyond the minimum required—practices that could be equally accepted and applied on a vast scale to create a greater ecological balance,” he explains.

As homeowners and business owners continue to renovate, repair, or build on sensitive urban shorelines along the US east coast, Gary sees the opportunity to improve the situation and has moved forward with the living seawall as a solution that makes sense.

He explains, “Why can’t we add a layer of adaptation to existing shoreline protection standards so that we're not compromising the safety of property and humans, and providing techniques that are just as easy to implement and that would create greater habitat for marine life, or plant life? Then these shorelines are actually adapting to that sea level rise.”

Living seawalls accommodate high and low tides (as indicated by the dotted lines), and create conditions for people, plants, and wildlife to thrive.

Turning the tide in a new direction

Over the last three years, Gary has adapted his research program to build on the previous years’ discoveries. Early on, he collaborated with Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the Center for Urban Environmental Sustainably. He guided the work of graduate students in Rutgers’ landscape architecture program as they researched the shoreline in some of the grittiest neighborhoods along the Hudson River and New York Harbor. Says Gary, “We studied shoreline resiliency in urban environments and documented how developed parcels of land in these very densely populated and industrialized communities were more susceptible and vulnerable to sea level rise. What we discovered was that adaptation of standards is required to provide the best solutions for these vulnerable locations.”

This is when Gary’s research took an unexpected turn. What began with a focus on urban shoreline restoration transformed into a mission to create a series of standards—or guidelines—on shoreline restoration for residential, commercial, and public sector property owners. Shorelines in the US can be under the purview of several layers of government, but the final arbiter in nearly all situations is the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). As Gary headed down this new path, he knew it was time to weave in a larger community of scientists, engineers, regulators, and property owners.

At the Restore America’s Estuaries Summit in December 2016, Gary presented the culmination of his research in “An Ecologically Balanced Approach to Structured Shorelines.” He also brought together a panel reflecting the complexity and reach of his ongoing exploration: the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, the Nature Conservancy, Stantec engineers, and regulatory experts. The panel examined how a typical USACE design detail could be adapted to add crevices, articulated surfaces, and different types of materials to standard concrete blocks to incrementally benefit a living shoreline.

“We’ve gained a basis of knowledge that we’re applying to projects now, and we’re also gaining recognition in the industry through an orchestrated effort by our policy, design, and technical experts across many disciplines,” Gary says of Stantec’s work.

Although he needs to conduct more research and update and share the reference manual with government and developers, Gary knows that this work will be realized in many estuary communities. And these communities won’t necessarily have to pay more for this balanced design approach.

“You may still be using the same amount of traditional materials, but I think there’s a spirit of long-term thinking in our communities—they want to add this level of value to their projects,” he explained. “They want something that is going to contribute to the quality of the water they rely on for health, commerce, and recreation.”

A living seawall such as this incorporates natural filtration systems (rocks and grasses), offers the nooks and crannies sea creatures need to survive, and is aesthetically pleasing for residents, all while providing protection and supporting the environment.

A new tool against climate change

Gary has the prerequisite passion and doggedness so essential to a successful researcher. But at heart, he is looking for incremental change with the promise of significant impact. Living shorelines are a new tool in the battle against climate change, and for a healthy planet.

He maintains that updated shoreline restoration guidelines need to be made available to the marketplace as tools for individual property owners and consultants. These guidelines would help them focus more on softening and protecting our shoreline.

“If we continue to turn our backs, we’re compromising the most diverse and biologically rich landscape that we have anywhere in terms of feeding our food chain. And that doesn’t take into account any additional negative impacts, on tourism for example, in many of our coastal communities if we lose our shoreline’s natural health. There are so many dividends to be paid by this incremental approach. This project has the potential to help countless communities become more resilient.”

About this article

In 2017, Stantec celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Research and Development (R&D) Fund—now called Greenlight. Through Greenlight, our company invests $2 million annually into our employees’ big ideas, with half the funds earmarked for scientific R&D initiatives. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which nurtures the efforts of our people to apply any idea that benefits us, our clients, or our communities, and enhances our reputation, competitive position, and ultimately our financial performance. In the coming months, we’ll be profiling 10 of our R&D grant recipients and their work, so check back often for more stories.

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