Workshop Explores Impact of Sea Level Rise on Newport’s Historic Structures

The city of Newport is home to some of the oldest buildings in the country, many of which are located close to the water’s edge and threatened by rising sea levels and coastal flooding.

Rhode Island Sea Grant and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center (CRC) recently facilitated a public workshop with concerned stakeholders representing the City of Newport, private, non-profit organizations, and private citizens at the Emmanuel Church in Newport to discuss ways of increasing the resilience of local historic structures and neighborhoods.

Of the approximately 2,500 identified threatened historic structures statewide, almost 40 percent are located in Newport.

Anita Shaw, director of Emmanuel Church, called addressing climate change related issues a “moral imperative … to provide a future for the next generation, one that is sustainable.”

State Representative Lauren Carson presented a report on the economic impacts of sea level rise, which highlighted the fact that Newport has the greatest number of historic structures threatened by sea level rise of all the towns and cities in Rhode Island. Of the approximately 2,500 identified threatened historic structures statewide, almost 40 percent are located in Newport.

Of course, historic structures are not the only buildings vulnerable to sea level rise. In total, Carson’s study cited $3.8 billion of potential property loss in the Newport floodplain.

Carson believes that in order to spur political action, it is important to take into account how sea level rise will affect the bigger economic picture. “It’s very important to talk about businesses in this dialogue … we’re concerned about our homes, but I think the only way to really build political momentum is to talk about the value of businesses in the floodplain, and that was what I’ve tried to do through the work of my study commission,” she explains.

For example, she noted that $2.8 million, or 53 percent, of the total taxes collected on hotels and guesthouses in Newport are from buildings in danger of flooding due to sea level rise. She also points out that many vulnerable historic structures and neighborhoods are important draws for the tourism that makes up a major part of Newport’s economy.

Participants discussed ideas to help the city combat the threats of sea level rise. Among the suggestions were neighborhood walkthroughs to help educate homeowners on ways to make properties as resistant as possible to flooding, and neighborhood discounts on flood preparedness auditing. The monetary cost of protecting historic structures was a common concern. Many workshop participants also seconded Representative Carson in citing the need for a greater emphasis on the overall economic impacts of sea level rise to involve those whose properties will not be directly affected. These, and other suggestions identified as potential “next steps” are currently being compiled into a formal document to help assist the City of Newport preserve its historical assets, and will be available online shortly.


Keegan Glennon | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Intern