Tell Me a Story: Redesigning Oakland Beach

URI junior landscape architecture students were recently turned loose on Oakland Beach, Warwick—once devastated by the hurricanes of ’38 and ’54—to come up with “green” designs to help the area increase its resilience to storms and erosion.

It was the significant damage to coastal communities from Superstorm Sandy in 2011 that drew attention to the need for reducing the impact of flooding and erosion from storms. In response, Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) and at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography are working with coastal municipalities, including Warwick, to strengthen natural defenses of coastlines using green infrastructure that can absorb and treat stormwater and reduce erosion.

Detail of Emma Winkler's design for Oakland Beach (see full image below).

Detail of Emma Winkler’s design for Oakland Beach (see full image below)

This past fall semester, working with the guidance of Rhode Island Sea Grant and CRC staff, the students learned about the principles of green infrastructure, created conceptual plans for the site, and presented their designs to a panel of local experts and community members.

This sort of real-world experience is an important aspect of the landscape architecture program, says Richard Sheridan, URI professor of landscape architecture.

I’m not sure if students understand how much support they really get and how different this is from other schools, but it’s really nice when alumni come back and say, ‘I went to graduate school … but it was nothing like my experience in URI’s landscape architecture program.’ I think we’re doing something really right here, this collaboration with the Coastal Resources Center and Sea Grant.”

Teresa Crean, who has been CRC/Sea Grant’s extension liaison with the landscape architecture program for the past three years, says that student involvement helps to get people excited about green infrastructure and has been “a nice way to jumpstart interest and outreach around a project in a neighborhood or a village.”

“The students get exposure to the residents and stakeholders and decision makers at the local level and … to the challenges and problems that real decision makers face in moving forward with these design ideas,” she adds, “[CRC/Sea Grant] gets the benefit of a fresh set of eyes on a coastal resilience challenge in a real place in our landscape.”

Students Kelvin Huang, Emma Winkler, and Zachary Driver say that in addition to it being their biggest project so far, Oakland Beach was also the first project that they’ve done that was really focused on green infrastructure. Sheridan encouraged them to explore the subject independently. “It was a lot of research,” says Huang.

Emma Winkler's design for Oakland Beach

Emma Winkler’s design for Oakland Beach

“They’re not always going to be directed by a professor that hands out a check sheet of what they should do. I try to give them learning tools so that they know how to solve problems on their own,” Sheridan explains. “It’s more a case of, ‘What would you do there? Tell me a story.’ And they do. It’s pretty wonderful.”

The students discussed how many of the factors that complicated this specific project—such as flooding, storm surge and sea level rise—were sure to be recurring ones if they continued working in a coastal area like Rhode Island. They said that focusing on how to work with these variables was good practice for their future careers. “Being a landscape architect in this time … [the environment] is an important consideration,” explains Driver, talking about the challenges posed by global climate change. Winkler agrees, “We’re going to be dealing with these issues for a long time.”

Zachary Driver's design

Zachary Driver’s design

The students also talked about how the hands-on nature of the project—visiting the site and interacting with community members—changed what they thought about when creating their designs.

“We went to the site and we met with a woman who was part of the town council, and then just being there, a lot of people came up to us,” Winkler recalls. People were interested in what they were doing, and wanted to talk to them about their experiences with the area, she says. “There are things that were very important to them that we wouldn’t have thought of, just sitting in the studio.”

Driver agrees and says that trying to take into account the values of the community members definitely made designing more complicated.

“The parking lot loop, it’s a one-way road that has parking spaces on either side,” says Winkler, “And that, from a design standpoint, and also from an environmentalist standpoint, was not the best way for it to be designed, especially not right near the water. But when you talked to [the community members], that was really important to them. Some of them even wanted, when they pass away, to be driven around the loop. And that’s pretty strong for someone to say!”

The students did their best in their designs to preserve the parts of the site that were important to area residents, but found that it wasn’t always feasible. Nostalgia can only go so far. As student Gabriella D’Angelis said during her final presentation, “I think sometimes you have to create new memories.”

For Sheridan, the goal of this project was about more than just final presentations or finished poster boards. It was about helping his students understand that being a landscape architect is an important position that goes past simple aesthetics.

“They’re working on health, safety, and welfare … Those are the three really key points that they’ll be working on for the rest of their lives.” He says that designs must multitask, being both functional and aesthetically pleasing. He wants students to realize all the things that landscape architecture can do, from preventing runoff from flowing into the ocean to helping protect people’s homes against flooding.

For the students’ part, they seem to be figuring it out.

Somebody asks me,‘What do you do [as a landscape architect]?’” Driver laughs, “And I’m like, ‘Change the world.’”

By Keegan Glennon | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Intern

This landscape architecture studio is part of a larger project funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Department of Interior as part of a Hurricane Sandy Hurricane Recovery Grant. Rhode Island Sea Grant is an ongoing sponsor of URI landscape architecture studios that give students the opportunity to help coastal communities address real-world problems in light of the impacts of climate change and sea level rise.