Coastal squeeze
People come to Delaware for postcard-worthy beaches and serene natural experiences. But this beauty is under threat. That's where the Coastal Resilience Design Studio comes in.
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Coastal Squeeze

People come to Delaware for postcard-worthy beaches and serene natural experiences. But this beauty is under threat. That's where the Coastal Resilience Design Studio comes in.

Among researchers, it’s referred to as “coastal squeeze.” If you live in Delaware, you likely know it as a nightmare. 

Think of the phenomenon as a one-two punch: Sea level rise on one side, land development—and more water—on the other. Coastal wetlands are drowning. The state’s low-lying neighborhoods and commercial districts (ahem, all of them) are increasingly vulnerable to the tide. 

First State flooding has become a first-rate emergency. 

Enter Delaware Sea Grant’s Coastal Resilience Design Studio, or CRDS, which tackles this and other major crises facing Delaware’s coastal communities. Housed within the University of Delaware’s landscape architecture degree program, the effort enlists undergraduate and graduate students—not yet hardened by years of regulatory hurdle jumping—to innovate fresh solutions for Delaware’s environmental, social and economic problems. 

“They bring an open-mindedness that goes beyond limits and boundaries,” says Ed Lewandowski, a coastal communities development specialist with Delaware Sea Grant and a co-founder/principal with CRDS. “Anything is on the table. They come up with things that might make you say: ‘Well, that’s just crazy.’ But why not go crazy? We cannot  settle for the status quo.”

After Hurricane Ida hit the East Coast in 2021, Wilmington's Brandywine Creek reached record water levels of 23.1 feet. Several residents were evacuated and numerous cars were destroyed.

The Studio became a twinkle in the eye of UD experts in 2018, the year Laurel got a makeover. Located along a tributary of the Nanticoke River, the Sussex County town had long struggled with flooding. So Jules Bruck, then a professor of landscape architecture at UD, designed a constructed wetland and other green infrastructure to mitigate the problem, and the plans helped Laurel secure much needed grant money from outside sources. Once these designs were implemented, Bruck turned to Lewandowski, her partner on the initiative.

“If we can do this for Laurel,” she told him, “we can do this for other small towns.”

After collecting input from a variety of stakeholders, the colleagues curated an interdisciplinary team of Blue Hen student designers, researchers and engineers, and CRDS was born. To date, the group has completed designs for eight Delaware projects, ranging from a riverfront park in Claymont—recently awarded $1.5 million from the Bezos Earth Fund to support execution—to new dune vegetation in Fenwick Island State Park. Each has proven catalytic in securing necessary funding, and all are in various stages of implementation. 

“We are looking at things extremely holistically,” says Zachery Hammaker, senior instructor of landscape architecture at UD as well as incoming director and principal with CRDS. “We analyze a problem from a social, geological, physical, cultural, historical—you name it— standpoint. We want to ensure our designs are dynamic in their solution.”

Consider the town of Frederica, where residents had been struggling to find outlets for recreation and healthy food. The CRDS team conceived of the municipality’s now robust farmer’s market featuring musical performances, and wellness programming. In 18-weeks, the Tidal Market netted more than $46,000. 

“The projects are real, and they have value,” says Emma Ruggiero, ANR18, ANR21M, former participant in CRDS. “It’s an amazing learning experience.”

First State flooding is a first-rate emergency.

CRDS students commit to 40 hours per week during their summer and winter breaks and, during this time, the Studio thrusts them into greater identification with on-the-ground challenges of a real-world setting—from navigating permitting issues to dealing with potentially difficult clients or peers.

“This goes way beyond a hypothetical classroom experience,” says Eric Bardenhagen, associate professor of landscape architecture and director of the landscape architecture program. “When we bring together students from a variety of disciplines, they cross-learn. They may not become experts in those other fields, but they learn how to speak to experts in those fields, and this mimics what happens in the profession.”  

One recent project that required much collaboration centered on Little Creek in Kent County. For this underserved riverfront community, CRDS created a master plan to bolster the safety, economic security and outdoor enjoyment of residents. Then, they worked with policy scientists from UD’s Institute for Public Administration to amend the town’s code book, to allow for such upgrades. 

The vision, still being implemented, includes crosswalks, a dog park, micro retail village and, to mitigate flooding, a new park system underpinned by restored wetlands. When researching the latter, the team discovered a previously unknown—and extremely problematic—tile drainage system.

“So we played the part of private investigators as well as designers, which was really fun,” says Leigh Muldrow, AS01, ANR22PHD, a former participant in CRDS. “It was also really hard. You have to be willing to go to the town meetings, to stand for the tough questions. The experience is a roller coaster and, for me, it solidified: Yes, this type of holistic design is the direction I want to take my career.” 

Boaters in Lewes enjoy a sunny day on the water.

But it’s not just the students who benefit from this type of partnership. The towns receive professional-grade designs that can solidify a community's vision for their future.  This jump starts their ability to apply for grants or to use their limited resources to hire professional firms.

Take the Kent County fishing village known as Bowers Beach. Members of CRDS spent three days visiting the site, speaking with members of the community about its most pressing problems. These include the loss of critical dunes and beachfront, a dying protective marsh, flooding, a town center in need of revitalization and the ever-decreasing depth of the MurderKill River, a crisis for area fishermen. Then, the students completed hundreds of hours of research:dredging up historic, aerial photographs to track topography changes over time, conducting water flow analyses using specialty software. 

In the end, they conceived of a comprehensive plan involving strategies both big (dune and marsh restoration) and small (new bathhouses). The work, which took home a national award for excellence from the American Planning Association Sustainable Communities Division, will now undergo a technical review from state agencies.

“I would have the students back in a heartbeat,” says Ada Puzzo, ANR99, Bowers Beach mayor. “I prefer them to the professionals. I wasn’t looking for limitations—I wanted someone willing to hear us and come up with something new, and that’s what they offered.”

According to Puzzo, the work has probably saved her fishing village around $75,000, but, in a way, the financial piece is secondary to another unlikely outcome. Even more important for the residents of this small town—and so many others like it—is the validation that they haven’t been forgotten. That their problems are crucial. That someone is listening. 

Lifting the spirit of a community? That can’t be quantified. 

“We all understand that we’re not going to fix these issues tomorrow,” Puzzo says. “But now we know it can happen. Now, at least, we have something to look forward to.” 

 

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