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Envisioning Renewed Life from Abandoned Spaces: Ecology After Managed Retreat

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

When we look at current cities that will soon be the victims of sea level rise and climate-based storms, making coastal and riverside zones uninhabitable, the idea of moving people out of these spaces is painful enough that the thought process typically stops there. But the reality is that the built environment is a massive existing infrastructure. The fact that it might no longer be suitable for human habitation does not necessitate that we throw it away entirely.

There are multiple ecological considerations that should be integrated into every managed retreat project. For example, whether the afflicted parcels are coastal, in intertidal zones, or along flooding rivers. Structures should be assessed for how they affect each other and their environment. Repurposing of structures can occur on a site-specific basis in a way that incorporates local ecosystems and biodiversity.

Coral reefs provide a myriad of ecosystem services that accumulate to an estimated yearly global economic value of over $375 billion due to their disproportionate concentration of biodiversity. Researchers in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Phillippines have used steel frames currented with electricity as artificial reef skeletons to stimulate the regrowth of natural coral reefs. A study using steel frames as structures to stimulate coral reef restoration is currently underway in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. The existing steel construction in coastal parts of New York City provides a clear opportunity for research on how the urban built environment can be repurposed for a greater, symbiotic ecosystem.

Buildings and infrastructure in the intertidal zone can be stripped to their structural frame and then used as the foundation for a new reef typology that hybridizes the built environment with the marine. Creative outcomes can range from artificial coral reefs to biodiverse tide pools. Mollusk species like oysters and mussels absorb carbon from the water to help build their shells, functioning as carbon sinks. They can also grow on a variety of common construction materials, including concrete and granite. Buildings in managed retreat zones should be evaluated for their potential to form foundations for marine and intertidal habitats. Ecological considerations are a necessary component of all managed retreat programs because the ultimate goal is to make them work within their particular environmental contexts.

This methodological approach mandates a rigorous, site-specific lens, ensuring alignment with the inherent ecological characteristics and potentials unique to each locale. Every coastal city, each with its own ecological narrative and marine inhabitants, necessitates a tailored strategy. We need to be able to look at the intersection of existing construction and the needs of local habitats.

In essence, through the lens of scientific inquiry and ecological understanding, the abandoned structural frames within managed retreat zones, despite their climatic and ecological differences, can be repurposed to spawn new, synergistic habitats that augment local ecosystems. By intertwining robust scientific analyses with inventive ecological interventions, a pathway is carved that navigates through the complexities of managed retreat, unearthing innovative means to environmentally and ecologically enrich our coasts, whilst providing new habitats that catalyze a symbiosis between the built and natural environments.

The necessary ongoing abandonment of vulnerable human environments does not mean we need to abandon the use of those environments. We're at a stage of global climate change where, frankly, we need all of the help we can get.

#SymbioticEcologies #ClimateAdaptation#CoastalResilience#SustainableFutures

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