Keeping History Above Water

Newport, Rhode Island

In Newport, Rhode Island, the tide is rising. Local sea levels at high tide have risen eight inches in the past 75 years, threatening neighborhoods like The Point, which has a combination of history, charm, and walkability that is unique and irreplaceable. Neighborhoods in Newport’s flood zones generate more than half of the tax revenues for the city.

Keeping History Above Water examines short-, mid-, and long-term solutions for low-lying neighborhoods that could be achieved through a combination of policy changes, design standards, sensitive architectural intervention, and innovative engineering. Using both The Point and a recently acquired historic house as case studies, the plan explores small-to large-scale interventions that harness civil engineering in the service of placemaking. Strategies for the house include:

  • Filling the basement approximately three feet, bringing the floors above current high tide levels.
  • Ventilating the new crawl space to prevent moisture damage.
  • Raising electrical wiring and outlets above flood levels.
  • Elevating the kitchen wing to the elevation of the main house.
  • Regrading the site so that flood waters drain away from the house.

Many of the lessons can also be applied to less wealthy coastal communities throughout Rhode Island and other states.

History Above Water Newport Process
A page from the process. Source: Union Studio Architecture & Community Design.

A significant portion of this study revolves around the management and treatment of stormwater in the neighborhood. Much of the flooding that plagues Newport results from shortcomings in stormwater infrastructure. This proposal suggests the adoption of integrated, native, landscape-driven “passive” stormwater management as a way to decrease pressure on the existing infrastructure.

The study brought together architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects, historians, and preservationists, along with city staff, a nonprofit preservation organization, citizens, and members of a neighborhood association. Together, they participated in an innovative design and policy charrette to develop strategies dealing with sea level rise and the increasing frequency of storm events.

History Above Water Newport Process
Design process. Source: Union Studio Architecture & Community Design.

“Thousands of Rhode Island’s historic resources are at risk from increased flooding and sea level rise,” notes Edward Sanderson, executive director of Rhode Island’s Preservation and Heritage Commission. “Keeping History Above Water: Planning for Sea Level Rise in Newport’s Historic Point Neighborhood has helped our State’s Preservation & Heritage Commission and affected communities better understand the problem and evaluate potential solutions.”

Top photo: Planning for the years ahead section of the plan. Source: Union Studio Architecture & Community Design.

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