Abandon or Embrace: Sea Level Rise and Coastal Populations

sea level

By now both sides of the story are painfully clear: 1) we are responsible, 2.) the planet is responsible. And then there are the skeptics. Either way sea level rise has been getting a lot of attention lately. However, it seems this polemic argument is very near-sighted. One side trying to raise awareness, the other trying calm the alarm. Each focused on proving a point, which takes time away from the heavy lead times involved in making actionable decisions. Let’s presume for the sake of this post that sea level rise is a fact. Let’s also take the worst case scenario that in the next 100 years due to rapid glacial melt and antarctic dissolution, that we can expect to see up to 4 feet of rise. This calls into question the very identity of coastal populations, 15 of which happen to be the largest cities on the planet (NYC, Cairo, Tokyo, Sao Paulo to name a few). Some of these major cities have already been confronted with the decision to abandon or protect their territories and have begun to enter into a new relationship with the sea.   While this argumentative chatter can and has filled volumes, there are some designers and politicians dedicated to applying physical solutions to what is a very existential threat.

It becomes overwhelming very quickly when considering our personal options in this giant ecological shift. And while it is the function of larger, more established nations to act as mentors by providing meaningful solutions to global crises, we as individuals are not completely bereft of choices. Of course there are choices regarding individual carbon footprints, but this is like voting: your vote doesn’t count, even though it does. We feel unable to contribute to larger, heroic actions thereby feeling helpless as we sit and watch our cities descend into the sea. This tone is a bit exaggerated now, but it soon won’t be.  As architects and designers, we are able to engage in this conversation with a unique skill set. Not only as builders but as strategists. An interesting and very local solution to such a global crisis can come in the form of housing.  If one is to be so bold and disconnected, one has the option of living on the sea, not by it. Not so much on boats, rather, in the form of floating houses. This is already happening in the Netherlands and Britain and will soon be a very plausible solution for many coastal communities confronted with a shifting sea edge. Here is a great article in the Guardian entitled “Britain’s homes in race against climate change

Floating houses in Ijburg, Amsterdam built to combat sea level rise.

In 2012 I was fortunate enough to travel to the Netherlands on a fellowship in order to research rising sea levels and the civil works engineered to help cities cope with their changing relationship with the sea. If you are interested, here is a link to the work entitled “Atlas of Civil Works: Sea Level Rise and Flood Control in The Netherlands from 1926-1997


What do you think? Are we responsible for sea level rise? What can we as individual do about it? Do you feel as though the ability to change is out of our control and should rest with governmental agencies and federal action? Please comment below. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.



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