Keeping History Above Water in Annapolis

By Special Contributor posted 11-29-2017 17:31


By Carlo Urmy 

The second Keeping History Above Water conference—held October 29 through November 1 in Annapolis, Maryland—again brought attendees from around the world together to discuss the impact of sea level rise on historic coastal communities. The first conference, organized by the Newport Restoration Foundation in 2016, sought to raise awareness of how sea level rise impacts historic buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods—and highlight what can be done to protect those resources. The conference in Annapolis continued that conversation, with a series of lectures, workshops, roundtables, and tours.


Flooding at the Annapolis City Dock during a king tide. | Credit: Photo by Amy McGovern, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Planning for Rising Water 

Hazard planning was a major theme at the 2017 conference, and multiple speakers described community efforts to evaluate the threats that flooding and sea level rise pose to their historic buildings and neighborhoods. This often begins with overlaying a map of historic resources onto a map of the local floodplain to see which resources are most at risk. This evaluation is the first step toward including historic resources in community hazard mitigation plans, which can help coordinate emergency responses and unlock funding in the wake of natural disasters.

The city of Annapolis has been a leader in this arena. Since 2013 the city planning office has been working on a Cultural Resource Hazard Adaptation and Mitigation Plan. Using guidelines issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), this plan will identify cultural resources within the 100-year floodplain and assess not only their historic significance but also what FEMA calls their “community value.” Measuring community value involves looking beyond architectural significance to evaluate public sentiment about historic resources through public meetings, surveys, and digital outreach. 

Public outreach can help determine what to prioritize when planning for climate change, but it can also uncover how a community is already responding to flooding and other hazards. Speaking at the conference, Emily Paulus Everett, an architectural historian with AECOM, described her work on Philadelphia’s Disaster Planning for Historic Properties Initiative. While surveying historic buildings in the field, Everett was surprised by how many residents and property managers wanted to share their experiences around flooding. Many of them welcomed the survey team inside to see evidence of past floods and discuss their responses. According to Everett, this unexpected public input ended up playing an important role in the team’s evaluation effort. 

Protection and Adaptation 

Elevating buildings is one of the most widely discussed strategies for protecting them against flooding and sea level rise, and a number of speakers examined the impact of raising buildings on neighborhood character. Since permanent elevation can affect the integrity of historic structures, some speakers presented methods for temporary elevation. Ashley Wilson, Graham Gund Architect at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Jenna Bresler, a senior engineer at Robert Silman Associates, spoke about the National Trust's plans to protect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, which is threatened by flooding from the adjacent Fox River. After examining multiple options over several years, the organization has recommended, and is developing the design to introduce, a system of hydraulic lifts that will be hidden under the house. During a flood event, the system can lift the house above water. Later, Elizabeth English of the Buoyant Foundation Project presented her work with “amphibious architecture,” which is designed to float a building or structure off its foundation during a flood and then lower it back into place when the water recedes.


The Fairmount Water Works uses evidence of past floods as part of its interpretive program. | Credit: Photo by Jason Paris, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Other speakers described how historic buildings can “live with water” while mitigating the adverse impacts from flooding. Samantha Kuntz, a preservation planner with AECOM, used the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia as an example. First opened in 1815 as the city’s main supply of clean water, the Water Works now houses exhibits about urban water issues and engineering history. Subject to frequent flooding, exhibits and furniture are all designed to be moveable and water resistant. Some interior floors have been elevated, allowing the museum to remain open even during floods. Recent rehabilitations have also made use of historic materials that have proven to be resistant to water damage over time. 

Need for Urgent Action 

Throughout the conference, speakers described the dramatic impacts that climate change will bring to communities on coasts, lakes, and rivers. William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summarized the current state of climate change science and a range of potential sea level rise scenarios per the latest the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The impact was driven home vividly by journalist Jeff Goodell, author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Reshaping of the Civilized World and the 2013 Rolling Stone article, “Goodbye Miami.”Goodell urged planners and politicians not to underestimate the scope of climate change or invest in short-term solutions. “A lot of money will be spent in the coming years, and a lot of it will be spent unwisely,” he warned.

A number of speakers from the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts also drove home the urgency of the situation by describing the devastating impacts of recent hurricanes on their communities. Even cities like Charlotte, North Carolina—which was spared the worst impacts from hurricanes Harvey and Irma—are experiencing more frequent tidal flooding, which impacts daily life and threatens historic resources. Despite this reality, political inaction remains the norm in many places. Leslee Keys of Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, spoke about the challenges of planning for sea level rise in a state where the governor has refused to acknowledge its existence and directed public officials not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming.”

In the absence of federal or state leadership, however, others have begun to take up the challenge. Clay Henderson of Stetson College described four counties in South Florida joining together to plan for climate change without support from the state. The creation of “Adaptation Action Areas” in Florida’s 2011 Community Planning Act has created a framework that towns and counties can use to plan for sea level rise, adopting strategies to protect their natural and cultural assets. For better or worse, this decentralized approach has become the new norm. In his closing address to the nearly 300 conference attendees, Adam Markham of the Union of Concerned Scientists lamented recent decisions by the United States to withdraw from UNESCO and the Paris Accord, but also found himself encouraged by action on the local level, where city, county, and tribal governments are leading the way on climate change adaptation. 


Fort Jefferson in Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park is threatened by both sea level rise and severe storms. | Credit: Photo by Erica Frank is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Next Steps

Since 2015’s Pocantico Call to Action, the intersection of cultural heritage and climate change has attracted increasing interest around the world. The COP23 conference in Bonn, Germany, featured multiple events relating to heritage management in the face of climate change. US/ICOMOS has also hosted a Knowledge Exchange on Climate Change and Cultural Heritage to share information and foster international collaboration. After two successful conferences on the subject, the Newport Restoration Foundation intends to continue the Keeping History Above Water program and build on this momentum.

Carlo Urmy is a graduate research fellow studying climate change and cultural heritage with US/ICOMOS and the Newport Restoration Foundation.