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Getting Ahead of Climate Change

Getting Ahead of Climate Change

RISD Architecture students participating in the Envision Resilience Challenge draw up radical plans in response to projected sea-level rise in Warren, RI. 

Professor Anne Tate confers with students

Professor Anne Tate advises Jo Athanasopoulou BArch 23 and Ziyue (Lesley) Su MArch 23 to build up.

RISD Architecture students modeling possible futures in response to sea-level rise in the Narragansett Bay bring something unique to the table: an experimental, hands-on approach that inspires local citizens to view the problem with fresh eyes. “Most people don’t see what isn’t there,” Architecture Professor Anne Tate explains, “but these students do. The projects they’re working on as part of the Envision Resilience Challenge counter public anxiety with visions of possibility.”

Tate points at map of Warren
Approximately 200 historic homes in Warren, RI are expected to be lost to rising seas in the coming years.

Tate’s class is part of a six-university consortium studying rising sea levels throughout the bay and concentrating on the region’s most vulnerable sites. While Landscape Architecture students working with Professor Lili Hermann are focusing on South Providence, these students are aiming their efforts at the quiet, seaside town of Warren, RI, which is expected to lose 200 historic homes to rising seas in the coming years. 

Despite its modest size, the town has developed a $138 million relocation plan for its low-lying Market Street neighborhood that would also rezone and revitalize its now commercial-only Metacom Avenue with the hope of “reimagining the development of an auto-centric commercial zone into a true mixed-use, sustainably redesigned neighborhood.”
student first impressions of site

more student sketches of site
Sketches of the existing site by Xuhan Zhao BArch 24 and Ruyue Qi BArch 24.

Students began by visiting the site and sketching their first impressions and then used a collaging technique to imagine a totally new Metacom Avenue as either a primary or secondary town center. “Metacom is so big that it’s hard to get a sense of scale,” Tate explains. The collages spark new conversations and ideas about how an “up-zoned” neighborhood might serve the community with new housing, green spaces and even a performing arts center.

“These visuals are really impactful and a great way to communicate the issues to homeowners and the community at large.”

Alyssa Lozupone, Newport Restoration Foundation

In early April the students presented their ideas virtually to the larger Envision Resilience Challenge cohort (including teams from Northeastern University, Syracuse University, University of Rhode Island, Roger Williams University and University of Florida), who found their sketches and early proposals compelling and refreshing. “These visuals are really impactful and a great way to communicate the issues to homeowners and the community at large,” noted Alyssa Lozupone, director of preservation at the Newport Restoration Foundation.

building blocks made of hempcrete
Students attended a workshop where they learned to mix hempcrete, a green building material they are incorporating into their plans for Warren, RI.

Architecture faculty member Laura Briggs BArch 82, who is co-teaching the class, shared some early thoughts with the group about using hemp mixed with lime as a building material far less harmful to the environment than concrete and able to withstand periodic flooding. “We’re looking at the problem of urban design at multiple scales and starting with understanding a very old material in new ways,” she says. “Hempcrete is naturally regenerative, insulative, fireproof and carbon-sequestering, which means that projects that incorporate it can achieve net zero energy use and become carbon positive over time.”

“We’re looking at the problem of urban design at multiple scales and starting with understanding a very old material in new ways.”

Architecture faculty member Laura Briggs

Tate adds that the students are considering hemp as a possible Rhode Island industry that could provide much-needed green jobs. “It’s a resilient and fast-growing crop that got caught up in anti-marijuana legislation for decades and is only reemerging now,” she notes.

three students collaborate on mixed-use design plans
Mariesa Travers MArch 23, Ruyue Qi BArch 24 and Xuhan Zhao BArch 24 are collaborating on a design for a mixed-use neighborhood that incorporates a performing arts center.

Tate reviewed student proposals in the Bayard Ewing Building a few days after the encouraging online gathering. “Organize your design around one movement,” she advised one student team. “And remember to leave space for the messy stuff like parking lots and delivery trucks. If your grandmother lived here, where would she drive up with her groceries?”

“Organize your design around one movement and remember to leave space for the messy stuff like parking lots and delivery trucks.”

Professor Anne Tate

She also recommended incorporating outdoor space for each residential unit and advised that students consider building up, at least for commercial spaces. “Try doubling the height of everything on Metacom,” she suggested.

maps and planning strategy by a student
Visions of an “up-zoned” Metacom Avenue by grad student Jiayi Cai MArch 23.

Is Tate worried that the completed proposals with their hempcrete construction and green roofs will be too outlandish, too forward-thinking to be taken seriously by city planners? Not at all. “Our job at RISD is to look out—far ahead—and open space for the community to move forward,” she says. “The goal is to put in place the mechanisms that allow for things to change over time.”
Simone Solondz
Student designs responding to sea-level rise around the Narragansett Bay will be on view at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Centre beginning June 4.

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