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Land and Sea

Land and Sea

Landscape Architecture students work across disciplines to find sustainable solutions to problems associated with Rhode Island’s coastline.

Associate Professor Scheri Fultineer, head of Landscape Architecture, has been something of a public ambassador this fall, spreading the word about student projects that benefit Providence, the state of Rhode Island and the larger world. Her cross-disciplinary, cross-collegiate Oystertecture project, for instance, is aimed at restoring the state’s coastline by creating sculptural habitats where once-plentiful shellfish species can again take hold. It’s a fine example of how Landscape Architecture students reach beyond the studio to solve complex problems at the intersection of ecology, society and public policy.

The project got off the ground in 2012 thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and a grant from the RI Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC). In an update presented at a STAC meeting in late October, Fultineer and project partner Marta Gomez-Chiarri of the University of Rhode Island explained that students from RISD, URI, Rhode Island College and Roger Williams University spent last summer monitoring water quality in local waterways and testing sculptural forms and materials at Roger Williams University.

The forms—built of concrete embedded with shell, calcium carbonate, tile and rope—help to mitigate the impact of waves on salt marshes, thereby stabilizing the coastal edge. The hope is to eventually place them at a public coastal site in order to engage the community, provide fodder for hands-on K-12 science classes and perhaps inspire a team of citizen monitors to keep the project going over time.

“Rising sea levels, changing storm patterns and ecosystem degradation bring challenges to urban coastal regions that test disciplinary boundaries between the professions traditionally charged with planning and designing our built environments,” Fultineer noted in the keynote address she gave last month at a Southern New England American Planning Association conference. “Rhode Island provides wonderful opportunities for RISD’s Landscape Architecture students to connect with practitioners from a wide range of disciplines: planners, engineers, architects, biologists.”

Fultineer went on to point out that RISD students “are in a unique position to engage and educate the public by creating visualizations of complex, scientific ideas.” For example, although the oyster population in Rhode Island has been devastated by water pollution, overfishing and storm runoff, these tiny sea creatures improve water quality by filtering approximately two gallons of seawater each per hour. An educational poster created by former RISD student Tyler Kiggins MLA 13 puts that otherwise forgettable fact into focus with a visual analogy showing 62 bathtubs, which contain the equivalent volume of water a human-sized creature would be able to filter in an hour. “Not only do oysters play a big role in improving water quality,” Fultineer notes, “but they’re also an important economic resource for the state.”

In another high-profile project with a clear impact on Rhode Island, Landscape Architecture students are proposing plans for the ecologically sustainable redevelopment of Warwick’s Rocky Point. Once home to an historic amusement park, the 120-acre site adjacent to Narragansett Bay has been derelict for decades and was purchased several years ago by a partnership that includes the Rocky Point Foundation, the state of Rhode Island and the city of Warwick. Fultineer and her students have been studying the coastal land parcel and making recommendations about how best to re-envision the site so that it becomes a safe place for human recreation as well as a much-needed habitat for a wide variety of animal species.

“Landscape Architecture in Rhode Island is about the water as much as it is about the land,” says Fultineer. “Our program has always been about where culture meets ecology, and at the moment that’s happening at the coast.”

Simone Solondz

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