Americans love the coast. We live there. We vacation there. Coastal areas generate substantial economic activity. But building on the coast is risky—storms and sea level rise threaten coastal development. Is there a model of development that allows us to enjoy all the ocean has to offer and yet reduces the risks from these hazards?
Given the amenities of our country’s shorelines, it is perhaps not surprising that almost 40% of the US population lives in coastal counties that cover less than 10% of US land area. Even more people visit for vacations. Population increases are projected for almost all ocean coastal counties, with Florida one of the hotspots for growth. The 2010 Census data shows that Florida again has one of the highest population growth rates in the country, following a decline due to the housing crisis.
But living and working on the coast is not all sunshine and sandcastles. Recent events have demonstrated the destruction that can result when a community is in the path of a hurricane. While storms have long been a risk to coastal residents, as we have increased the development along our shorelines, damages from these events has correspondingly increased. Climate scientists are more and more concerned that the intensity of these events is increasing as ocean temperatures warm, although there is still some uncertainty. Coastal areas have also always had to deal with coastal dynamics that change the shape of shorelines. Going forward, though, sea level rise will accelerate as the planet warms, a serious threat for many low-lying coastal areas.
In light of these risks, we will probably retreat from some coastal areas, whether in a catastrophic post-storm abandonment or in a planned anticipatory way. In other locations, the economic benefits to being near the shore will far outweigh the risks and we will invest in costly measures to maintain our beaches as long as we can or similarly costly structural measures, such as sea walls, to save our buildings but lose our beach.
But is there a middle way? Can we find a model of coastal development that minimizes storm surge risk from hurricanes, mutes the most immediate and most likely impacts of sea-level rise, and yet continues to offer high levels of amenities and preserve economic value?
The answer, I think, is potentially yes—at least for some locations. I’d like to introduce Pelican Bay, Florida as a potential model of such “climate ready development.”
Pelican Bay is located in Naples, Florida on the Gulf Coast. The community has a quite distinct model of development compared to surrounding areas. High rise condo buildings sit behind a mangrove forest that runs for several miles along the coast. The forest is perhaps (by my rough estimate) between 0.5 and 1 mile deep. Right in front of the development stretches “the berm,” a path for walking, jogging, and bicycling. You can’t go very far along the berm without seeing an alligator or one of the many species of birds, such as egrets and herons. At two spots, a boardwalk intersects the berm and proceeds out to the ocean. Walking along the boardwalk, one strolls through forests of White, Black, and Red mangroves, and all the wildlife they contain.
On a recent visit, we marveled at a small owl making its home in a hollow tree right off the boardwalk. At the end of the boardwalk is the beach. There is a restaurant at each location, bathrooms, beach chairs, and other amenities. Exercise classes and coffee are offered in the morning. One can have dinner and sip drinks at a bar in the evening. The one issue? What about people who do not want to walk or cannot walk the distance from their condo to the sand? Solar/electric trams run continuously along the berm and boardwalk to the beach. Simply walk out the door of your building to the berm and hop on the next one that comes along. You will be taken quickly to the beach. The driver will also let you stop to look at alligators.
This model of coastal development has many advantages. First, the mangroves can act like a natural buffer for storm surge, providing protection for the development from hurricanes. The only structures on the beach are the open-air restaurant areas and, from non-expert observation, they appear to be fairly simple and inexpensive to rebuild should they be damaged from a storm. The mangroves provide other benefits, as well, such as habitat for a wide range of species, recreational opportunities ranging from birding to biking to kayaking, and carbon sequestration. The benefits of easy coastal access are preserved with the tram system, which, being solar powered, minimizes the carbon footprint. The value of the development is likely enhanced by combining beach access with access to natural areas.
For near-term rates of sea level rise, migration of the beach inland will be possible. For higher levels, of course, the mangroves will be swallowed. NOAA has an online sea level rise viewer that shows various levels of sea level rise along coastal areas. Zooming in on Pelican Bay shows that the mangroves protect the development from up to a couple meters of sea level rise. The biggest question along the entire US coast is how to allow migration of natural systems that are squeezed between the rising sea and development. For extreme rates of rise, even a half mile of wetlands cannot survive in low-lying areas.
Interestingly, even though Pelican Bay appears to have been designed with climate change in mind, it was not. Pelican Bay was created by Westinghouse. The company purchased over 2,330 acres many decades ago. Working with local environmental officials, in the early 1970s Westinghouse decided to protect much of the mangroves and concentrate development at their edge, in part due to new environmental regulations. Residents of Pelican Bay pay dues to the Pelican Bay Foundation and the Pelican Bay Services Division. These dues provide the funds to support the public areas on the beach, two tennis facilities, a fitness center, the trams, lighting, beautification, and maintenance activities. While access at the two beachfront areas is restricted to residents and guests, there are public access points at the north and south ends.
Of course, as with management of all coupled human-environment systems, this one is not without challenges. Restoration efforts for the mangroves have been needed, such as flushing the mangrove forest to prevent die-off. Efforts to control mosquitoes in the most environmentally sensitive way have been pursed.
Still, this appears to be a model for climate-ready coastal development and one that could potentially be replicated more broadly.
Please share your comments on this model or others you know of in the section below…