What Venice can teach American cities

Source(s)
Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company

By James H.S. McGregor

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[...] U.S. cities rely on landform restoration. The reason for this is simple: In their natural state, coastal wetlands, dunes, and beaches limit the damage that torrential rain and storm surges cause. Island barriers block high waves; wetlands sequester stormwater. America’s coasts, however, are among the most damaged ecosystems in the nation. Natural erosion and subsidence, combined with coastal development, pollution, deforestation, energy production, and recreational abuse, are key factors identified by the noaa as coastal stressors. These conditions hamstring coastal environments’ natural ability to counter flooding. Restoring natural features recovers and enhances their role as storage basins and defensive barriers.

Restoration projects in the Venetian barrier islands prove that the theory underlying U.S. coastal-remediation plans is sound. Seawalls take the full thrust of tidal surges—they are sure to be overwhelmed or undermined in time. But the long slopes of restored beaches absorb the impact more gradually. Replanted grasses, trees, and shrubs secure restored dunes, binding them together so that storm surges cannot beat down or break through them.

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In a just-released study called “Coastal Resilience Solutions for South Boston,” planners laid out a multifaceted program that parallels interventions projected in Venice. The South Boston plan also includes the development of open spaces, dunes, and a “living shoreline” that promise social benefits in addition to flood control. The Boston plan emphasizes public recreation and urban amenity rather than habitat restoration, but experience in the lagoon suggests that wildlife and water quality will be positively impacted as well.

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From the start, work in Venice suffered from jurisdictional infighting. The complexities of creating an entity that was adequate to oversee multiple projects confounded politicians. Work commenced only after a region-wide authority was formed. A similar problem persists in the United States. Individual states have the primary responsibility to address climate adaptation under the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. When a natural area occurs at state boundaries, as in the Chesapeake Bay, for example, interstate coordination becomes essential. Even projects confined to a single state face jurisdictional conflicts. Municipal, county, and state governments have to work together to combat coastal flooding effectively, and different constituencies have contrasting views and agendas.

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