On Connecticut Shoreline, Yale Team Helps Communities Face New Realities

Work done by several F&ES students and faculty members is helping communities along the Connecticut coastline prepare for the threats of climate change.

By Kevin Dennehy

urban ecology lab
In Morris Cove, a beachfront neighborhood on New Haven’s east shore, property owners will face some difficult choices. The neighborhood, developed on a former tidal marshland in the early 20th century, is located in a coastal flooding zone that will only become more vulnerable as sea levels rise.
Looking around the neighborhood earlier this year, Tamara Thomas ’16 M.E.M. observed some of the warning signs: stretches of sand that have been receding for years, makeshift walls built to hold back the waters, and low-lying basements that flood over and over.
“Now, they’re trying to decide what to do,” Thomas said earlier this summer. “Should they continue with sea walls or raise their houses? Or should they explore other options?”

City in Hot Water? Students Help
New Haven Confront Climate Threats

airport marshland
A recent F&amp;ES course was structured to not only support student learning but also to help the city of New Haven plan for future impacts of climate change. <a href="https://environment.yale.edu/news/article/city-in-hot-water-yale-students-help-new-haven-confront-climate-threats">Read more</a>
Thomas is one of several students from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) helping New Haven and seven other communities on the Connecticut shoreline prepare for the threats of climate change. The Yale group, led by Prof. Alexander Felson and the joint F&ES- and School of Architecture-based Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory, is examining the specific threats faced by each community and proposing different strategies to deal with them.
The consulting role, being done in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, will support the U.S. Department of Interior-funded Regional Framework for Coastal Resilience in Southern Connecticut. Other partners in that initiative include the South Central Regional Council of Governments and the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council.
The project was inspired in part by work done in Guilford, Conn., where Felson and Timothy Terway, a doctoral candidate at F&ES, worked with local planners and engineers to develop the town’s Coastal Resilience Plan in 2014. It was the first of its kind in the state. Felson envisions the project as an opportunity to create teaching opportunities around “real world” projects and to better integrate design, research and management as Connecticut municipalities respond to the challenges of climate change. 
“The Guilford resiliency plan really set the bar for other coastal communities, and it included the UED Lab’s vision for incorporating social ecological research as a part of the planning process,” Felson said. “And that really illustrates the kind of relationship between government and academia that I’m hoping for.”
In addition to New Haven, other municipalities receiving feedback include Fairfield, Bridgeport, Stratford, West Haven, East Haven, Branford and Madison. The plans will ultimately help inform the statewide resilience/adaptation plan.
The challenges differ from community to community, as do the resources to address them. In some cases, municipal leaders had envisioned costly — and environmentally damaging — solutions, such as building dikes or sea walls along the coastal edge. But the Yale team has advised more nuanced strategies that help communities adapt incrementally.
A lot of cities are still afraid to take these steps. But once they become more streamlined... I think it will be easier for towns in the Northeast to integrate these solutions.
— Katelyn Liesner ’16 M.E.M.
While these approaches might not prevent significant home damage during major events, they will prioritize accessibility and dry egress and encourage smarter growth principles in the future. They also reduce the impact of the human development on floodplains, river channels, and other coastal ecosystems.
In some cases, community leaders might even consider more innovative strategies in urban design, such as a proposal to connect newly raised homes on the Fairfield waterfront with a network of boardwalks that improve access to the coast — and to the homes.
In Morris Cove, current efforts to control coastal damage mostly entail “hard” infrastructure, such as sea walls. The Yale team offered alternative solutions, including “hybrid neighborhoods” that utilize green infrastructure and raised parking platforms for long term access while avoiding the need for raised roads. Such phased practices, members say, would promote the resurgence of the historical wetlands and make the area more resilient to future climate conditions.
“A lot of cities are still afraid to take these steps,” said Katelyn Liesner ’16 M.E.M. “But once they becomes more streamlined in the future you'll see the benefits, and I think it will be easier for towns in the Northeast to integrate these solutions.”