Pure Genius

World's largest naval town makes the case for 'living shorelines'

World's largest naval town makes the case for 'living shorelines'

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Much of Norfolk's waterfront is controlled by the Navy or private industry, but some homeowners hold land on rivers and creeks. For the sake of water quality, the city is trying to steer them away from shorelines that are traditional, Southern and manicured.

Much of Norfolk’s waterfront is controlled by the Navy or private industry, but some homeowners hold land on rivers and creeks. For the sake of water quality, the city is trying to steer them away from shorelines that are traditional, Southern and manicured.

Last week, I spoke with Norfolk Director of Planning and Community Development Frank Duke, who explained how his city—the hub of the Hampton Roads area—balances sustainability and redevelopment with a giant resident: the largest naval base in the world.

What are some of the unique issues associated with being a Navy town?

We’re home of the largest naval installation in the world. We also have NATO’s Eastern Hemisphere command here. We have to—and we have--developed a very close working relationship with the Navy. We have a bimonthly meeting with representatives of the Navy to discuss land use and how that would effect Naval operations. It’s largely an issue of coordination.

How big is the base, compared to Norfolk?

The naval base is almost one-fifth of the city area. The challenge is how do we continue to grow and redevelop while understanding that what we do has an impact on the Navy. Since I got here (three years ago) we’ve pulled together a group of stakeholders--activists, academics, truck drivers, residents--to look at congestion along one corridor in the city. Everyone said at first, the problem is the Navy, the problem is the port, the problem is Old Dominion University… As we talked, we realized the problem wasn't any one, but all of them. So a panel was created to meet for one year, but they’ve been meeting for three years because they realize the importance of coordinating.

They have looked at things like shuttle systems to try to minimize the number of cars on the road, and we have restricted the hours that big trucks can use the corridor during rush hours.

Is there a divide between the naval base and the city?

Less so than in the past. But admittedly not everything goes smoothly. There’s a ballpark that runs under the flight route on Navy property. It’s Little League, it’s been there for close to 20 years, and it’s never been an issue. But the Navy recently changed their flight patterns and has told us we can’t continue play there after the contract expires. So we’ve been scrambling to find a new place for them to play.

You are surrounded by water on three sides. Tell me about some of the challenges with transportation.

The state of Virginia’s major port is here. It’s one of the largest East Coast ports and the largest port on the East Coast out of which coal is shipped. So we’re dealing with an extensive amount of rail traffic as well as cars that are being moved through the city. What complicates that issue is that we’re completely landlocked. We’ve been a city since 1682, completely surrounded on three sides by water and the fourth side by other cities.

To get out of Norfolk you have to go over a bridge or through a tunnel. Most bodies of water here are crossed by tunnel as opposed to by bridge. You can’t build bridges high enough to allow aircraft carriers to go under them unless you have huge approaches that would destroy the character of the city. That creates a challenge for us, especially in emergency evacuations, because tunnels flood.

Has the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel flooded?

No. They close pretty early with a storm. We’ve had water in the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. We had the Midtown Tunnel flood during Hurricane Isabel. You have to close tunnels early, which means your evacuation process is difficult. Our population is 237, 000, but with the other Hampton Roads cities, the area is well over 1 million.

Is flooding becoming a bigger problem?

We are one of the lowest cities in the US. New Orleans is lower than we are, but that’s about it. We are also one of the cities experiencing the greatest sea level rise. A part of the issue for Norfolk is the result of so much of our city being built on fill. Reclaimed land created as a result of fill tends to have a greater rate of subsidence than other lands. The result is that we’re becoming increasingly susceptible to tidal floods.

What are you doing to manage the flooding?

We’re very active in the flood insurance program. We’re doing a study to look at ways we can mitigate the impact of flooding, because we’re not going to stop it. We require additional freeboard—one foot above the floor level—on houses. We’re working to improve evacuation routes.

We are also looking at a redevelopment plan for one of the largest public housing projects, Tidewater Gardens. It was developed in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s and is highly susceptible to flooding. We’re looking into creating a mixed-income community and taking lower areas and providing additional flood storage capacity to reduce tidal flooding.

How are you working to reduce pollution?

I think air quality is an issue in every city because of cars, and that’s one of the reasons we’re trying to encourage the new public transportation systems. The NET—Norfolk Electric Transit--is a free bus system through downtown, funded through fees at parking garages.

We are the smallest city in the country to get federal funding for light rail, which will run from Eastern Virginia Medical School to the eastern city limits of Norfolk. Construction is now complete, and it’s scheduled to begin operating in the spring.

Water quality is probably our single biggest issue here. We’re working with the environmental groups that are working to clean up the Elizabeth River that runs along Norfolk’s southern and western boundaries. And we’re trying to improve access to the water because frankly, if people can’t see and touch it, they don’t appreciate it.

We have very limited areas of the waterfront that aren’t privately held for industrial purposes--marine industries, seafood processing, ship building and repair.

With so much waterfront privately owned, how do you make changes?

We are working with citizens and advocacy groups. We have a number of creeks and rivers where we have residential homes, and we are encouraging people to get into the concept of a living shoreline.

How do you explain that concept to people not familiar with it?

You show it to them. People have to be able to see this. I’ll admit there’s a lot of people in Norfolk who would prefer to have a hard shoreline—a manicured lawn going up to the shoreline. A living shoreline is more wetland vegetation, and you lose that manicured lawn, but we are finding an increased number of citizens who are finding that it’s attractive, especially when you have pedestrian passages adjacent to the wetland area. It’s very non-traditional, especially in the urban south, but it is working. Water quality is moving in the right direction.

You’re also building bike trails?

It’s something as a city we've never done in the past, but over the past seven to eight years we’ve been working to provide a multi-use trail along the Elizabeth River that would connect downtown to Old Dominion University.

When you’re dealing with a city that’s more than 300 years old and laid out when biking wasn’t a factor, it’s hard. When you look at our 1992 plan, it says biking will never be a significant factor in our plan. Well, we have to make it one. In 2009 we created a new plan for downtown, which includes a multimodal connection, including biking. It also calls for the provision of bike racks, which were approved this week.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure