Storm front: Yale center helps Bridgeport plan for climate threats

Yale’s Urban Design Workshop is working within the community to reduce flood risk in Bridgeport’s South End and build the area’s resilience to climate threats.

On Oct. 29, 2012, a storm surge from Hurricane Sandy swamped the South End of Bridgeport, Connecticut, inundating the city’s low-lying neighborhoods. Just one year earlier, Tropical Storm Irene flooded the same area, damaging homes, businesses, and public spaces.

And in the face of a changing climate, the coastal city can expect to get battered by such extreme weather events frequently in the coming decades. 

Satellite photo of Bridgeport coastline
Development on coastal wetlands has made Bridgeport more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels. As part of the Resilient Bridgeport project, the Yale Urban Design Workshop has helped develop a comprehensive strategy to guide the city in preventing flooding and adapting to climate change. (Image courtesy of Waggonner & Ball)

Today, two projects aim to reduce flood risk in the South End and strengthen the area’s resilience to these climate threats. One features the creation of a stormwater park on the South End’s westside that will slow runoff, improve drainage, and provide an attractive public park. In the other, a surge barrier will be built along the eastside that will be incorporated into the streetscape and, in places, provide new greenspace.

The Yale Urban Design Workshop (YUDW), a community design center affiliated with the Yale School of Architecture, is involved in both projects.

The YUDW is part of a multi-disciplinary team of architects, engineers, urban planners, and landscape designers collaborating on Resilient Bridgeport, a state-led effort to protect the city’s vulnerable neighborhoods from chronic flooding and promote long-term prosperity, which includes the two pilot projects.  

Resilient Bridgeport establishes a vision for the city that is vibrant, safe and flexible, with new opportunities for development and recreation,” said Andrei Harwell, YUDW’s director of design and its project manager for Resilient Bridgeport. “At its heart, it’s an attempt to create an innovate framework to help the city meet the challenges of climate change and rising sea levels while enhancing neighborhoods and community life.”

In Sandy’s aftermath, the YUDW joined a host of partners in helping Connecticut secure $10 million from the federal Rebuild by Design (RBD) competition, a program that promoted innovative solutions to the consequences of climate change in states hit by the powerful storm. After the funding was received, the Resilient Bridgeport team — including New Orleans-based Waggonner & Ball Architecture/Environment and the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis — was assembled. The funding paid for the creation of a resiliency strategic plan and the pilot project featuring the stormwater park.   

Partly on the strength of the ideas presented in the plan, the state received an additional $56 million from the federal National Disaster Resilience Competition. (That competition was similar to the RBD, but broadened to include all 50 states.) “It was the top-rated application nationally,” Harwell said. 

This additional money is funding the barrier project, which is the larger and more ambitious of the two pilot projects. 

Resilient Bridgeport team meeting with stakeholders in the South End about project designs in July 2016.
Community engagement is a hallmark of the Yale Urban Design Workshop’s approach to solving infrastructure problems in a manner that enhances quality of life for local stakeholders. This photo shows the Resilient Bridgeport team meeting with stakeholders in the South End about project designs in July 2016. (Image courtesy of Waggonner & Ball)

The YUDW, which was founded in 1992 and includes School of Architecture faculty, postdoctoral associates, and student fellows, serves as urban design consultants and helps promote engagement between Bridgeport stakeholders and the Resilient Bridgeport team.

The YUDW team brings a couple of attributes to the table that you don’t get from a typical consultancy,” said David Kooris, who managed the project for the state while serving as director of resilience for the Department of Housing. “They bring innovative and unconstrained thinking to design challenges and throw new ideas into the mix. 

They research best practices across the globe and have their finger on the pulse of cutting-edge ideas in a way a typical consultant might not.”

It’s not just about preventing flooding

The Yale workshop team also has demonstrated a strong commitment to engaging with the affected communities, said Kooris, who lectures at the Yale School of the Environment. “They’re able to engage the community in a meaningful and impactful way because of the trust that they engender from neighborhood stakeholders,” he said. 

That kind of engagement is a signature of the YUDW, said Alan Plattus, professor of architecture and the workshop’s founding director. 

We approach design as a form of community organizing, bringing together often underserved communities around opportunities to build something useful that improves their lives,” said Plattus, who initiated the YUDW’s involvement in Resilient Bridgeport. “If there is anything innovative about our approach, it’s not only the community engagement, but also the recognition that the measures you design will be different in different circumstances depending on the challenges and the opportunities.” 

The focus on flexibility and community input is evident in the two projects, which are intended to improve quality of life in the South End beyond simply preventing flooding. 

The barrier project will construct a berm that wraps around the eastside, including the University of Bridgeport’s campus, and connect to Seaside Park, a crescent-shaped waterfront park designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.   

Imagine trying to weave this wall through this neighborhood,” Harwell said. “Lots of problems arise. How do you prevent the neighborhood being cut off from the waterfront and people being cut off from each other?”

Map of YUDW projects in Bridgeport’s south end.
The YUDW is involved in two pilot projects in Bridgeport’s South End: The one to the left includes construction of a storm water park that will slow and drain surface runoff during heavy rains and function as a neighborhood park. The project to the right will create a berm intended to prevent flooding from storm surge. (Courtesy of YUDW)

The design team solved these problems by rendering the barrier as a linear park, placing public greenspace atop the wall to create a new landscape. The barrier will become an extension of Seaside Park and serve as a pedestrian quad for the university, Harwell explained.

Drainage systems will be installed to move stormwater over the surge barrier and empty it into Long Island Sound through Seaside Park, diverting it from the city’s combined stormwater and sewage system.  

The stormwater park will be located adjacent to the former site of Marina Village, a public housing complex that was plagued by flooding. A separate construction project is replacing Marina Village with a mixed-income housing development. The runoff from the new complex and surrounding streets will flow into the park where it will be collected before being pumped into Long Island Sound, keeping it out of the sewer system. When it’s not raining, the space will function as a city park with places for children to play and spaces for family barbecues. 

One of our goals at the YUDW is to ensure that any investment in infrastructure, such as the surge barrier and stormwater park, produces multiple benefits for the neighborhood through its design,” said Harwell. “We can’t afford to build expensive infrastructure that does only one thing.” 

The projects don’t seek to hide infrastructure, but to make it visible in a way that makes its utility apparent both in mitigating flood risk and providing new green space, Plattus pointed out.  

We try to use design to take those big infrastructure projects down to a level where the community can see a tangible benefit from them and don’t feel like they’re getting bulldozed,” he said. 

Environmental reviews for the projects have been completed and construction on both should begin soon. While they represent just two of the many solutions presented in the Resilient Bridgeport strategic plan, they provide an example for other coastal cities in New England for developing systems to address flooding and climate change-related issues that accounts for the community and surrounding ecology, Harwell said.

Resilient Bridgeport has also provided student fellows with rich opportunities to work with an internationally recognized design team — and to address systemic problems exacerbated by climate change. 

For me, the most challenging aspect of the Resilient Bridgeport Project was incorporating all the various constraints of the project into a clear design concept; preserving the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Seaside Park, and incorporating the northeast rail corridor, while proposing new interventions that would not only protect the South End but also improve the urban environment and provide well-designed public spaces,” said Jared Abraham ’16 M. Arch, who was a postgraduate fellow at the YUDW from May 2016 to August 2018.

The experience opened his eyes to the importance of listening to local stakeholders, he said.

Because of the scale of the proposed intervention, it was necessary that we engage local residents and businesses to ensure that our design proposal would be a real asset to the community,” said Abraham, currently a design associate at Wendell Burnette Architects in Phoenix.


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