2017-07-20 / Around Town

RISD Students Imagine Sea-Level Rise

By Brooke Constance White


The Projecting Change exhibit is an RISD student project examining possible solutions to sea levels rising due to global warming. The exhibit is currently on display at the Emmanuel Day School in the Emmanuel Church through Aug. 28. (Photo by Joseph T. O’Connor) The Projecting Change exhibit is an RISD student project examining possible solutions to sea levels rising due to global warming. The exhibit is currently on display at the Emmanuel Day School in the Emmanuel Church through Aug. 28. (Photo by Joseph T. O’Connor) Sea levels are rising, whether we like it or not. So, Liliane Wong, head of the Interior Architecture department at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), decided to adapt a class around the issue and use virtual reality to visualize what the future could look like for a coastal community such as Newport.

The project, which was funded by the Newport Restoration Foundation and van Beuren Charitable Foundation, was organized by students in the school’s Master of Art in Adaptive Reuse Program.

“The van Beurens have been interested in bringing historic change to Newport and it has been all about embracing change where no one really wants change,” Wong said. “Our whole idea behind this was to ignite a gigantic dialogue about climate change.”

When writing the grant to help fund the project, Wong said she had the Pokemon Go craze in the back of her mind and was hoping the class could use the same augmented reality to start a conversation about rising sea levels. Pokemon Go superimposes an image onto a user’s view of the real world, providing a composite view.

A property at 74 Bridge St., owned by the Newport Restoration foundation, was used as a case study. It sits at one of the city’s lowest points and has been subject to flooding over the years. Some houses in the neighborhood have been raised, while others are at their original street grade level. Based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s predictions, sea levels could rise one foot by 2035, Wong said.

“Our idea was to figure out different scenarios for what this historic community could look like in 75 to 100 years based on NOAA’s data,” she said. “The 16 students went around to the neighborhood and talked to residents. Most people said that they didn’t think sea-level rise would happen in their lifetime, so they saw no need to think about it.”

The students came up with four augmented reality schematics looking at possible futures for the neighborhood. Some are realistic, while others are more “out there,” Wong said. One possibility would allow the water in, while raising the properties, making Bridge Street into a kind of Venice-like neighborhood.

Another concept has property cast with concrete. As the water rises, more cement is added higher and higher to all but window panels, which would be replaced with acrylic glass to allow in natural light. Another possibility suggests that the 18th-century homes on Bridge Street could be stacked into a tall super-structure that could survive years of rising sea levels.

When the students shared their projects during a presentation in the late spring at the 74 Bridge St. property, each attendee was given a virtual reality viewer, called “Google Cardboard,” to use with their phone to experience the schemes through augmented reality.

“I think the main objective of our studio this year was just to talk about sea-level rise as groups and realize it’s not as distant as one might think, and that dealing with it requires a collaborative effort,” Wong said. “We got people talking about it, which means it was a success.”

Rev. Dr. Anita Louise Schell of Emmanuel Church said she wanted the Projecting Change exhibit at the church because they are deeply committed to sustainability and climate change, and have been holding monthly programs educating parishioners and the community about various topics.

“As Emmanuel is a leader in the city and state in addressing climate change, and partnering with other organizations to do so, we wanted to share this project with as wide a community as possible,” she said. “As our Emmanuel Day School is closed in the summer, we offered the school space for the showing. We asked Dr. Wong if we could have the exhibit moved to Emmanuel for the summer months. People are really enjoying it and learning a lot.”

Newport Restoration Foundation Interim Executive Director Wendy Nicholas said they were thrilled to be a part of the project because it goes along with their mission and will hopefully spur residents to start thinking about the issue of rising sea levels and how it will affect a seaside community like Newport.

“We really need to work together to find solutions so Newport doesn’t lose character and charm and the sense of place that makes it such an extraordinary community,” she said. “There’s nearly 1,000 historic properties and 500 businesses in the flood zone, so there’s a lot of land and a huge chunk of the city’s tax base at risk. We cannot put our heads in the sand about this. We have to do something, and this is a great way to the conversation started.”

The project is now on display at Emmanuel Church through Aug. 28 and is available to be viewed on Monday and Thursday from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

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