Coastal Communities Respond to Climate Change

An online GSAPP discussion centers on daily challenges on Sapelo Island, Georgia; the Shinnecock peninsula in eastern Long Island, New York; and Shishmaref, Alaska.

Shannon Werle
March 25, 2021

On February 26, 2021, Andrew Revkin, director of the Initiative on Communication Innovation and Impact at the Earth Institute, moderated an online discussion about underserved, indigenous coastal communities on the front lines of climate change. The event, cosponsored by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and the Earth Institute, featured local leaders from the Gullah Geechee people of Sapelo Island, Georgia; the Shinnecock Indian Nation of eastern Long Island, New York; and the Alaskan Native Village of Shishmaref, who spoke about the effects of climate change on their daily lives.

Sea level rise, accelerating erosion, saline intrusion, the loss of fisheries and other coastal livelihoods, and repeat flooding present not only economic impacts, but existential threats to the continued existence of these communities and their cultures. The main focus of the conversation was: What is the role of design in reducing harm and building pathways toward economic and ecological resilience?

“Wherever we live, we owe a debt to those who inhabited and managed lands, water, and living resources long before this fast-forward age we’re in now,” said Revkin in his opening remarks. 

Added GSAPP Professor Kate Orff, director of the school’s urban design program: “How can researchers and designers not replicate systems of oppression, and be supporters and partners in each of these communities and places where people are living and thriving?”

Sapelo Island, Georgia: Preserving Culture and Community Through Agriculture

Sapelo Island is home to Hog Hammock, a historic African American Geechee settlement. The Geechee are descendants of enslaved West African people brought to work on plantations. Maurice Bailey, executive director of the nonprofit organization Save Our Legacy Ourself and codirector of the Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture at the University of Georgia, and Josiah “Jazz” Watts, founder of the theater-based Sapelo Project, shared their views, together with Whitney Barr, a UGA graduate student whose research explores the island’s agricultural landscape.  

The Hog Hammock community has been facing a complex web of challenges that includes coastal erosion, encroaching development, rising property taxes, and job scarcity. “We started being systematically pushed out and off the island,” Bailey said. “There were jobs available, but not to community members, because the owners of the island did not employ the people of Sapelo.”

“We’re dealing with issues like a new owner who has put in an application for a recreational dock, but we’re a historic community on the historic registry, so this should not be happening,” said Watts.

Bailey has turned to agriculture—continuing efforts initiated by his late mother, Cornelia Walker Bailey—as a means of both preserving Geechee culture and introducing more opportunities. “This project has become our voice, and now we are turning this voice into a business to preserve the community,” Bailey said. 

Bailey’s work has informed Barr's research, which focuses on design for racial healing. “I’m working to understand what kinds of crops locals would like to grow, and how farming can bring people back to the land in a way that contributes to financial liberation, reparations, and replenishment of the soil that colonialism took away from the island," Barr said.

Shinnecock Island Nation, New York: Finding Solutions for a Shrinking Peninsula

The Shinnecock Indian Nation is located on the East End of Long Island, New York, on a finger of land that is a fraction of the original ancestral homeland. Shavonne Smith, a member and the environmental director of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, said the “shrinking peninsula” results from both sea level rise-induced erosion and development. 

The crisis has forced the community to make painful decisions, such as the possible relocation of a cemetery set along the peninsula’s southeastern coastline, where ponds are increasing in size because of rising water and marsh growth. This increase could potentially cause graves to be pushed above the surface or submerged underwater. “What can we do to curb the growth of some of those ponds?” asked Smith. “If we don’t succeed, we may have to unfortunately move some of our ancestors.”

In addition to the cemetery, 52 shoreline homes face looming climate dangers. “Those houses are on the edge. How do we adapt them, lift them, or move them further into the interior of Shinnecock?” said Smith. The resources necessary to enact such solutions are not currently available to either the homeowners or the tribal government.  

Shishmaref, Alaska: Next Steps for Rapid Coastal Erosion

Shishmaref is located on Sarichef Island, across the Bering Strait from Russia, accessible by boat or plane from mainland Alaska. The Iñupiat community there faces acute and rapidly accelerating changes wrought by climate. The Arctic village lacks trees and hardscape resources to aid erosion prevention and expansion efforts. The alternative—transporting materials by barge—is often cost-prohibitive. Annauk Denise Olin, a member of the Shishmaref Native Village and an MIT linguistics graduate student, and Aunnauruq Twyla Thurmond, a local community coordinator, offered their perspectives. 

“Due to the loss of shoreline ice pack, we’re hunting and gathering earlier than ever before,” said Thurmond. This has led to a greater reliance on imported, processed food, whereas the community formerly relied on local trade to supplement their resources. 

Olin emphasized that indigenous peoples can redesign and rebuild their own communities. “We want to work as equal partners with those who engage in Western science,” she said. Shishmaref has not yet received federal funding for a long-term solution. The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not qualify erosion as a natural hazard eligible for funding because, by definition, it’s a gradual process.

“But we’re not seeing gradual erosion in Alaska,” said Olin. “What’s happening here is much more catastrophic, and it’s only one piece of the problem. Waves batter our villages, massive coastal flooding penetrates the soil that holds the permafrost, and the combination results in destabilization.” 

Shannon Werle is the digital editor in the GSAPP Communications Office.