A Recipe for Building Resilient Communities

About the Author: Elise Trelegan attended Hampshire College, where she studied photography and collaborative art, as well as fisheries conservation. She has worked with the Connecticut River Watershed Council, Inc. as well as the National Park Service. She currently works as the Marketing & Development Coordinator for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station.

STAR Interns (002)

SEA S.T.A.R. (Students Teaching and Researching) Interns at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station

What happens when you bring together middle, high school and college students, researchers, local families, and community members on a beautiful day along Virginia’s Chincoteague Bay, in a town that lies just two feet above sea level?  If you’re thinking a beach party, well, you’re not totally wrong.

This past June the organization I work for, Chincoteague Bay Field Station (CBFS), hosted its first of a series of community action days. This initiative of the Shore People Advancing Readiness for Knowledge (SPARK) Living Shoreline Project brings together the community to learn about ways to adapt to climate justice issues like sea level rise, extreme storm events, and other climate-related changes.  These issues can have a detrimental impact on coastal economies by harming the tourism industry and forcing human displacement. These impacts are magnified when communities are not prepared, which is why it is important that we host such events.

These efforts, funded by an EPA Environmental Education Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have helped us establish Accomack County, Virginia’s first-ever living shoreline. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, living shorelines are the result of applying erosion control measures that include a suite of techniques which can be used to minimize coastal erosion and maintain coastal processes.  Minimizing erosion in a community that sits just a few feet above sea level is critically important. With extreme storm events like Hurricane Sandy and Super Storm Irene, small low-income communities like Greenbackville, Virginia are most likely to catch the brunt of the damage.

Communities work to restore the shoreline along Virginia's Chincoteague Bay.

Communities work to restore the shoreline along Virginia’s Chincoteague Bay.

But, it’s not just staff like me from the non-profit who are pushing this effort forward. Many activities at the site are youth-led. All of the projects completed during the community action day were researched and organized by a group of undergraduate students and recent graduates. With the help of a few dozen high school students, local families, and other community members, we were able to implement all of the shoreline improvements such as oyster castle installation which uses reefs formed by oysters to create protective shore barriers.

One of the best parts about this projects was that I witnessed the participatory model of environmental justice – students and families of all backgrounds were able to meaningfully engage in all facets of the project. In particular, the SPARK Living Shoreline Team families came from across racial, socio-economic, and cultural lines, many of whom will be most affected by climate change. By using green techniques for mitigating coastal erosion, CBFS hopes to use their Living Shoreline as a buffer to the residential community and to model practices and collaborative partnerships that can be replicated on other properties.

Over the course of the next year, this cadre of local families will monitor the effects of the community action day projects to determine the success of the actions. SPARK families are challenged to think critically about their place in the environment – geographically, culturally, and financially – and work together to create community solutions.

Community members learn invaluable skills regarding climate adaptation and resiliency.

Community members learn invaluable skills regarding climate adaptation and resiliency.

CBFS will continue to host seven more community action days and more than 800 students will visit the Living Shoreline to complete service learning projects and learn about building resilient communities in the face of environmental changes.  These activities take students and families through the full continuum of environmental education – from critical thinking activities, team-based problem solving, and environmental stewardship.

The community action day projects have taught me so much, not only about the importance of restoring the shoreline to mitigate climate impacts, but also the importance of working with those who will be most affected by those impacts. And so, I am thrilled to be able to continue to work alongside the Greenbackville community to restore our essential shoreline while incorporating valuable education in the process of putting environmental justice into practice to protect our communities and make them stronger, more resilient places to live.