Each year the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning bestows the Best Masters Project Award to a graduating Masters student. Mikey Goralnik was the 2015 recipient of the award. Below is an excerpt of his Masters Project titled “Resource Resiliency: preparing rural America for an uncertain climatic future through community design and ecosystem service provision.” A link to his entire project is provided at the end of this post.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City and nearby urban areas in New Jersey. In response to the second costliest natural disaster in the US since 1900, President Barack Obama unveiled the Rebuild by Design Competition, likely the largest federal investment in resiliency. Six international transdisciplinary teams will share $920 million to design and implement infrastructural improvements throughout coastal New York and New Jersey that are massive in physical scale, temporal scope, and international renown.
Just as the mainstream public is likely familiar with the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on metropolitan New York, planners and designers from various disciplines are likely aware of the responses to the disaster that have been mobilized from these fields. However, neither group is likely aware that Hurricane Sandy left the same percentage of customers without power in hyper-urban New York as it did in largely rural West Virginia and New Hampshire. Voters and designers are also likely unfamiliar with rural Vermont’s ongoing struggle to recover from Tropical Storm Irene, where four to eight inches of rainfall caused nearly every river and stream in the state to flood, isolating much of Vermont’s non-urban population—many without power—for weeks. And designers and the public-at-large are almost definitely unfamiliar with the story of rural Kinston, North Carolina, where unprecedented rainfall from successive hurricanes caused the Neuse River to jump its banks, flooding a low-lying neighborhood, uprooting a historically close-knit African American population, and challenging a community to plan and design for resilience in a changing climate.
For the millions of Americans who do not live in cities, promoting more resilient planning and design decisions in rural areas remains a critical and under-examined endeavor, one that is literally a question of life or death. What can planners and designers do to achieve a more resilient physical environment in the distant, often isolated communities of the US? This project seeks to answer that question in Kinston, NC. First, I take an ecosystem services-based approach to redesigning nearly 750 acres of publicly-owned land along the Neuse River. By leveraging an asset common to all rural communities—lightly or undeveloped land—I examine methods of monetizing the ecosystem functions that naturally occur on the site. After establishing a baseline value for the site’s current ecosystem service provision, I design a masterplan for the site that both optimizes those ecosystem services and reimagines the site as an amenity for the community.
Comparing the credits to the debits yields a net gain of $4,700/year of social value in transitioning to the new scheme. Given the rough approximations involved in sample-based ecosystem service modeling, a difference this small suggests that redesigned scheme would essentially provide the same quantifiable ecosystem services as the undeveloped status quo, which also means that the new scheme could be expected to receive the same amount of compensatory mitigation wetland credits as the current state would. Based on this analysis, the developed masterplan scenario could receive $36,000-$63,000 in actual, spendable wetland credits, while also serving as a public amenity to the community of Kinston.
Furthermore, as a public amenity, the site would then be able to generate social value, if not actual revenue, through added ecosystem services. For example, given that the site is currently both undeveloped and inaccessible by the public, any recreational activity that would accrue to the redesigned site would be additional recreational activity. Not only does this type of physical activity boost community morale, but it also avoids social costs like healthcare subsidy and hospital operation by promoting healthy lifestyles. Improved recreational facilities like those proposed in the masterplan scenario could also attract tourism dollars to Kinston, thereby stimulating the local economy.
Overall, what this analysis indicates is that financially productive, contextually sensitive, and legally permissible floodplain design is eminently possible in rural North Carolina. By prioritizing revenue generation through ecosystem service provision, planners and designers can implement landscapes that, from an economic perspective, work for their community.