Thursday, September 16, 2021

Making changes: A new vision for Assateague State Park

By Kate Vogel, Coastal Management Fellow

In my fellowship experience with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, I’ve truly learned the importance of collaboration. Whether I am working within different units in the DNR, or partnering with community organizations, I’ve learned that innovative partnerships are going to be the epitome of climate change adaptation and resilience. The focus of my work is to write climate change adaptation and resilience plans for three state lands: Assateague State Park, Browns Branch Wildlife Management Area, and Pocomoke State Forest. My project stemmed from maps created through a partnership with the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative at Salisbury University, which showed areas on these state lands that were vulnerable to climate change, or ranked highly in ecological value. Using these maps allowed me to guide conversations with land managers to identify problem areas and adaptation opportunities on site. Assateague State Park, despite being the smallest of the three, has proven to have a wide variety of areas where climate change is a concern.

Climate vulnerability map for Assateague. Climate vulnerability is on the left, and ecological value is on the right, with darker colors representing higher scores.

As I continued my research and dialogue with partners on climate change threats and opportunities for adaptation, I decided to break down climate threats by their impacts: infrastructure, natural resources, human resources, cultural resources, and recreation. Each of the sites that I am working on is very different. Browns Branch Wildlife Management Area has historically been managed as an agricultural area with a small stream running through the site. Pocomoke State Forest is 18,000 acres of non-contiguous forest lands across the eastern shore of Maryland, offering many recreational opportunities, but not many recreational facilities. Assateague on the other hand, is a two mile stretch of dunes, beaches, and campsites on the Atlantic Ocean. It receives over 700,000 visitors every year and is host to many amenities including the beach itself, a restaurant, bike paths, public restrooms, changing areas, a nature center, ranger station, and boat launches. This makes Assateague unique in terms of recreational and infrastructure challenges -- Assateague’s facilities need to support large numbers of visitors while being resilient to worsening storms, increasing hurricanes, changing wind patterns, and increasing temperatures.

Map of park regions.

I’m not a coastal engineer, nor am I a geologist who knows how Assateague’s dunes will migrate over time. The more we analyzed maps and climate threats, we realized that campsites would be underwater or under sand, and that buildings would only continue to break down as they faced the brunt of intense winds and flooding. I was able to suggest moving roads and using mobile, elevated buildings in my site plan, but without tangible graphics and a site-based analysis of feasibility, I realized I did not have much evidence for why or how we should redesign the buildings and roads to be climate resilient, especially when many of the roads were recently redesigned in 2018. I was the new girl in the office who was saying “we should change the way you have historically done everything, even though I’ve never done it before… even though repairs were just made a few years ago.”

Sand covering the walkway at Assateague State Park. Photo: Kate Vogel 

So I decided to bring solutions with the help of my mentor. She suggested we could work with the University of Maryland (UMD) Architectural Studio. They have a program, the Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS), which connects students with real life projects and aims to find innovative ways to address climate change. We were able to get matched with two architectural studio classes: one to create designs for Assateague State Park’s ranger and camper registration building, which is slated to be reconstructed soon, and the other to redesign the concession stands and day use area, which also need updating. The first studio is taking place this summer, and has already been very eye opening, not only for me as it relates to my project, but for leaders in DNR Parks and Recreation, and Engineering and Construction. Good decisions take time, and that includes formulating plans to create innovative designs and determine which projects should be prioritized first over others. We were lucky in that right before the students visited Assateague, we had actually received the first draft of the state contractors’ designs for buildings. In very traditional drawings, the buildings were elevated and rectangular in addition to appearing more modern than the current building. They were exciting to see - and the students took the drawings even further.

The ranger station at Assateague State Park. 

In presentations that occurred once every 1.5 weeks, the four UMD students presented their diagrams to a multidisciplinary team of UMD professors, MD DNR staff from Engineering and Construction and Chesapeake and Coastal Services, and JRS architects. Our climate change mission at Assateague State Park is to “to conserve and foster an appreciation of the natural resources of Assateague State Park and to continue to provide substantial recreational opportunities for as long as possible in a sustainable manner.” The students rose to the challenge of making this a reality. Their ideas conceptualized dune migration over time, and they showed how it would be possible to change campground layouts without compromising campsite availability, while allowing dunes to migrate. They proposed new solutions for increasing shading in the day use area, an increasing concern of park staff as temperatures increase and heat stress becomes more common. Students identified opportunities for educational landscapes, where visitors could learn about the history of the land, dune processes, biodiversity, and more. Building designs included passive ways to harness wind and solar energy, while creating an engaging, welcoming, and natural landscape for visitors. Creative elevation designs showcased opportunities for reducing impervious surfaces and increasing ADA accessibility, so that the building will be inclusive for all guests and utilize techniques to reduce flooding on site. Building designs referenced indigenous architecture and prioritized connectivity and flow among office spaces and public spaces.

Sample graphic from Yan Konon, a student with the University of Maryland Architecture Design Studio

Credit: University of Maryland Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability

The students were able to build off of the coastal program’s climate change research by showing that it is possible to be innovative and still create feasible construction designs that will withstand a changing climate. Coming to our design teams empty-handed, and not as an engineer or architect, would have made me ill-prepared for explaining how our climate change adaptation vision could be implemented. After listening in on calls, park leadership and members of engineering and construction said the designs were “surprising” and “inspired ways for E & C to get more creative.” We were also told that an amendment to the design timeframe may allow for student designs to be considered by the professional JRS architects, and might allow for the inclusion of an educational landscape for visitor engagement, which was not originally in the design plan.

Good things take time. Good things also are made possible by collaboration and resource sharing. Climate change is going to require that we think outside of typical design requirements and recognize the need for adaptable designs. As we analyze project designs to respond to climate change, we should think about engaging new and different partners and remember that there is so much more room for creativity, connectivity, and education in our lives, as long as we embrace it.