4 lessons from Day 2

Postcards from the Edge

4 Lessons from Day 2

Keeping History Above Water, our groundbreaking international conference on sea level rise and historic preservation, kicked off yesterday as preservationists, climate scientists, architects, and many other experts from around the world arrived in historic Newport, RI for a day of open houses, tours, and conversations.



Pieter Roos, Executive Director, Newport Restoration Foundation, opens the day events and introduces Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

Today, however, the real work began with the first of our keynote speakers, panels, workshops, and more. There was so much to learn and so many ideas to share – where do we even begin? Let’s start with some of the common themes that emerged, and the lessons to be drawn from them.



Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

1. People are engaged and they’re ready to get to work.
Today we heard from a US Senator, two climate change experts, government officials from two coastal municipalities, and a historic preservationist – and that was just before lunch. We had students come from URI, Ball State University (IN), Tulane (LA), the University of Pennsylvania, and even North Kingstown High School to present projects in poster form. We had speakers from all over the US, as well as Scotland, Wales, and Iran. And the discussion reached far beyond the Newport Marriott’s ballroom, with tweets coming from all over the country. The Johnson & Wales Culinary School joined the conversation from the Chefs Collaborative Summit in New York City, tweeting at us, “Wondering how aquaculture can be part of solution?”

The message came through loud and clear: people are ready to talk about these issues and, more importantly, they’re ready to do something.

2. Changes are happening all around us and there’s no denying them.
“We created this conference because the environmental threats to coastal heritage sites will not hold off while we debate climate change or its causes. We’re accepting the reality of sea level rise and seeking answers for how to mitigate its impact,” said NRF Executive Director Pieter N. Roos when we announced this conference. We heard this sentiment echoed again and again today by people working at the leading edges of climate change and witnessing its impact firsthand.


Pam Rubinoff, Senior Coastal Manager at the Coastal Resources Center, Graduate School of Oceanography

Pam Rubinoff of URI’s Coastal Resources Center used a 7′ pole to illustrated the predicted sea level rise in Narragansett Bay by the year 2100 (pictured above). Adam Markham of the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out that anyone under 40 has lived in a world that has been constantly warming during their entire lifetimes. Due to rising sea levels, he said, “In Miami, the storm drains are flowing backwards during tides.” Tom Dawson from the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project recalled a single storm in which 50 meters of coastline was washed away over night. “This is what’s happening right now,” Markham emphasized. “Tomorrow’s impacts are only going to be worse.”


Lisa Craig, City of Annapolis

Unfortunately, there are some who still wish to debate the facts. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse noting the difficulty in getting climate change legislation through congress, quipped, “Unfortunately the Law of Thermal Expansion is one we can’t filibuster.” Perhaps Lisa Craig, Chief of Historic Preservation for the City of Annapolis, said it best and most succinctly: “Ice melts at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and doesn’t care whether you’re Democrat or Republican.”

3. Small governments have a big role to play.
When it comes to mitigating the effects of sea level rise, “up to 60% of the planning comes down to local government,” said Lisa Craig of the City of Annapolis, MD. “We need to recognize the local level is where this all counts.” Indeed, while Senator Whitehouse lamented the lack of action from congress, representatives from local governments around the country spoke of the important work being done at the municipal level. “The smallest type of government has to handle a global problem, said NRF Executive Director Pieter Roos.


Adrienne Burke, Executive Director, Riverside Avondale Preservation, Jacksonville, FL

4. Find out what matters to people and make them care.
These are difficult issues, and the monumental scale of the problem makes it easy to get discouraged, but speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of getting people engaged in the process by focusing on what’s important to them. Adrienne Burke, Community Development Director for the City of Fernandina Beach, FL noted that cultural heritage sites often take a backseat to critical infrastructure in flood and disaster mitigation plans. But in her historic coastal city, these cultural heritage sites are a big draw, and that became her argument for prioritizing their protection. “Tourism is a lot of what drives our economy, so cultural resources are critical infrastructure,” she said. Lisa Craig of Annapolis added the importance of getting local officials involved in the process. “Get your votes on the city council,” she said. “Find out what they value.”

In Scotland, Tom Dawson has used mobile technology and the Web to engage regular people as “citizen scientists” involved in documenting the country’s cultural heritage sites and the threats they face. He’s essentially crowdsourcing updates and records for Scotland’s archaeological assets.

Burke summed it nicely, noting the role that we all have to play in setting the priorities. “It’s going to come down to what communities think is important,” she said. “That drives what we protect.”

Post written by John Taraborelli
Photos courtesy Ryan T. Conaty