On Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts, half of the 10 highest-ever tides arrived in 2018 alone, and flooding is a constant worry that imperils the tourist economy and historic buildings. “But that has not slowed down the real estate market,” says Cecil Barron Jensen, the executive director of the local nonprofit ReMain Nantucket. It’s been a “banner, record year” for buying and selling houses, she says. The average home price in Nantucket is nearly $1.8 million, according to Zillow, up almost 10 percent over the past year.

Real estate brokers on the island, Jensen says, talk about the flooding in terms of timelines. “How long do you want to enjoy this house? You can enjoy this house for this long,” she says. Even for the rich, the good life on Nantucket is becoming a finite commodity, as the dissonance between the hearty trade in beachfront views and climate cataclysm becomes harder to ignore.

Finding ways for Nantucket to coexist with rising floodwaters is the purpose of the Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge, an initiative by Jensen’s ReMain Nantucket to bring aboard teams of design students in a collaborative design studio to propose solutions. Overall, these propositions, on exhibition at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Thomas Macy Warehouse through December, are focused on soft edges, careful retreats, and ways to get habitats, native ecologies, and people to mix and mingle with water productively. Students from five design programs (Yale, Harvard, the University of Miami, the University of Florida, and Northeastern University) presented their work—all produced remotely—to the Nantucket community in early June.

Absent Nantucket’s plans to implement winning projects, Jensen sees these proposals as a jumping-off point for exploration. “When we asked the students to participate, we promised them that we would untether them from the reality of Nantucket’s planning matrix, so that allowed them to be really free with using their imaginations,” she says. “The reaction from the community has been wide-eyed wonder.”

Nantucket can afford to dream big. ReMain Nantucket is backed by significant philanthropic support and was founded by Wendy Schmidt, the wife of billionaire and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, one of the richest people in the world.

Envision Resilience Nantucket, the umbrella organization for the challenge, has secured the support of local preservationists and ecologists. Both aspects are represented in the proposals from the Northeastern University studio of Sara Jensen Carr, ASLA, which explored three categories of interventions: housing, hybrid engineering, and transitional ecologies. This last category contained some of the team’s most extreme transformations, including the Pocket Ecology by the landscape architecture undergraduate Cassandra Lanson, which recasts much of the island as a bird sanctuary, embracing the landscape architecture cliché of “put a bird on it!” Carr says.


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