The startling reality of climate change inspires a radical vision of the future

By Danny Karel

The USC team envisions Marina del Rey with an urban salt marsh interface, the Venice Canals as a wetland, and Windward Circle as a flood control lagoon.

In the not so distant future, sea level rise threatens to remake low-lying parts of Venice into a watery landscape a little more reminiscent of its Italian namesake.

“There’s the harbor, and there’s the existing Venice Canals, which we’re calling a wetland. … And there’s the lagoon that comes into where Windward Circle is now. These areas are all connected to each other,” said USC School of Architecture lecturer Tracee Johnson, introducing maps and drawings that represent a radical redesign of Venice and upper Marina del Rey.

The presentation represents a semester’s worth of work by a design team of undergraduate architecture and graduate-level landscape architecture students, led not only by Johnson but also architect Larry Scarpa of the celebrated architecture and environmental design firm Brooks + Scarpa. The overall vision feels somewhat familiar, but also like  if Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” reimagined the California coast instead of the Red Planet.

According to several government studies, Southern California’s ocean is expected to rise four feet by the end of this century. Unless urban and environmental planners respond, that would spell billions of dollars of infrastructure damage and a near-total vanishing of coastal beaches.

And that’s not a worst-case scenario: More ominous predictions that predict a more rapid rate of Antarctic ice-sheet loss in the latter half of the century predict sea level rise of as much as seven feet.

Presentation slides illustrate (1) a marina salt marsh, (2) natural swampland prior to urbanization, (3) Windward Circle as a lagoon, and (4 + 5) denser development along a Lincoln Boulevard green belt.

Venice, which sits basically at sea level, is one of the most vulnerable regions in all of California. So Johnson and Scarpa’s student teams aimed not to defend Venice from sea level rise, but to adapt Venice to it.

“You know how L.A.’s infrastructure has worked in the past. It’s all about blocking and moving and strategizing water away, away, away,” said Johnson. “This is about taking that idea and reversing it, allowing the water to have a place within the neighborhood, so when [flooding] happens it’s not a catastrophe – instead, it can be a luxury.”

Students presented their work to a mixed panel of judges that included architects, architecture historians, educators, city planners, writers and local developers. Not only were students being evaluated for a grade, there’s a chance that elements of their proposal might someday be incorporated into Venice’s coastal adaptation strategy.

The students’ plan involved three strategies: defend, retreat, and adapt.

• Defend the coastline by installing off-shore breakwaters and building up tall, vegetated sand dunes.

• Retreat from vulnerable areas while building up residential and commercial properties along Lincoln and Abbot Kinney boulevards.

• Adapt the infrastructure to accommodate sea rise — specifically by converting the canals and the surrounding streets into a wetland, and by building a lagoon in the neighborhood around Windward Circle.

The designs were gorgeous — and bore little resemblance to the Venice of today.

“You’ve turned the city into a bourgeois utopia,” commented one member of the jury, “and it’s a little scary.”

But Scarpa reminded the
group that the plan was in large part speculative; the students, unburdened by the political realities of achieving such a vision, were invited to imagine boldly.

“I thought it was very interesting,” said Frank Murphy, a multifamily residential developer based in Venice. “I think the landscaping end of it was more hopeful than the real
estate end of it. If you were able to do what you could to maintain that beachfront, then maintaining the backwater is really a simple thing.”

Murphy, who has built several properties in the Venice Coastal Zone over the past 40 years, is less concerned than other jurors. He believes that with available technology, we could manage the crisis as it appears.

“From a practical point of view, if the [tidal] locks are in question, we can fix ‘em,” he says. “If you need pumps, let’s put the pumps in.”

But even with such safeguards, the sea will continue to rise. By most accounts, the rate of sea level rise has increased since the start of the 21st century. Eventually, there will come a time when drastic changes need to be made.

Last year, Scarpa led a group of students in Florida on a similar project called Salty Urbanism. Their goal, utilizing research by scientists and ecologists, was to redesign Ford Lauderdale’s North Beach neighborhood to accommodate increased flooding events.

Low-lying areas of Venice are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Experts say protecting buildings from the sea won’t work forever — we’ll also have to adapt. Illustration by Tony Gleeson. Cover Design by Michael Kraxenberger.

“We had a lot of city participation,” said Scarpa, “and the outcome is that we’ve actually continued to do work with the city, commissioned by Fort Lauderdale.”

Scarpa hopes to have similar success with the USC group, but the more densely populated and politically complex landscape of Venice poses unique challenges.

“I think this is a spectacular opportunity,” said Robert Harris, emeritus professor and former dean of USC’s School of Architecture. “Venice could provide an example for the rest of the country and provide some leadership about what to do.”

Harris’ view, a refreshing departure from the doom and gloom tone of most climate management conversations, was grounded by faith in human ingenuity. If Venice is going to meet the challenges ahead, this might be the requisite attitude.

“I see a challenge,” said Harris, “and I go like this.” He smiled and began to rub his hands together. The message was clear.