By Keegan Glennon
Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Intern
Recently, the University of Rhode Island junior landscape architecture class was turned loose on Oakland Beach, Warwick, to come up with “green” designs to help the area increase its resilience to storms and erosion.
This sort of real-world experience is an important aspect of URI’s landscape architecture program, and, adds the class’s professor, Richard Sheridan, “I’m not sure if students understand … how different this is from other schools.”
Students Kelvin Huang, Emma Winkler, and Zachary Driver say that Oakland Beach was the first project that they’d done that was really focused on green infrastructure, and involved a lot of independent research.
“I try to give them learning tools so that they know how to solve problems on their own,” Sheridan says. “It’s more a case of, ‘What would you do there? Tell me a story.’ And they do. It’s pretty wonderful.”
The students say that many of the factors that complicated this specific project—such as flooding, storm surge, and sea level rise—are ones that are sure to recur if they continue working in a coastal area like Rhode Island. “Being a landscape architect in this time … [the environment] is an important consideration,” explains Driver. Winkler agrees: “We’re going to be dealing with these issues for a long time.”
The students say the hands-on nature of the project—visiting the site and interacting with community members—changed their approach to their designs.
Winkler recalls an example: “The parking lot loop is a one-way road that has parking spaces on either side. And that, from a design standpoint—and also from an environmental standpoint—was not the best way for it to be designed, especially not right near the water. But … that was really important to [the community members]. Some of them even wanted, when they pass away, to be driven around the loop. And that’s pretty strong for someone to say!”
The students did their best in their designs to preserve the parts of the site that were important to area residents, but found that it wasn’t always feasible. Nostalgia can only go so far. As student Gabriella D’Angelis said during her final presentation, “I think sometimes you have to create new memories.”
For Sheridan, the goal of this project was about helping students understand the responsibility they have as landscape architects in creating designs that are both aesthetically pleasing but also functional. He wants students to realize all the things that landscape architecture can do, from preventing runoff from flowing into the ocean to helping protect people’s homes against flooding. “They’re working on health, safety, and welfare … Those are the three really key points that they’ll be working on for the rest of their lives,” he says.
For the students’ part, they seem to be figuring it out. “Somebody asks me, ‘What do you do?’” Driver laughs, “And I’m like, ‘Change the world.’”