Adrift and Indeterminate: Designing for Perpetual Migration on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

Virginia’s Eastern Shore, which together with its northern Maryland counterpart forms and protects the massive Chesapeake Bay estuary, is confronting sea level rise at a rate 40 percent faster than the global average. Climate models declare the inevitable: this land mass will be lost. As it washes away, one of the richest ecological sanctuaries on the eastern seaboard will be vastly altered, and fishing and farming communities that have subsisted for centuries will disappear. What can design offer in the face of this calamity?

In addition to losing land to the sea, Northampton and Accomack Counties are losing people in significant proportion. Northampton comprises 795 square miles; currently 75 percent of that is water. The population in 1930 was 18,565; today, it is around 12,000. Accomack County is larger, with 1,310 square miles—65 percent water. Its population was almost 36,000 in 1930; today, it is 32,000. Based on per capita income, these are two of Virginia’s poorest counties.

As the ocean surrounds them with increasingly dramatic force, coastal communities everywhere fear the inevitability of physical retreat. In this studio, we will examine a migratory phenomenon rooted in perpetual adaptation, one that has been in motion for far longer than the recent arc of concern for climate instability. Farmers on the Eastern Shore have always altered their operations, rotated crops, abandoned homes and barns, and turned their backs on a changing shoreline. Those who fish for a living have responded to shifts in estuarine resources due to staggering impacts from pollution, regulatory limitations, changes in boating practices and technological upheavals, market shifts, and more. Adaptation is a way of life—though suddenly, we are aware that the rate of change is not.

How do we design a more urgent climate migration? This studio will pursue adaptive processes, land use strategies, and the design of landscapes and structures that extend the life of a challenged community. Design and impermanence are the watchwords in this pursuit.