Auburn professor’s research project tasked with broadening value of coastal infrastructure design

Published: February 11, 2021
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Making the world a better place through improved infrastructure has become a passion project for Auburn University Assistant Professor Rob Holmes.

Holmes—who teaches in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction, or CADC—is continuing a collaborative project to help improve the design, function and efficacy of coastal infrastructure nationally. Buoyed by a renewed grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, Holmes and his team are committed to delivering economic, social and environmental benefits through research that focuses on innovative design concepts for water-related infrastructure like levees, jetties and dams.

Holmes—who earned a Master of Arts in landscape architecture from Virginia Tech University—was notified of the grant renewal in September, with USACE committing as much as $500,000 for up to five years to his research team. That team—which includes faculty colleagues Brian Davis at the University of Virginia and Sean Burkholder at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Auburn students—has focused efforts in districts in Galveston, Texas, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Florida, Baltimore and Philadelphia since it began working together in 2018.

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, or ERDC, oversees the research project as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering With Nature®, or EWN, program. Holmes’ team has made considerable strides in studying and improving coastal infrastructure, sparking the grant renewal.

“It’s been great collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the foundation that’s made the collaboration strong is a shared passion for the future of the places we’re designing and the shared aims of bringing social and ecological value into the engineering work that the Corps does,” said Holmes, an Auburn professor since 2016. “One thing we’ve really enjoyed is the chance to, at the district level, connect with personnel within those districts who also are supportive of EWN’s aims and are on board with the idea of trying to make sure that, when we design new infrastructure or renovate existing infrastructure, we’re not just leaning on what we did in the past. The fact that they chose to sign a second contract and that they’re upping the amount demonstrates that they’re getting value out of the first one.”

Holmes’ collaboration also includes colleagues Gena Wirth, Justine Holzman and Brett Milligan from the Dredge Research Collaborative, or DRC, an independent nonprofit that aims to improve the impact and flow of sediment through design research that he co-founded in 2010. He has thoroughly enjoyed the chance to work with such a strong team of professionals, as well as the Auburn student researchers, on the EWN initiative.

“The thing that’s really nice is to have the opportunity to extend the working relationship in the medium term so we can build on collaborative relationships that have kicked off, whether it’s between my research team and the EWN program or a team of colleagues at the University of Virginia and University of Pennsylvania who are subcontracted on the grant,” said Holmes, winner of the 2020 Excellence in Research Award from the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, or CELA. “Continuing to build those collaborative relationships is another key benefit of the extended contract. When we have opportunities to work again with a district, rather than just working with a district once and moving on to the next district, I think that also builds real dividends in terms of being able to learn from our previous working relationships, build on the successes and address anything that we didn’t have figured out the first time.”

Multiple forms of assessment, improvement

Holmes’ team works with EWN and the districts as they collaborate to examine an area’s coastal infrastructure—or a region’s need for the implementation of one—to determine the best course of actions to improve the specific ecosystem moving forward.

“The EWN program collaborates with USACE districts around the country to rethink and reframe infrastructure projects,” Holmes said. “Sometimes that means taking an infrastructure that’s already built and renovating it, and other times it means building something new or replacing something that needs to be removed because it’s reached the end of its lifespan.”

One project of note from 2020 took Holmes and his team to Port Arthur, Texas, in USACE’s Galveston District.

“They have an existing hurricane and flood protection system that consists mostly of levees and sea walls,” Holmes said. “In that case, because the infrastructure is already in place, the project consisted primarily of looking at spots where, in recent hurricanes, there had been more storm damage relative to other protected areas and spots within the system that had shown themselves to be vulnerable. So, our recommendations were not about the levee itself, but about the landscape outside or in front of the levee where you could, for instance, augment a marsh so that you reduce the wave energy before it reaches that levee.”

Natural disasters like hurricanes have inspired EWN’s efforts in recent years as civil engineers and landscape architects work to streamline infrastructure to improve safeguards.

“I think [Hurricane] Katrina was one trigger point,” Holmes said. “We keep seeing these storms in different places, whether it’s Katrina or Hurricane Sandy or Harvey, and each time one hits, it puts pressure on the Corps to enhance protection of those communities. Projects we did in Pennsylvania and Texas last year were directly in response to hurricanes, Ike in Texas and Sandy in New Jersey with the Philadelphia district.”

In addition to public safety and economic advantages, improved infrastructure also can result in social benefits, like thriving ecosystems that are available to the public for recreation and enjoyment.

“Overall, the goals are probably similar to what you’d see in a lot of coastal infrastructure discussions these days, which tends to center around community resilience, risk management, being concerned with storms and sea level rise and protecting communities but wanting to do so in a way that is going to provide the broadest range of benefits possible,” Holmes said. “You want it to be where it’s not degrading an ecosystem it’s introduced into, but that it’s contributing to the ecosystem, maybe rebuilding something that was damaged in the past. You’re also making sure it’s accessible and provides opportunities for people to engage with whatever that landscape is that’s being made, whether it’s a hard or soft infrastructure.

“It’s more about figuring out a way we can do things that are simultaneously beneficial to ecological systems and to humans.”

Personal passion project

Holmes gravitated to his current work through what he calls a “series of collaborations” that led him to co-founding the Dredge Research Collaborative more than a decade ago. Through that collaborative, Holmes worked hard to study and recommend improvements for sediment management in a variety of bodies of water.

“We discovered as we investigated sediment and the way people move it around on the coasts that there was a whole world of creating landscapes that landscape architects really had no involvement with,” Holmes said. “That was something we saw as a gap, and I got fascinated by it.

“The thing that’s really come up in sediment management in the last 30 years is the shift away from thinking of sediment as a problem and something we need to get rid of toward thinking of it as something we need to treat as a resource. If we’re removing it from one location, we want to be smart about where we put it and not just try to dispose of it cheaply. We want to find the best use for it where we can get the most ecological value from building a new landscape with it.”

Holmes’ collaborative continues to study sediment and its influence on coastal infrastructure. He says design advice from landscape architects like himself and his associates can help positively affect coastal regions.

“One of the things my colleagues and I have been trying to encourage is a move toward more forms of passive sediment management, where instead of trying to move sediment around with dredgers or excavators or mechanically moving it, instead intelligently designing the landscapes it moves through—whether that’s a river channel or a bay—so that the sediment is carried by currents and wind to the places where you want it to accumulate and move from the places where you don’t want it to accumulate,” he said. “You can have a landscape that works on its own, rather than having to be powered by energy inputs.”

Making an impact

Results often power innovation and inspire researchers to continue their efforts, and that certainly has been the case for Holmes and his team. Making a difference to a region’s ecosystem—and, through it, people’s well-being—is one of the most fulfilling aspects of his work, along with the professional partnerships.

“I really enjoy getting to collaborate with people with such a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, whether that’s the Corps of Engineers’ scientists or my landscape architecture colleagues on the project,” Holmes said. “More broadly, it’s about contributing to making and leaving behind coasts for future generations that are good, safe places to live a full life, not just for people, but for all forms of life.”

Program leaders have been pleased with the progress made by Holmes and his team.

“I have been excited to see the advancements that have been made since we began working with Rob and our other landscape architect colleagues,” said Jeffrey King, deputy national lead and program manager for the EWN program. “Our EWN projects have gained an added dimension through this collaboration. Thanks to the techniques and applications being provided by Rob and members of the DRC, we are better positioned to offer stakeholders, project sponsors and USACE personnel greater insight into the social and environmental benefits derived through EWN.”

The bigger picture, Holmes says, is leaving a lasting impact in the aforementioned ways through infrastructure innovation and improvement. That objective falls directly in line with Holmes’ desire to leave things better than he found them.

“At one level, this coastal infrastructure work may be about protecting a particular community or upgrading an individual levee,” said Holmes, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. “But at a broader level, it’s about what type of coasts we want to have as a country and what it’s going to be like to live on those coasts, not just for the next 10 years, but for centuries to come. I think ultimately what the work is about is those futures.”

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