Feeding Marshes and Making Islands

Auburn faculty member pioneers natural infrastructure for coastal resilience.

Someone using a camera on a large monopod

In recent years, Moss Point, Mississippi, a small, working-class city on the Gulf Coast between Biloxi and Mobile, has been plagued by continual flooding. This diverse community has stood near the Escatawpa River since the early 1900s. It sustained major damage during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and floods have only increased since then.
Communities all along the nation’s coasts, lakes and rivers are confronting similar challenges related to intense storms, sea level rise and erosion, coupled with increased demand for shipping and recreation. These areas are wrestling to find sustainable, long-term solutions to those challenges that will allow residents to thrive.

Associate Professor Rob Holmes and his team of researchers at the Landscape Infrastructure Design Lab (LIDL) in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction (CADC) are helping communities address these challenges by pioneering the use of landscape architecture techniques to current engineering practices.

Someone using a drone on a beach

Holmes has been awarded $7.75 million in funding over the next five years as part of the Natural Infrastructure Innovation Project (NIIP). This new project, funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering With Nature program, aims to identify which natural infrastructure solutions work best and communicate these practices to landscape architects and engineers across the country. While traditional engineering has been in place for decades, researchers like Holmes are finding that natural infrastructure is often less expensive and offers greater resilience, flexibility and social and ecological benefits.

While the NIIP program is in its first year, the LIDL team is developing a proposal for where nature-based landscape designs might be best deployed along the Gulf Coast, and there are plenty of towns like Moss Point across the region. Using historic data and maps, modeling, site surveys, drone image capture and extensive fieldwork, Holmes and the LIDL team study how each community’s landscape has evolved over time and how natural processes can be incorporated into sustainable infrastructure today. The resulting nature-based infrastructure can include restored marshes, setback levees, the use of dredge material to create barrier islands or feeder berms and establishing and expanding oyster reefs.

A man stands in a marsh area with a notepad

In the second year of the program, they will begin testing those proposals in bays and estuaries along the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Holmes and the research team aim to engage with community stakeholders in those areas, including residents, businesses and government officials, to gauge the impact and success of their work.

“Engaging with local stakeholders is a goal of the project,” Holmes said. “We work hard to understand the context of each place we work in, and that includes things like where residents might prefer dredged material to be placed and who has the capacity and interest to implement significant nature-based infrastructure.”

Last year, Holmes received a grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Gulf Research Program to create and pilot an interdisciplinary design studio as part of the landscape architecture program’s “Alabama Lab” to address Gulf health and resilience. Students enrolled in the studio traveled to Perdido Bay on the Alabama-Florida border to examine coastal barrier islands and estuaries and meet with stakeholders. They studied how the landscape has changed over time and developed design proposals for sustaining the bay in the future.

LIDL recently moved into its new workshop space at the CADC Research Commons, which houses research staff, physical and digital coastal modeling resources and landscape architecture studio space. Students have access to workstations dedicated to hydrodynamic modeling software, as well as a lab equipped with a stream table that allows for physical modeling of rivers, wetlands and coasts and simulation of sediment flow, erosion and waves.

Students look at soil samples

“The lab’s physical and digital modeling capabilities significantly enhance our ability to study the performance of those features,” Holmes said. “The sponsors we work with are often trying to shift design paradigms toward nature-based concepts, so being able to offer insight into those concepts is really important for innovation.”

LIDL works with several sponsors, all of whom are engaged and involved with the team’s research in the field, participating in stakeholder workshops and working through design concepts with the team. Holmes has found that his involvement with Engineering With Nature (EWN) opens doors to sharing knowledge and expertise across disciplines.
“We get to collaborate with the right folks on individual projects with big teams that include an engineering firm and other landscape architects,” he said. “In large-scale infrastructure projects, so many people are both involved with and affected by the work that it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Working with EWN has meant working with an organization that is already doing a lot of that groundwork, and we get to tap into a big network of expertise and knowledge.”

LIDL’s funding organizations:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering With Nature program

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Effects of Sea Level Rise program

The Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine

LIDL’s research partners:

The Natural Infrastructure Lab at the University of Virginia

The Environmental Modeling Lab at the University of Pennsylvania

The Dredge Research Collaborative

Dr. Brett Webb from the University of South Alabama

Dr. Dan Wright from the University of Wisconsin

Auburn University partners:

Samuel Ginn College of Engineering: Drs. Ben Bowers, Jose Vasconcelos, Frances O’Donnell, Brian Anderson of civil engineering; Dr. Anna Linhoss of biosystems engineering

College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment: Dr. Chris Anderson of natural resources management

College of Agriculture: Dr. Wendiam Sawadgo of agricultural economics

CADC: Devon Ward of graphic design

Two people sitting on a dock