Retreat Yourself: Moving Ground, Preserving Place

Honor Award

Residential Design

Quincy, MA, USA
Andy Lee, Student ASLA; Chelsea Kilburn, Kari Roynesdal
Faculty Advisor: Danielle Choi
Harvard University Graduate School of Design

"This proposal is an innovative reimagining of property rights in residential suburbs in light of the increasingly dire effects of climate change, particularly in coastal communities. Based on the assumption that over several decades homeowners will face pressures to retreat as waters eventually rise, the concept offers an alternative that permits residents to stay in place by turning suburban backyards into a collective water management system and initiating the process of relocating home activity to front yards and into reconceived public spaces, blurring distinctions between private and public realms."

- 2019 Awards Jury

Project Statement

Retreat Yourself: Moving Ground, Preserving Place considers the process of coastal retreat by reconfiguring current rights of property ownership within a residential suburb of Quincy, MA. With impending sea level rise and increased rates of coastal flooding, we advocate that the expression of the right to use and the right to own property must radically alter and de-couple, and begin to incorporate the right to leave and the right to remain in place under rising sea levels. To do this, we advocate for a transitional period of retreat and re-densification, preserving the right to remain in place while re-orienting the suburban community towards collective water management.

Project Narrative

Under climate change, we acknowledge four main rights for homeowners: two under current property law, and two that exist under the contingencies of sea level rise: 1. The right to own property 2. The right to use property 3. The right to leave 4.The right to remain in place

Through the acknowledgement of these four rights, we are altering the conceptions of property that have constructed the suburban landscape. In Retreat Yourself: Moving Ground, Preserving Place, we propose reconfiguring existing conceptions of property from a domain of exclusive ownership and use in order to allow residents to manage their own retreat over time as opposed to depending on institutionalized retreat practices that focus on resettlement as the sole option. We advocate for a near future city in which homeowners have the right to leave and the right to stay in place.

Current conceptions of American property law consider the right to own and right to use property as inextricably linked. Given the uncertainties of climate change in coastal communities, we must acknowledge the right to own a property and the right to use a property as distinct entities not inseparable from one another.

  • The right to own property: The permanent and absolute tenure of an estate in land with freedom to dispose of it at will.
  • The right to use property: A landowner is entitled to use property in such a way that maximizes their enjoyment so long as that enjoyment does not unreasonably interfere or disturb the rights of adjoining landholders or create a private nuisance

Despite common perception, current planning zoning practices, such as restrictions on use and form, and, more recently, severe restrictions on the use and development of existing property in flood zones, already challenge dominant conceptions of private property as a domain of exclusive use, and have already begun de-coupling use and ownership. Zoning codes in Floodplain Overlay Districts (FPODs) currently determine how vulnerable areas can be developed and what must be done to manage water, exemplifying the need to separate the right to own and the right to use. Quincy, a coastal suburb of Boston, served as our case study, as it is especially prone to flooding and therefore adheres to a zoning code that prohibits the construction, alteration, enlargement or moving of new buildings, and greatly restricts the amount of work that can be done to existing homes. This restriction on the construction or alteration of land presents challenges for a community that is deeply connected to the coast and a water-based lifestyle who still want the ability to express themselves spatially.

In advocating for the residents of Quincy, our proposal for the near future city allows residents living within the FPOD the opportunity to alter their land in order to collectively reduce flood insurance premiums. Through a transitional period of retreat and re-densification, we preserve the right to remain in place under rising sea levels while re-orienting the suburban community towards collective water management.

As landscape architects, we mediate between multiple actors and timescales. In Quincy, several layers of state and federal agencies such as the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have major infrastructural interests such as navigable waters, wetlands, levees, and major sewer/water lines. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides flood insurance for littoral areas, which directly affects cities through the Community Rating System (CRS). Since insurance is required for individual properties within the FPOD and an increase in catastrophic events has placed immense strain on the flood insurance system as well as taxpayers, FEMA has implemented the CRS as a collective way of mitigating risk before events happen. In this system, cities can implement certain measures, such as building levees, or creating a flood plan, to gain points which at certain thresholds, go toward reduced flood insurance premiums citywide. Currently, the largest gain in points comes when a community chooses to retreat entirely out of a FPOD by resettling to a new location further inland.

We propose challenging this current notion of retreat that immediately prioritizes resettlement. To do this, we are introducing a five-phase plan that lays the frameworks within which new conditions of retreat can take place. The first three phases work with local management practices over a short-term (30 year) timescale, whereas the last two phases occur over a time span of 100 years working in partnership with federal agencies. In phase one, the City of Quincy and USACE prepare to regrade backyards so that these spaces are no longer private havens but begin to function as part of the city's drainage system. In return for use of backyards, the City offers small easements into city property of the street, which allows personal uses to percolate into public property— porches expand, barbeques are relocated,and the once private expression of the yard shifts into a more public venue.

This movement from the backyard into the street allows for dissolution of property lines, which is physically reinforced by regrading and the introduction of water into a new channelized topography during phase two. With the establishment of the backyard as an infrastructural asset, the elements deployed on the street take on new agency and aggregate; in doing so these elements dictate how the street is used and configured. As more water (and therefore more risk) is taken on in the backyard, the front yard is granted further easements into the street, solidifying the end of phase three. This new regime of regrading for the mitigation, slowing, and holding of water not only allows for a retreat within one's own parcel but also begins to blur the distinctions between what is publicly owned property privately used and what is privately owned property publicly used.

As time progresses and more water exists on site, the USACE begins to extend their definition of navigable water further inland in order to protect economic, industrial, and infrastructural assets. As an added infrastructure, the USACE creates aerial watersheds above the roofline to capture water and direct it as needed. These watersheds span multiple homes, further collectivizing how space is used while creating a new community resource that allows residents to engage with water management practices and collect, clean, and manage water as part of their daily life. At this stage, homeowners can retreat within their community to become part of the aerial watershed and densify beneath a new infrastructure.

On an even longer timescale, residents may exercise their right to leave. In Quincy, residents are able to resettle along the MWRA sewer line which runs beneath a levee located on high ground.In this final phase, existing infrastructure like the levee provides a backbone for retreat and densification to occur, ensuring that residents are given the same high ground and protection as critical infrastructure.

As sea levels rise and storm surge continues to intensify, we advocate for a phased retreat that gives agency to Quincy residents. This process of retreat builds off residents' existing rights to use and own property as well as their right to remain in place or to leave. As backyards become places of stormwater collection and personal uses move into city-owned spaces, property lines begin to blur and foster a shared identity of suburban space across multiple parcels. Over time, collective engagement with water management practices becomes an integral part of the coast's cultural landscape. We hope that this daily engagement with water gives greater sovereignty to residents living on the coast and fosters new conversations surrounding a generational awareness of water and changing coastal conditions.


Plant List:

  • Nyssa sylvatica
  • Spartina alterniflora
  • Salix nigra
  • Salicornia
  • Sambucus nigra
  • Typha angustifolia