For millions of Americans in the Mid-Atlantic states, there’s going to the beach and there’s going down the shore. The former might mean the rural coastline of Maryland or the quiet seas of Delaware or the glamor of Long Island’s tony east end. The latter refers only to the sands of New Jersey.
More than 50 million people flock to the Jersey Shore every summer, generating some $28 billion in economic activity. Like beach vacationers the world over, they come for the surf and the sun, but also because the Jersey Shore, with its eponymous TV show and its long history of blue-collar crooners like Bruce Springsteen and Frankie Valli, offers a one-of-a-kind beach holiday for hundreds of millions from all walks of life.
But the Jersey Shore and all of its quirks are at risk. Rising sea levels and super storms like Hurricane Sandy are threatening New Jersey’s barrier islands and coastal communities, and the economic pressures of rebuilding storm-damaged properties and insuring them in light of new risk assessments are changing the character of scores of vacation destinations in the state. Addressing these parallel challenges is at the heart of a new resiliency proposal for the Jersey Shore.
Submitted to the Rebuild by Design competition by a team comprised of Sasaki Associates, Rutgers University, and the engineering firm ARUP, the plan seeks to not only ensure the region’s resilience but to preserve its iconic character as well.
“Sea-level rise puts the Jersey Shore, like most of the Eastern Seaboard’s coastline, at risk,” said Jason Hellendrung, a principal at Sasaki. “In a three-foot sea-level rise scenario, the barrier islands lose half of their land area.”
“But there’s also gentrification,” he added. “Social scientists from Rutgers on our team pointed to an outward migration from the shore. Lots of longtime vacation-home owners and people whose beach houses are handed down through generations can’t afford to rebuild to new standards or can’t afford the insurance, and people who can afford that are moving in. The everyman, blue-collar quality is falling away. If we don’t plan for it, it is going to go away forever.”
The team believes their design, paired with rising sea levels, would trigger a migratory shift inland.
The Sasaki/Rutgers/ARUP team addressed these challenges by rethinking the relationship between the Jersey Shore’s barrier islands and the mainland communities to their west.
“We started by accepting the inevitability that the barrier islands will not remain physically the same, so the question became, ‘How do you perpetuate the economy and the recreation given the imminent challenge of sea-level rise?’” said Gina Ford, another Sasaki prinicpal.
“Fundamentally, what we wanted to do, we wanted to take the inland sites that were higher and drier sites and make a new type of development there, an ecological entertainment district that gets at the spirit of the Jersey Shore with roller coasters and an aerial tram to the beach, and connect that to regional transportation systems and new housing development for visitors and full-time residents.”
In their proposal, the team envisions hotels, an amusement park, development sites and connections to the town center alongside the eco-tourism hub. There would be restaurants, bars, music venues and cultural destinations as well. Nearby, and adjacent to highway exits, an aerial tram, water taxis and ferries connect visitors to the shifting sands of the barrier islands.
Within four generations, the team believes, this strategy, paired with the realities of rising seas, will trigger a migratory shift, pulling the vast majority of barrier island residents and vacation-home owners to high and dry areas on the mainland.
A rendering of a new Jersey Shore boardwalk positioned further inland behind protective dunes.
For beach communities at a higher elevation, like Asbury Park, the team infused traditional beach elements with innovative twists. A topographically dynamic boardwalk, for example, “expands social interaction through the creation of seating, steps and intimate edges while providing a new shape to capture sand and form dunes over time, creating protection and habitat area for beach wildlife,” according to the team’s presentation.
They also imagine flexible, multi-modal streets that filter polluted runoff and integrate summer swell populations cutting through west and east development that “support business growth and migration of coastal populations to higher and drier locations.”
When asked if her team designed these elements with the possibility of transferring them to other coastal communities in mind, Ford said, “I think we do imagine it to be transferrable, to some degree. The Jersey Shore has the fundamental landforms that exist through the entire eastern seaboard. All of these have vulnerability.”
“What we’re arguing for is an approach looking at those typologies, understanding their vulnerabilities, and then working on design strategies catered to them,” she continued. “But of course, culture, and historical factors change. It’s not one-to-one, but a way of looking.”
“We love all that’s weird about the Jersey Shore. The music, the TV show, the attitude, the partying, all of that stuff that is part of the shore. The specifics of this proposal reflect that most of all. We’re very proud of that.”
As if to drive home the point, she then added, “The Situation [of MTV’s Jersey Shore] actually retweeted one of our tweets!”
Renderings courtesy Sasaki Associates
Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b