Harbor Park Strategic Plan

Norfolk, Virginia


New urban design strategies are essential as climate change and sea level rise threaten coastal communities. An environmental NGO, the Elizabeth River Project, commissioned C+PA to create adaptive design proposals for the frequently flooded Harbor Park district in Norfolk, Virginia—one of the most threatened coastal cities in the United States. Nearly 25% of city land lies in the 100-year floodplain, including downtown Norfolk and its waterfront. Tidal tributaries and wetlands have been filled or piped below ground, the shoreline has been hardened with concrete bulkheads, and extensive dredging has transformed river flow.

Typical high tides annually overflow stormwater infrastructure and the City of Norfolk is finding it difficult to attract business or development to the site. C+PA is examining several intertwined scalar considerations for the Harbor Park District and the role that a new ERP headquarters and environmental education center could play in the sustainable revitalization process. This plan follows a "let it flood" approach that minimizes infrastructure investments that levees bring. We are currently working on a levee-based approach as well.

As a critique of a point block scheme proposed for the site, our challenge was two-fold: 1.) to mitigate ongoing coastal site flooding with a resilient, planted, pedestrian accessible, earthen berm, rather than hardened sea walls, and 2.) to maximize tax-generating development with readily-implementable building types without resorting to the free-standing, highrise building type that currently deadens the Norfolk waterfront. We researched geological, hydrological, and built layers to understand the history of this crumbling post-industrial edge. Once a thriving working waterfront, this vacant, 36-acre coastal brownfield is cut off from downtown Norfolk by a tangle of elevated highways.

With this knowledge, we proposed a half-mile long living shoreline and dense, mixed-use neighborhood of small-scale streets and mid-rise buildings atop parking decks that are designed to flood in storm events. An integrated earthen berm and living shoreline mitigates the impact of tidal surges, while maintaining river access. Urban bio-retention, water filtration, and underground cisterns are proposed to absorb or store water onsite. This 'mat' urban design approach integrates green architecture and landscape, while meeting the economic and flood mitigation needs of the City. Working from the city and region, to the district, and the individual building, an interconnected series of sustainable principles and design strategies are proposed to create a resilient vision for the future.