We relate to shorelines reactively — we structure ports around jagged edges, avoid dangerous cliffs and fret that climate change will result in Hawaiian islands going the way of Atlantis. Proactivity is impossible in the face of storms, tectonic movement and rising CO2 levels, we think, resigning ourselves to levees and lifejackets.
Proactivity is the watchword, though, for the Better World Challenge, which invites students from around the world to "build a better coastline" using the South Kingstown village of Matunuck as a case study.
The competition is run by the Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students who host A Better World by Design, a conference which brings together designers, architects, entrepreneurs, and activists to explore the idea that anything — even nature — can be improved by design.
The conference has exploded since its 2008 start, attracting 1500 attendees last year for workshops like "Technological Disobedience" and a high-profile speaker list. This year's conference, scheduled for September 30-October 2, will focus on disaster relief.
"Our conference talks about how to build a better world," says Hannah Burn, special events coordinator for Better World and a student at Brown. "We're asking people this year to kind of try and take that more personally. What would you like to build a better 'blank' of?"
The coastline competition finalists will present at the conference and the winner will receive $1000 and help from Save the Bay to begin implementing the proposal.
Last year's competition challenged students to solve urban food deserts, or areas with poor access to healthy or local food. The winners proposed a public bus loop that stops at grocery stores, food shops, and farmers markets in Providence.
All of the 2010 finalists' ideas, while ambitious, made a lot of sense: putting high school students to work delivering fresh produce to inner-city neighborhoods, for example, or selling boxes of locally farmed food at workplaces on a sliding scale.
South Kingstown's town manager Stephen Alfred, who was unaware of the competition, says he welcomes ideas for Matunuck's coastal erosion problem, but "they need to be based in reality." Matunuck hopes to build a 675-foot sea wall to protect Matunuck Beach Road, which houses businesses and homes and sits only a few yards from the shore.
Alfred points out that Save the Bay, which will act as a competition judge and then help execute the winning proposal, "is opposed to everything the town has proposed" so far.
Still, for Matunuck — named after a Native American word for "look out" — or for coastal communities facing extinction by erosion in years to come, the Better World Challenge may offer much-needed innovations for keeping the ocean at bay. "We can't think about coastal communities in the same way as we could 50 years ago," Burn says. "Above all, we'll be placing value on ideas that are feasible and that could work."