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Town and Village

Creative resilience to replace destruction

Grant to help with efforts to determine what comes next for new public land in floodplain

LONDONDERRY—The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved the buyout of a handful of homes in the West River’s floodplain.

Next?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded the Windham Regional Commission (WRC) a $40,000 grant to assist with the redesign of the now-vacant land.

About five homes along the West River — four in Londonderry and one in South Londonderry — qualify for the federal buyout program, said WRC associate director Susan McMahon.

The property buyout is a 75/25 split, with FEMA covering 75 percent of the cost and the remainder paid through Community Development Block Disaster Grants, said McMahon.

The WRC, the Center for Creative Solutions at Marlboro College Graduate School, and the town of Londonderry will collaborate on redesigning the eight to 10 acres over the course of six days in August.

FEMA regulations prohibit rebuilding in floodplains after the government has bought out property owners. It does, however, allow the land to be used for community space, such as a park.

The grant will fund a six-day workshop series that promotes a community-directed design process aimed at re-imagining the land devastated by Tropical Storm Irene almost two years ago.

“It’s important to knit back those communities,” she said.

Rebuilding infrastructure has stood at the top of the Irene recovery list for many towns, McMahon said. It’s also time to repair towns’ inner social fabric. Towns with a strong community are, after all more resilient, she said.

The grant and workshop series represent an opportunity to look toward the future rather and deal with a crisis, she said.

WRC and CCS have collaborated on previous projects.

“It’s pretty competitive,” said McMahon of the grant process.

WRC received $40,000 out of a possible $50,000, said McMahon. The grant requires a dollar-for-dollar match, which the WRC and Londonderry will meet through volunteer hours, workshop administration, and other cash equivalents.

In a press release, McMahon said the new design and future land use will help “create a flood-resilient community space and place that artfully regenerates the floodplain.”

Community engagement is a big piece of this project, she said. Two to three seats in the core group will go to Londonderry residents.

“Neighboring communities struggling with this same issue will be invited to participate in public meetings and presentations, providing them with ideas and possibilities for community infrastructure that is healing to the community and the land, as well as processes by which to generate these ideas,” wrote McMahon.

At this early stage, the project will likely focus on designing a park for the empty land, she said.

The workshops will help produce one concept design. This design will be followed by a formal report to the town by the WRC and CCS.

The NEA grant funds only the design portion of the project.

WRC and CCS are committed to helping the town find funding for the final project, said McMahon.

Many of the areas damaged in Vermont were also historic downtown centers and villages, said McMahon. The town could let the empty space return to grass, but the community wanted a community asset.

Londonderry is one of 10 village plans WRC is helping assess for resiliency.

Other towns could benefit from this process, she said. Some longer workshops and night workshops will also be offered.

The new green space has the potential to be both a public space and acting flood plain.

According to a press release from the WRC, CCS is a program for early- to mid-career professionals seeking to experience interdisciplinary, collaborative, and socially engaging problem solving.

The Center’s projects are for practitioners in the planning and design fields, engineering, business, social sciences, agriculture, environmental sciences, and the arts.

While focusing on a site-specific issue, CCS unites national experts and professionals to work with community members to conceive solutions unique their specific community while serving as precedents for other communities.

The workshop process will foster recovery in two ways, said Dolores Root, CCS program director.

Irene’s destruction deeply affected communities physically and socially, she said. In Londonderry, the vacant or damaged properties in the town’s center are a constant reminder of loss.

But, she said, the process of redesigning the property helps the community create and rebuild its own future, rather than living with an event that happened to them.

The second way, said Root, is creating new infrastructure.

The park, along the waterway, will act as a community gathering space in good weather. In the event of another flood, the park will help buffer the town as an open floodplain.

Water builds power during a flood. Floodplains help dissipate the water’s energy.

Root said the park will be an example of what CCS fellow Jono Neiger calls “productive conservation.”

Historically, land has been conserved or used. “Productive conservation” designs areas so they can serve multiple uses including habitat for animal and plant life, said Root.

More important than the workshops’ final design is the workshop process itself, said Root. The creative process will quickly expose what the community values. When people know what they value, they can then forge a conscious path forward.

The Center for Creative Solutions focuses on building a multi-disciplinary approach to solving complex issues.

Root said engineers look at problems one way, while artists may approach a problem another way, and an architect might look at yet another way.

People are trained in disciplinary silos, Root said. But different disciplines also ask different questions.

“It’s not the purview of one discipline to figure out what the solutions are,” said Root.

When people from multiple careers collaborate, the process and result can be powerful, she said.

“It begins to open up the sense of new possibilities,” she added.

It sounds obvious, but Root said often teams try to collaborate, but essentially break into accomplishing tasks along disciplinary lines.

CCS also believes in fostering “authentic community engagement,” said Root.

The process must reflect a community, its culture, and sense of place. The community must also have some responsibility for making the process and solution happen, she said.

If the CCS fellows simply swooped into Londonderry and dropped off a design for the vacant land, said Root, they risk changing the community in a way no one liked or resonated with.

“[Then] there’s no sense of belonging,” said Root.

The summer workshop and design process will enable hope, said Root.

“In this day and age, in the world we live in, I’m big on hope,” she said.

Hope enables other things to take flight, Root said:

According to McMahon, the WRC, originally working with the town of Jamaica, applied for and received the NEA grant for assistance with the design process for four adjoining parcels (2.22 acres). Jamaica, however, was turned down for the FEMA buyout and is reevaluating its options for the flooded properties.

Internationally recognized artist and designer Michael Singer will work with an interdisciplinary team, CCS participants, and Londonderry residents.

Singer is known for creating art that functions as infrastructure, such as his Grand Rapids (Mich.) Riverwalk Floodwall public artwork.

CCS Fellows participating in this project include choreographer Liz Lerman and Richard Rabinowitz.

According to a WRC press release, Lerman’s Shipyard Project in Portsmouth, N.H., “is an example of the power of art to enhance such values as social capital and civic dialogue, and is a good precedent for the Londonderry workshop.”

Rabinowitz will engage participants in thinking about the vacant land “as a place of memory and imagining design solutions that powerfully bind the community’s past and future within the context of the West River hydrology and geomorphology.”

Lerman and Rabinowitz’s work will prepare the ground for Jono Neiger, leader in regenerative landscape design, and Calen Colby, innovative and dynamic civil and structural engineer, “in re-imagining the floodplain from the perspective of stewardship, productive conservation, permaculture, regenerative design, sound engineering and community place making.”

The process will move quickly — at least by the planning world’s standards — with workshops in August and the final report to the town in October or November.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #204 (Wednesday, May 22, 2013).

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