The 50 year anniversary of Ian McHarg’s chapter, “Sea and Survival” from his seminal work Design with Nature, inspired us to revisit the conditions on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. We used the Long Beach Island Foundation’s exhibition as a chance to explore how the relationship between humans and this dynamic landscape functions today.
Long Beach Island is an 18-mile long barrier island off the coast of New Jersey, facing the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and forming Barnegat Bay with the mainland to the west. With the growth of Jersey Shore tourism and permanent population in the twentieth century, beach erosion has become a growing concern. As we face the rising seas that are predicted to occur because of climate change, Long Beach Islanders will need to rethink their relationship with their environment.
On the ocean side, residents resist the daily and seasonal cycles of erosion and sedimentation by adding sand to the beaches. This has become a recurring, yet short-lived strategy.
On the bay side, the ebb and flow of the tides contributes to the creation of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. These diverse habitats provide nursing grounds for bony fish, shellfish, and waterfowl, just to name a few. Now, fast forward a half-century. In an effort to arrest land losses, the littoral edge, or shoreline, has been modified across the entire Barnegat Bay at the expense of the most productive natural habitats.
Over 70% of the bay’s edge has been developed, which allows water run-off carrying pollution to enter directly into the bay without any natural filter. In addition, the widespread construction of seawalls has exacerbated this issue, creating a hard barrier between aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Over 36% of the bay’s edge has been obstructed by this rigid form of infrastructure.
The smooth surface of seawalls allows much of the unfiltered run-off pollution from uphill developments to flow directly into the water, harming water quality and contributing to the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, which is critical to a healthy marine ecosystem and fishery. The structure of these walls also generates a variety of issues. For example, when waves hit this smooth wall and bounce back, the force is magnified, which causes an increase in tidal depths. However, the most significant impact is the rigid barrier that these walls create between aquatic and terrestrial habitats. It restricts access for many species that depend on both habitats, such as the Diamondback Terrapin. In addition, these barriers prevent future salt marsh expansion into uphill territories, which will become necessary as water levels begin to rise.
As the sea level begins to rise, many of these edges will need to be reconstructed and reshaped. Through this process, we have the opportunity to recreate a healthier bay for all of its inhabitants.