Saving our coasts : architects in the vanguard

Rethinking and completely redesigning our coastal zones threatened by rising sea levels : a major challenge that architects are ready to confront.

Although often overshadowed by other, more extreme (and more spectacular) climate change events, the gradual but inexorable retreat of the coastline represents a silent threat to many French coastal regions. The consequences, both social and economic, are likely to be devastating if no action is taken. Faced with this major challenge, you, as architects, have a vital role to play. It's a mission of the first rank that awaits you, alongside the local communities and other players involved.

Coastline recession | A silent threat

Coastline retreat is a major challenge for France, with considerable social and material consequences. According to a recent study by Cerema, this phenomenon will affect around 5,200 homes and 1,400 commercial buildings by 2050, with an estimated value of 1.2 billion euros. By 2100, the figures become even more alarming, with almost 450,000 homes at risk, representing a value of almost 100 billion euros!

Behind these extraordinary statistics lie human realities. It's not just buildings that are at stake, but homes, living spaces steeped in history and emotion. Inhabitants see their living environment gradually deteriorating, submerged by these rising waters, rendering their homes uninhabitable.

Coastline shrinkage is a slow but inexorable effect of climate change. While extreme events such as floods and storms attract more media attention, this silent but steady rise in sea level is gradually redrawing the contours of the French coastline, engulfing some of the lowest-lying areas.

If no measures are taken, the social and economic consequences could be devastating for many coastal communities. Action is urgently needed to adapt to this new reality.

Find out more about the latest winners of the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture 2024.

The challenge of coastal adaptation | When architects redefine the coastline

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to coastline retreat. Each coastal area has its own specific characteristics, requiring a tailor-made approach. Just a few hundred meters from a harbor, there may be a park, a parking lot or a dike protecting the town center. Topography and sea conditions also vary considerably from place to place, depending on currents, tides and relief.

A hyper-local analysis is therefore essential to assess the most appropriate adaptation strategies. Some local authorities have already implemented innovative, nature-based solutions :

  • In Hyères, for example, the Vieux Salins dunes have been restored and revegetated to provide a recreational area while reinforcing coastal protection.
  • In Mortagne-sur-Gironde, we opted for depoldering, which returns land once reclaimed from the sea to marine ecosystems.

These initiatives have multiple benefits (preservation of biodiversity, creation of economic activities, etc.). Such is the case of the Living Breakwaters project in New York, where underwater breakwaters populated by oysters protect the coastline, purify the water and encourage the return of marine species. All while offering new fishing activities! Clearly, these constraints can be transformed into opportunities.

Faced with such a complex challenge, a multidisciplinary approach is essential. Architects, with their expertise in spatial planning and their creative vision, play a central role in devising sustainable and appropriate solutions. In collaboration with other specialists, they can help communities to co-construct resilient urban planning policies, redesign coastlines and rethink the use of these precious spaces.

Architects | Builders of a sustainable coastline

To deal with the retreat of the coastline, the government has introduced a regulatory framework to encourage the most exposed communes to adapt their urban planning policies (ordinance of April 7, 2022 on the sustainable development of coastal territories exposed to retreat of the coastline). A decree currently lists 242 communes concerned, a figure set to rise to 316 this summer.

The French Architects' Association is convinced that architects have a central role to play as advisors to these local authorities, and that this must be anticipated. Their expertise enables them to support local councilors in drawing up joint development strategies, tailored to the specific characteristics of each area.

But beyond consulting, architects are called upon to play an active role in the complete redesign of coastal zones. It's no longer just a question of planning, but of rethinking and redesigning these spaces threatened by rising sea levels. A major challenge, but also a unique opportunity to shape resilient, sustainable coastlines. By combining creativity, overall vision and environmental sensitivity, they can become the builders of a new coastal landscape, more harmonious and better prepared for future challenges!

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