For Alex Felson, opportunity knocks on Connecticut coast

Alex Felson working with architecture students at Yale.

Jan Ellen Spiegel

Alex Felson working with architecture students at Yale.

Alex Felson likes the word opportunity.

He uses it repeatedly, even when referring to the tropical storms Irene and Sandy. It is not exactly the word folks still coping with the loss of homes, destruction of property and the reconfiguration of the coastline would choose.

But for a landscape architect and urban ecologist at Yale -- one with a joint appointment in the Schools of Architecture and Forestry and Environmental Studies and an over-arching philosophy that stresses the need to blend ecology with design -- opportunity has definitely arrived in the form of a battered, flooded and otherwise jeopardized Connecticut shoreline.

“Climate change for me is kind of like a moment in time where it’s changing the dialogue and discussion,” Felson said. “It gives me an opportunity to do what I otherwise would have wanted to do anyway, which is essentially transform urban settlements and infrastructure and the physical patterns of living -- opportunities to rethink and re-evaluate the way in which we build on the land.”

So that’s what he’s doing.

With multiple focuses that include climate adaptation, green infrastructure, hydrology innovation, urban design and ecosystem management – and that’s just the short list – Felson’s handiwork can be found in climate change-related projects up and down the Connecticut coast.

Involved in everything

They range from a first-of-its-kind long-term Community Coastal Resilience Plan for Guilford that re-imagines waterfront areas after sea level rise engulfs them, to West Haven’s multi-pronged project to restore natural watershed drainage systems, to a transformative climate adaptation plan for nearly all of Bridgeport that won a small amount of funding as part of a national competition. And that’s just the short list, too.

“He’s involved in everything,” said Tim Terway, a doctoral candidate at the School Forestry working under Felson and studying the social science of urban ecology. Like others, Terway wonders if Felson ever sleeps, given that he also has three kids, ages two, seven and 12. His wife, Janine Coye-Felson, is a United Nations diplomat from Belize who now serves as special counsel for the president of the General Assembly. She commutes to the UN from the family’s Wooster Square home.

Part of Alex Felson's proposal to study and implement mitigation proposals along the shoreline in 5 Connecticut communities.

Courtesy Alex Felson

Part of Alex Felson's proposal to study and implement mitigation proposals along the shoreline in 5 Connecticut communities.

“His disposition in general is one where nothing’s impossible,” Terway said. “He’s very interested in blending the academy and practice. It’s the number one reason I chose to spend upwards of five years with very low pay in a doctoral program under Alex’s wing.”

The two have known each other for a decade. They worked together as landscape designers in New York on marsh restoration in Queens, New York City’s Million Trees initiative and on a land development project in Tuxedo, N.Y., in which a little salamander threatened to bring developers and environmentalists to blows.

Forging consensus

It was Felson’s talent for bridging differences and forging community consensus, which he did by learning the salamander’s migration routes and then figuring out the best place for houses, that helped save the project. The work won him recognition as one of Crain’s New York Business’s “40 Under Forty” in 2009.  (Felson turns 43 this month.) It’s also a major reason Felson has become the go-to guy for ecological development in Connecticut.

"In his actual day-to-day relationships and needs, he treats people universally with respect,” said Terway, who noted how contentious such situations are when there is often no “right” answer and private property rights clash with public policy. “The way he treats people, his energy; it’s contagious.”

It also has deep roots.

Felson learned the skills of consensus-building and respect for land as a teenager sent from his home in Athens, Ga., to live on a kibbutz in Israel for a year. He honed those communal skills during college at the University of Wisconsin – where he majored in botany – when he showed up at a Chippewa reservation near Lake Superior to help out and learn. His tasks spanned collecting birchbark for canoes and baskets, running the sugarbush and skinning animals.

He fine-tuned consensus skills and developed new observational ones over years traveling the country for a number of projects, including 9,000 miles by motorcycle in California collecting lilies for research. A side benefit was seeing landscapes through the eyes of the people who lived in them.

“I think that had a major influence on me in terms of understanding how to interact with people and how to frame my own goals in relation to other people’s interests, which I think has gone into my projects,” he said.

It has also carried into the classroom, helping form the basis for the Urban Ecology and Design Lab he started his first year at Yale in 2009. It puts students in real world circumstances with the scientific and design theories from the classroom. “I think a lot of academics take for granted what it takes to negotiate these kinds of complex projects,” Felson said. “I try as much as I can to get students involved in the phone calls and the negotiating process and the day-to-day aspect of how you actually facilitate innovative project solutions and negotiate with people around their complex needs. That’s where a lot of the breakdown is.”

'Aha' moments

It’s also where those “aha” moments come from. In Guilford, Felson and Terway coined the term “zones of shared risk” referring to areas with similar problems, such as flooding, as opposed to neighbors who may share proximity though all of them may not flood. That hyper-local distinction was key to getting community support, said George Kral, Guilford’s town planner.

“It was not just local in terms of local government,” said Kral, who is still working with Felson as the plan moves through its approval process. “A coastal resilience plan is going to be most effective if it’s driven from the bottom up.”

Adam Whelchel, the director of science for the Nature Conservancy in Connecticut also worked with Felson in Guilford. “He’s unique in that he can speak engineering, often a foreign language for architects,” Whelchel said. “He also has a very keen sense and interest in building community around very challenging and difficult issues.”

Challenging and difficult in Guilford was selling to wealthy oceanfront landowners the eventual likelihood that their homes will be underwater. But that’s been a day at the beach compared to the battle in Bridgeport over Felson’s rain garden “designed experiment,” as he calls it, to ease flooding in the historic Seaside Village community.

“Getting a group to buy into that,” Felson said. “It was not so simple.”

Alex Felson working with volunteers helping to plant the Seaside Village rain garden.

Courtesy Alex Felson

Alex Felson working with volunteers helping to plant the Seaside Village rain garden.

The plan: create six retention ponds with drainage systems and stone benches, a path and plantings to make an esthetic usable space. It would be drainage without a noisy and unsightly pumping station. But the community was generally not on board, and even less so once mosquitoes arrived.

Without key community activists Diego Celis and Lydia Silvas, “I think I would have been sort of booted out and they would have given up, probably,” said Felson on a recent afternoon as he toured the installation with Celis. “Yeah these would have been filled with soil already,” said Celis indicating the water-swollen ponds.

Silvas gives Felson muted kudos: “He’s good at NOT coming in and being arrogant and saying ‘This is what’s going to be done YOU PEOPLE.’”

Felson considers the project a great case study and even a qualified success. It did stop some of the flooding, it hasn’t been filled in, and it’s an experiment after all -- one that his students are monitoring and looking to replicate – with revisions learned through this one - elsewhere in the city.

“I do kind of love this project,” said Felson who thinks many landscape architects and engineers avoid difficult ones like it because the prospects for success are so low. “I love the fact that there is an opportunity to understand the community response to these systems and to have a kind of chalkboard that I can work with in this community to try and figure out innovation.”

Alex Felson (seated) shown on cover of Rebuild By Design proposal for Bridgeport.

Courtesy City of Bridgeport

Alex Felson (seated) shown on cover of Rebuild By Design proposal for Bridgeport.

Rebuild by Design

His chance at even bigger innovations in Bridgeport seems to have hit a roadblock, however. The national design competition, Rebuild by Design, for massive projects to rebuild areas hardest hit by Sandy, has awarded 99 percent of its nearly $1 billion to projects in New York and New Jersey, giving the lone Connecticut project in Bridgeport only $10 million.

The competition was run jointly by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The final 10 design teams were culled from 148. Connecticut’s proposal for Bridgeport, called Resilient Bridgeport, included a decades long, neighborhood-by-neighborhood reconfiguration of waterfronts along Long Island Sound as well as far up the Pequonnock River.

It proposed natural shoreline mitigations, berms, better drainage and hydrology systems, and wholesale rebuilding of structures. More unconventionally it conceived of an economic plan spearheaded by a reinvigorated waterfront to develop a more robust fishing industry that would use the river for spawning and the seed oyster industry while creating innovations like two-in-one fish ladders and green spaces.

While Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch lauded the $10 million award as “great news for our city,” it pales against the $380 million going to New Jersey, $355 million to New York City and $185 million to New York State.

“I think it’s a loss for Connecticut,” said Felson who was brought onto the team with students and others at Yale specifically for his community connections and nexus of ecology and design.

“What Alex brought was a combination of connections he already had,” said Aron Chang, an architectural designer with New Orleans-based Waggonner & Ball Architects, a member of the initial Bridgeport team. “There was a level of trust there.”

David Kooris, the director of Bridgeport’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, knew of Felson’s work in Guilford not to mention the credibility Yale would bring. But he also knew managing expectations and walking the line between retreat and fortification would be dicey.

“What has been incredibly important and where Alex and his team have been incredibly helpful has been in engaging the community in conversation and in understanding what’s on the horizon, what’s achievable in the short term, and what’s achievable in the long term,” he said.

Alan Plattus, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture and the director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop was also part of the Yale group.

“One of the reasons Alex is a valuable character,” Plattus said, “is he’s got both the science and the recognition that at the end of the day these projects are about the needs of local communities.”

Which is why Felson is also choosing to see the silver lining in the Rebuild by Design outcome. “I’m pleased with being part of RBD,” he said. “It’s going to turn into advantages in many different ways.”

Felson noted through RBD, he’s made connections in the state’s aquaculture community and still hopes to find funding and ways to develop the innovative fishery component of the plan as a way to build the economy and adapt to the changing climate.

All hope is not lost, he said.

“Not at all,” he said.

"I’m a little disappointed. I’m a little surprised,” he said. “But I’ll use RBD to create stepping stones to other relationships that will create more opportunities.”

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