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  • Jump-Starting The Habitat Engine
  • Steven N. Handel

In the world of professional planners, transportation is the critical link that allows people, goods, and public services to be distributed and reach their useful destinations. The engines of transport, in cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes, pull along the requirements of sustainable civic life in our population centers. Stop the engines, and our modern world creaks to a halt. But the wheels and wings of powered transport aren’t the only necessity. Restoration of ecological structure can also serve to advance, to pull along, vital components of our human communities. The Habitat Engine may be an instructive metaphor for the high value of our restoration work for our increasingly changing world.

We feel that this Habitat Engine metaphor makes particular sense in a world of rising seas, causing existing coastal habitats to be lost. The recent United States Rebuild By Design initiative ( allowed us the opportunity to explore this idea. This was a public competition to improve, not simply reiterate, coastal features destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Initiated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (USHUD) in 2013, the program aimed to more creatively use the Hurricane Sandy funds made available for reconstruction by the federal government. We were told that President Obama told his senior staff, “This is why we were elected,” meaning to champion a better future unmoored from past planning habits and now inappropriate design models.

Our predicament is this: sea levels rise, and flooding inundates existing vegetation and habitats. The built, bulkhead-wrapped, human-dominated coastal areas adjacent to future flooded maritime zones do not permit a slow, steady migration of the natural resources inland, the process that occurred in past millennia as glaciers receded and the marine waters rose. (Here in New Jersey the former coastline, during the glacial maximum, was many kilometers east of the current fun-filled Jersey shore.) Three quite different axes of coastal life can be lost during this era of rising tides: ecological structure and habitats, certainly, but also economic opportunities, and cultural/social activities.

Can habitats ever migrate away from the enveloping sea during this century? Is there a remedy? Our coastal zones are clogged up with existing land uses, commercial facilities, nifty oceanfront homes, paved parking lots, piers, and rocky erosion control features. This is a constructed barrier that seemingly eliminates any hope of natural habitat migration. One solution has been proposed by Sasaki Associates, in collaboration with our Rutgers team, as part of the Rebuild By Design program.

The Habitat Engine concept is to rebrand new coastal habitats as more than ecological amenities, but also as drivers for economic and social stability and value. By carving out new landscape terraces in strategic areas connected along the threatened shore, we allow submarine, intertidal, and coastal fringe habitats and species to move inland as the waters rise. This is the geologic process of the past, now interdigitated around and into our coastal human community land uses. Without vegetation movement, there is diminution of ecological structure and function as niche spaces in the various marine zones are lost. With new areas for habitat created by local land-forming actions, ecological communities can move in, in concert with the speed and intensity of sea level rise. Propagules and juveniles are carried by the tides, and newly inundated lands begin to reform local natural communities. We do not know the precise speed and intensity with which the ocean will rise, but the reconfigured land forms are ready to embrace the slowly dispersing coastal fringe habitats,

As the new habitats form, economic and cultural life can move in and persist also, to replace what is being lost by repeated flooding of our present civic zones. Restoration ecology under this Habitat Engine metaphor advances these social needs as the waters rise. The Habitat Engine pulls along all three aspects of our coastal life, the triple foundations of sustainability, not just plants and critters.

This rearrangement of our coastal needs secures the foundations of societal function as well as plant and animal population processes. Recreational and commercial fisheries, for example, can be strengthened by keeping critical nursery grounds of coastal fish...


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