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Students embrace the challenge of redesigning a coastal park in the face of rising seas

Students embrace the challenge of redesigning a coastal park in the face of rising seas

May 6, 2016 at 12:00am

By Joel Delgado ’12 MS ’17 

Historic Virginia Key Beach Park – an 82-acre oasis on a barrier island tucked off the causeway just before Key Biscayne – is one of South Florida’s most unique historic and cultural locations.

The park opened in 1945 as Miami-Dade County’s “colored only” beach while segregation was still a reality in the South, and today serves as an isolated and peaceful refuge just minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Miami.

“What was unique here is that although it was segregated, it was a very cherished spot,” said Guy Forchion, executive director of the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. “I still believe it’s South Florida’s most beautiful beach. I love how natural it is and how set away it is from everything, even though it’s just a few miles from downtown.”


Left to right: Executive Director of the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park Trust Guy Forchion, Sea Level Solutions Center Director Tiffany Troxler and architecture professors Marilys Nepomechie and Claudio Salazar take students on a tour of Historic Virginia Key Beach Park.

But sea level rise along Florida’s coast threatens park operations, and this threat is projected to increase in the future. Over the last few months, a group of FIU students took on the task of reimagining the site in an attempt to protect it for future generations of beachgoers and naturalists. They designed a visitor center, museum and research facility for a planned redevelopment project.

Students from multiple disciplines – including architecture, construction management, biology and public administration – signed up for the Sea Level Solutions Center Interdisciplinary Studio course to complete a site analysis and create an architectural design that would help make the park resilient to rising sea levels over the next century, backed up with data to justify the approach.

“The course really is a very easy way to articulate what the Sea Level Solutions Center is about,” said Tiffany Troxler, director of the center and a co-instructor for the course. “It takes an understanding of all the facets of the problem to come up with solutions that are workable. We are taking research and data from different disciplines and using that information to strive toward the solutions that help us adapt to sea level change.”

Read more about rising seas: A legacy not yet written


The students visited the park as a group. In the classroom, they listened to lectures from faculty members representing various disciplines and discussed topics such as storm surge and flooding scenarios, sustainable and resilient plan and design, and cost-benefit analysis.

“We’re learning that there is a lot more to architecture than just the building or the structure we’re designing, ” said Josh Pagano, an architecture student from Italy. He’s attending FIU for the semester as part of an exchange program. “The most rewarding thing about this whole project is simply facing the challenge of it and seeing the design solution come out from investigating all these different factors.”

At the end of the semester, students presented their designs to a panel of faculty and members of the trust. Among the solutions incorporated into the final projects: using mangroves as a layer of protection along the beach to resist storm surge and sea level rise, and building up the lowest levels of the park. Some of the projects preserved the historical aspects of the park – such as a vintage merry-go-round and miniature train – while others repurposed or reimagined them for the future.

“In each presentation, there was some element that was very thoughtful and mindful of everything that we are, where we’re headed and how we can entertain and educate the public,” Forchion said. “That was a major challenge, and I love the way these students have addressed it.”  

Read more about South Florida’s climate change solutions