Rob Holmes manages a team of researchers at Auburn’s Landscape Infrastructure Design Lab in researching and developing natural infrastructure that can address problems like flooding, habitat loss and public health in coastal communities.
Communities all along the nation’s coasts, lakes and rivers are confronting challenges related to intense storms, sea level rise and erosion, but one Auburn faculty member is on a mission to develop natural approaches to these challenges through landscape design.
Rob Holmes, associate professor and chair of the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction (CADC), has been awarded $7.75 million in funding over the next five years as part of the Natural Infrastructure Innovation Project (NIIP). Holmes manages a team of researchers at Auburn’s Landscape Infrastructure Design Lab (LIDL) in researching and developing natural infrastructure that can address problems like flooding, habitat loss and public health in coastal communities.
NIIP is a new project funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering With Nature program. The research team, which includes partner labs at the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania, aims to identify which natural infrastructure approaches work best and communicate these techniques to landscape architects and engineers across the country. While traditional engineering has been in place for decades, researchers like Holmes are finding that new natural infrastructure approaches are often less expensive and offer greater resilience, flexibility and social and ecological benefits.
While the NIIP program is in its first year, the LIDL team is working to identify locations along the Gulf Coast that could benefit from innovative natural infrastructure. They are researching concepts that include marsh restoration, setback levees, oyster reef creation and the development of barrier islands and feeder berms with dredged material. In the second year of the program, they will begin testing those proposals in bays and estuaries along the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
Holmes and the research team aim to engage with community stakeholders in those areas, including residents, businesses and government officials, to gauge the impact and success of their work.
“Engaging with local stakeholders is a goal of the project,” Holmes said. “We work hard to understand the context of each place we work in, and that includes things like where residents might prefer dredged material to be placed and who has the capacity and interest to implement significant nature-based infrastructure.”
Once they’ve completed their research, they will devote the last few years of the project to communicating best practices to landscape architects who want to work with natural infrastructure. Holmes says one of the most important parts of NIIP is the ability to impact those who will be implementing these design concepts in the future.
“We know that there are a multitude of folks, including government agencies, nonprofits, private consultants and contractors, who are working on natural infrastructure across the country,” he said. “We want to align the research we are doing with the work that they are doing. Since we’re working on a research project, we have the luxury of being more exploratory and expansive than they usually can be, because they are typically on tight budgets and short timelines.”
When they’re not in the field testing ideas for natural infrastructure, the LIDL team members work out of a new workshop at the CADC Research Commons, which houses research staff, landscape architecture student studio space and physical and digital coastal modelling equipment. Students have access to workstations dedicated to hydrodynamic modeling software, as well as a lab space equipped with a stream table, which allows for physical modeling of rivers, wetlands and coasts and simulation of sediment flow, erosion and waves.
“The lab’s physical and digital modeling capabilities significantly enhance our ability to study the performance of those features,” Holmes said. “The partners we work with are often trying to shift design paradigms toward nature-based concepts, but traditional infrastructure is more easily modeled and better understood thanks to centuries of engineering precedents. Being able to offer insight into the performance of nature-based concepts is really important for innovation.”