Mannenharten 2, The Hateful Eight, Star Wars. These films are currently showing at the Heerenstraattheater in Wageningen. But soon you will also be able to see At the Edge there. A documentary about coastal defences – or the lack of them – in New Jersey since hurricane Sandy. Made by a Wageningen student.
Illustration Marit Noest
In the night of 29 to 30 October 2012 the east coast of the United States was hit by hurricane Sandy. More than 100 people died, 360 houses were destroyed and 65 million dollars’ worth of damage was done. New York and New Jersey were especially hard hit by what was one of the worst storms the region had ever experienced.
Marit Noest, who has just started her Master’s in Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning, saw the damage on television and realized immediately that reconstruction would be a massive spatial planning project. She followed developments closely because of her interest in coastal landscapes. ‘There is a huge amount of knowledge on coastal defences in the Netherlands and President Obama called in Dutch experts. But to my astonishment most of the attention went to New York, whereas the storm hit land at New Jersey. There everything was being rebuilt exactly as it was before. I couldn’t understand why.’
The idea for her Master’s thesis was born. In the summer of 2015 Marit went to New Jersey to find out why the coastal defences there had not been improved. She didn’t go alone: she took along filmmaker Anouk Saint Martin from The Hague, whom she had met on Facebook. ‘Film is an interesting way of sharing your research and making sure it doesn’t just disappear into a drawer. I had no experience whatsoever of filmmaking so I did need some help.’
She had not imagined that the documentary would have its premiere in the Heerenstraat. ‘One year ago I happened to mention to my supervisor that I thought it would be nice to make a film. She was very enthusiastic. It gradually became a bigger and bigger part of my final project.’ At the presentation of her project Marit only had time to show excerpts from the film. ‘That is why I booked a screen at the Heerenstraat.’
Hilarious little town
The documentary focuses on Asbury Park, a small town right on the coast of New Jersey. ‘A hilarious little town,’ says Marit. ‘Very American, with a wooden boardwalk along the beach and a deserted casino from the heyday of the 1920s and 30s, before everyone started going to the casinos in Atlantic City.’ There are luxury villas right on the coast, the boardwalk is sacred, and a little mound of sand is considered enough protection against flooding. ‘When I saw that they were building an enormous new house among the ruins of one of these seaside villas, I thought: there must be another way to do this.’
During her six-week stay Marit interviewed various townspeople about the way they saw the coast and the reconstruction. They included the residents of a seaside villa, a member of the town council and someone from an NGO. It was clear from the conversations she had that people loved the ocean and were resistant to change. ‘Living by the sea is a kind of religion there. Some people think: there will never be another storm like that one so why should we invest in a solution if there isn’t a problem? NGOs and landscape architects who argue for future-proof solutions hardly get a look-in.’
Some of the attitudes were quite extreme. For example, the documentary features a couple with an ocean view villa. ‘Rich people. They don’t want any dunes because if you can’t see the ocean your house is suddenly only worth four million dollars instead of five million. Their attitude is: if it happens again we’ll just build another house. The residents of the neighbourhood behind them, who are not well-off, are the victims of this. One woman who lost everything in the storm said she would have no alternative but to move if no dunes are created.’
Marit went on to use the filmed interviews in her quest for a perfect design for the coastline. ‘I stood on the boardwalk with posters showing several different strategies for defending the coast, and asked people what they thought of them. The film turned out to be a good way of prompting residents to question existing social norms. The people who had seen the film more easily reached agreement on a design for their coast, and they were also prepared to invest in it.’
Marit designed a coastal landscape for Abury Park in which coastal defence is combined with the experience of the beach and the sea. ‘I wanted a climate-ready design which the residents could all support. It is not a good idea to change the boardwalk because that is part of the town’s charm. But you can integrate it into a dune landscape through which people can also walk and cycle, as they do in the Netherlands. Flexible summer houses make it possible to live right on the beach and the carpark can be designed to absorb excess water.’
The final design is not shown in the film. A conscious decision, says Marit. ‘I want the residents of Asbury Park to discuss between them what the best solution would be. The documentary is intended to generate an understanding of the way everyone thinks. I started out with a Dutch point of view too: why don’t you get it under control? But now I can see things from other points of view.’
The residents of Asbury Park have not seen her plans yet. ‘I am very curious what they will think of them. I don’t think my design will necessarily be implemented but if my project makes them think about sustainable solutions, I would be very pleased.’
Marit is giving away two tickets for the premiere of her documentary in the Heerenstraattheater on 18 February. Interested? Mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The first to email wins the tickets.
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