Building resilience: Urban park meets shellfish habitat

Sculpture assembly at India Point Park
Students from the Rhode Island School of Design assemble and install shellfish habitat sculptures off the coast of India Point Park in Providence earlier this summer.

Art, design, science, & community merge in RI EPSCoR restoration project

Tethered to wood pilings partially submerged in Providence Harbor off the India Point Park shoreline, a series of concrete sculptures lure the settling of shellfish larvae and any other manner of sea life that happen upon their surface.

The mid-summer installation led by Rhode Island School of Design faculty and students marked a triumphant effort to protect a section of the Providence coastal habitat with sculptures that evoke their industrial surroundings while offering shellfish habitat. The project is visible from the park — once the site of a railroad yard and heaps of scrap metal — set against an urban backdrop and the steel green arches of the I-195 bridge.

Sculpture design
A poster details the types of sculptures aimed at attracting shellfish larvae to settle.

“People in this state eat oysters or clams,” observes Scheri Fultineer, RISD associate professor and department head of Landscape Architecture, “but few understand what they need to grow.”

Fultineer and her collaborators hope the project, more than five years in the making and carried out under the auspices of Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, will help improve understanding along with shoreline resilience, shellfish abundance, and mediation efforts to cope with the impacts of climate change.

“They made us explain our goals better and their concerns taught us about how to work collaboratively with the public and advocates for the park.”

At the same time, the sculptures showcase the juncture of art, design, and science, a key component of the RI EPSCoR grant and the RISD role in the program; an intentional effort to meld inquiry-based study with scientific research. The outcome also illustrates the possibilities that arise when diverse disciplines collaborate, bringing together the best and brightest minds of disparate fields to solve complex issues.

Fultineer traces the genesis of the coastal restoration initiative to one of several RISD studio courses supported by RI EPSCoR funding, with Edythe Wright, a former RISD adjunct sculpture professor, and University of Rhode Island Professor Marta Gomez Chiarri, who in 2011-12 was a scientist in residence at RISD.

Ultimately, the project brought together faculty and students from four RI EPSCoR partner institutions — RISD, URI, Roger Williams University, and Rhode Island College. Gomez Chiarri, RWU Associate Professor Dale Leavitt and RIC Associate Professor Breea Govenar consulted on the science, teaching the artists and designers about oysters, how they grow, and the surfaces larvae like to settle on. Fultineer and Wright worked with their studio class to develop designs, ultimately coming up with six different proposals to address shellfish habitat statewide.

One design emerged as the most viable system and the team applied for and received a Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) grant in 2012. Throughout the duration of the EPSCoR grant in Rhode Island, the STAC awards have served as the state match for the federal EPSCoR program.

“For us, Edythe and I, the project was about the aesthetics of sustainability and whether we could get the public to engage, to think that maybe we should care about oyster larvae,” Fultineer says.

India Point Park installation
RISD Associate Professor Scheri Fultineer, middle right, and URI Professor Marta Gomez Chiarri, middle left, visit with members of the Friends of India Point Park during the June sculpture installation.

Balancing objectives, perspectives

The duo aimed to create structures that would generate an impact on both marine life and community understanding, giving rise to the fundamental question of what do art and design bring to the scientific question? Explains Fultineer: “Sometimes, new ideas about materials or forms, in a cultural way, tend to be very good at engaging people.”

This is particularly important, she notes, as increasingly more complex problems arise that are harder to solve, requiring greater understanding and support for shifts in policy to address growing concerns. But, for the artists, designers and scientists, the question remained, what was the best approach to take?

The team narrowed its focus to an urban, visible setting that had the potential to engage schools and community groups while creating physical structures that would grow the habitat, bringing the public into direct contact with a concept that was at once fun and intriguing. As it turns out, the artists, designers and scientists also gained from the experience, strengthening the dialogue and broadening perspectives.

Pilings in the Bay
The project involved securing the concrete and steel sculptures to wood pilings.

“For us, it was great,” says Fultineer, “It allowed us in the landscape program to start looking at coastal conditions and try to take on global issues through local sites. It was something we were not just doing theoretically; it allowed us to address more advanced notions of ecology and habitat.”

The RISD students also benefited from the technical skills involved, including math and problem solving experiences not always encountered in art and design projects, and the opportunities for sculpture and landscape students to teach each other about their respective fields. They experimented with designs and materials, and tested prototypes.

“The biggest piece was the education, making it accessible to Providence schoolchildren, helping to build some curiosity about how we keep our shores clean, prompting kids to ask questions, anything to get people to start thinking about the environment.”

What’s more, Fultineer notes, the public scope of the project added the dimension of working with the Friends of India Point Park, an advocacy group founded in 2000 “to protect and enhance India Point Park’s informal, unstructured natural beauty and preserve it as a refuge from the city and the built environment.”

Fultineer and Gomez Chiarri, along with RISD Assistant Professor Emily Volger and student project assistants, met with the Friends of India Point Park leadership to discuss the proposal, seek approval to move forward with the state permitting process, and cultivate public participation in the project.

A sculpture sits submerged underwater, visible to passers by at India Point Park.

“They made us explain our goals better and their concerns taught us about how to work collaboratively with the public and advocates for the park,” reflects Fultineer. “In return, they started becoming engaged in the idea that their park could play a different role in coastal habitat protection. For everyone, we learned a lot about both sides of the picture.”

She adds: “With climate change and sea level rise, and habitat loss and species decline, we are at an interesting and urgent moment of understanding what our parks can do and the benefit that exists for the public in embracing that.”

Marjorie Powning, co-chair of the Friends of India Point Park and a point person on the sculpture project, says initial concerns about whether the public would have a voice quickly gave way to a positive and rewarding exchange: “It was great to work with them. They heard  us and there was mutual respect.”

The park friends saw the initial plan as too big in scope and scale, and they aired their thoughts. Essentially, Powning says, the group felt the early concept was too much for a site intended to be a respite from the built-up city environment; a place where urban dwellers can find refuge in water views and open sky.

However, the project team took time to explain to the citizens why the park site was important and the role it could play, helping to bridge gaps and move toward common ground.

“There were ideas we were aligned on,” Powning says. “The biggest piece was the education, making it accessible to Providence schoolchildren, helping to build some curiosity about how we keep our shores clean, prompting kids to ask questions, anything to get people to start thinking about the environment. It made sense — India Point Park is really accessible.”

In response to concerns, the sculpture team adjusted the number of locations for the pilot forms and secured the park community’s blessing to advance the project.

Says Fultineer: “This is what landscape architecture does. We work constantly between people and nature, looking for ways to make these symbiotic relationships, where humans are aware of other living organisms, care about them, and get a benefit from them.”

A work in progress

DSC_0115DSC_0076DSC_0113On the early summer installation day, a RISD crew worked in small teams to assemble the sculptures, using plastic ties to bind the concrete and shell tiles to their frames and then paddling out in a canoe to attach the sculptures to the wood pilings. A white canopy offered shade from the warming sun as it rose over India Point Park and drew onlookers to view the activity and poster presentations that described the project. Several members of Friends of India Point Park stopped by to visit with Fultineer and Gomez-Chiarri.

Witnessing the project come to fruition, Gomez-Chiarri says, “It was very exciting to see the excellent teamwork and all the excitement from everybody involved, including people who stopped by to ask questions. I am also looking forward to involving the community and students from local schools in monitoring the forms and learning more about the coastal environment.”

Terry Cannon, a park friend who was among those who stopped by to observe, says his initial concerns about the project were alleviated as he learned more about it: “I was really happy that they were willing to limit the amount of sculptures and do their best not to injure the piers. It’s a great idea and I feel really good about the outcome.”

Within days of the installation, Fultineer says, the new habitat was developing biofilm and one tile was broken.

“It seems to be from someone throwing something at it,” she says. “But, that was the whole premise. We wanted it to be urban and with high visibility. This will test our tiles for different impacts — now we’ll know even more, once we see how they behave at the site. Seeing them in the water, no matter how many times you draw them, there are all of these new discoveries. We’re really excited to see how the forms develop.”

Beyond the environmental impact, the project also has made its mark on the individuals involved. One recent RISD graduate is pursuing a newfound interest in dredging and was attending a conference in San Francisco the day of the installation; another student applied and was accepted to a program where she will do her artwork on a yearlong journey with a research vessel in the Arctic.

“Meanwhile,” says Fultineer, “we’ve got new students involved in a second round of prototypes. It’s really exciting to see a new generation of students stepping in, students who came to the program because of the project.”

The faculty, too, emerged from the experience having learned from their peers. While the artists, designers, and scientists knew they had shared interests, the project offered the chance to explore new ground.

“We were delighted when we started working with the scientists,” Fultineer says. “They were such good critics and jumped right in with their ideas, which was affirming for us and what we knew about making forms. We went into this feeling that maybe there was a learning chasm between the scientists and us, but we found that it really was a pleasure to work together. Their feedback and enthusiasm were great. And, I think we surprised them at times with ideas that they never anticipated.”

Another outcome for the RISD group, beyond the project’s scope, was the chance to pursue a National Science Foundation grant on dams with URI, University of New Hampshire and University of Maine scientists. Fultineer says the sculpture project gave the artists and designers greater confidence in the role they could play, providing alternative scenarios with visualization and models:

“We’re preparing materials and studies to assist the larger team and test the decision making procedures, creating physical and visual models of different scenarios, what happens if you keep the dam or take it away. We also bring our experience of running the public process.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle