Location: Norfolk, Virginia

Story Map: Living Shorelines: Norfolk, Virginia

Norfolk is an urban, highly developed city of approximately 243,000 residents, located in southeastern Virginia, and bordered by the Elizabeth River and Chesapeake Bay. Due to its low elevation and location along the coastline, Norfolk is susceptible to tidal and storm surge flooding, made worse by sea level rise.

Up until recently, sea level rise and flood mitigation were not even mentioned by candidates running for office in Norfolk. However, they have become so relevant (and hard to ignore) that in recent local races, concerns about flooding often become the very first issues candidates address.

Sea level in Norfolk is rising at a twice the global average rate, in part because of the subsidence (sinking) of Chesapeake Bay. Since 1992, sea level has already risen by six inches. If this trend continues, it is projected to rise by 16.5 inches by 2050. As a result of sea level rise, the city now experiences tidal flooding twice as often as it did three decades ago.

In addition to elevating or buying out properties in harm’s way, Norfolk has adopted the use of living shorelines in response to coastal flooding and the threat of further sea level rise. A living shoreline is a stabilized coastal edge made of natural materials such as plants, sand or rock. Living shorelines fight erosion, buffer floods, and protect the coastline. As sea level continues to rise, living shorelines will allow wetlands to migrate upslope, unlike a hard structure, such as a bulkhead. In addition, they also purify water, store carbon, and attract wildlife.

Norfolk has completed dozens of living shorelines projects since the 1990s. These projects involve creating wetlands along the shore. Typically, this begins with forming the outer edge of the new shoreline by burying logs made of coconut fiber in mud flats, adding sand to form the base of the wetland, and planting it with grasses and shrubs. In some locations, oysters are added to provide extra filtration and wildlife habitat.

Volunteers planting grasses for the Colley Bay living shoreline. (Photo courtesy of John Parkinson).

A prime example of a living shoreline project took place in Colley Bay, an inlet of the Lafayette River. In 2013, this was the site of Norfolk’s biggest living shoreline project. It consists of 1,200 feet of natural shoreline, protected by a series of rock sills, and 1.5 acres of new wetlands.

A key part of the success of living shorelines projects in Norfolk is public outreach. There are living shoreline demonstration sites throughout the city to educate the public on the benefits of this practice. Norfolk used resources at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to learn about living shorelines and has partnered with non-governmental organizations and citizens to help promote, design, fund, and build them.

Story Map: Living Shorelines: Norfolk, Virginia


Story Map Cover

Take a story map guided tour through all the communities featured in Volume III's Success Stories. You can explore each communities’ timeline of flood events and responses, with an immersive narrative that includes photos, videos, and audio clips.


See more Success Stories from the Guide for Elected Officials