The exhibition that’s hanging on a wall at Space Gallery in Portland looks a lot like a city map of Portland.

Which, of course, it is.

“Waterfront Visions 2050” takes a serious look at the effect of rising sea levels in Portland, and suggests potential solutions. While this exhibition is more about ideas and planning than it is about the visual arts, gallery director Nat May said he’s learned a lot about his city by showing up to work every day and looking at the massive map.

“We all look at maps, but we don’t look at them at this scale,” said May, who hopes people take the time to visit the exhibition and think about its contents before it closes Dec. 21. “It makes you think a lot more about how the streets really interrelate. I look at it and am always surprised how much Congress Street bends east to west. Being in the Arts District, I see Congress Street as straight. But it’s not.”

Presented in partnership with the Portland Society for Architecture, “Waterfront Visions” takes a comprehensive look at rising sea levels and how they impact Portland today and how they are likely to effect the city years from now.

The project involves symposia, lectures, talks and study groups.

For May, Space was the perfect venue not only to display maps and charts, but serve as ground zero for a community-wide discussion about one the most important issues that will affect the look and feel of the city for years to come.

“The idea of having architects, planners and designers putting ideas on the walls for people to look at and think about and talk about is not a new idea for us. Artists do it every day, and we are an idea space. It’s possible to have an exhibition that is not designed by those who we tend to think of as artists, but people who still express their ideas visually. … It seems that putting everything up on the wall was a great way to get the general public aware of the work that the Portland Society for Architecture is doing and why it matters.”

For the December First Friday Art Walk, the architecture group will overlay results from work sessions on the larger city map. Small groups of planners, property owners, designers and others have been working on specific issues and ideas, said Alan Kuniholm, PSA vice president.

“We have a lot of water edge in Portland, and the water wants to take back what we filled in years ago. We’re not trying to be a Henny Penny here,” Kuniholm said. “We just want folks to share in this information so we can be forward-thinking about it.”

The issue is that sea levels are rising. High tides are higher than before, and much of the Portland waterfront is at greater risk of flooding. That risk increases with time, as sea levels rise. The latest science suggests that sea levels in the gulf of Maine will rise 2 to 6 feet in the next 100 years, meaning that Portland – and all of coastal Maine – will face larger and more dramatic storms than we are accustomed to.

With the Portland waterfront undergoing transformation from a working waterfront to more residential and mixed use, now is as good a time as any to begin a discussion, said Kuniholm, who will become PSA president in 2014.

“We talk a lot about business development and mixed use and the working waterfront, but none of that will make a difference if we do not take into account that we are getting more 100-year storms and higher sea levels. You overlay that information on top of the fact that the piers are collapsing into the water and the collapse of the fishing industry, it means we really need to talk about it now.”

Part of the Space exhibition that is getting the most attention is a visual display of Jessica Wagner Kimball’s master’s thesis about the Portland waterfront.

A Mainer and former planner at Old Orchard Beach, she wrote the thesis while working on her master’s degree at the University of Toronto. She now lives in Kennebunkport and works as a landscape architect in Boston.

Her thesis presents potential outcomes for Portland’s rising sea levels, including the construction of a canal along the waterfront, which would connect to the mainland via a series of bridges for pedestrians and automobiles.

She will talk about her findings and recommendations at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at Space.

She agrees that now is the perfect time for this discussion. With the decline of the fishing industry and the transformation of the waterfront from a fishing port to more business and residential, Portland planners face enormous pressure for new development. Further, most of these discussions usually happen after a catastrophe. Portland is ahead of the discussion, thanks for PSA and Space, she said.

“This is not a problem that is coming 100 years from now. This is not something that our grandchildren need to deal with. We need to deal with it. Now.” she said.

She loves that her thesis is getting so much attention. “Usually, they get put away in a box and never talked about again,” she said.

Kimball’s is up on the wall for all to see.

“Good design comes through iteration. Good ideas come through people throwing ideas on the table. It’s good to think big and think creatively and think outside the box. People might look at my project and say, ‘It’s nuts.’ But this is the way you need to start thinking about it,” she said.

Students from Maine College of Art and the University of Maine are participating. Starting around 11:30 a.m. Dec. 4, MECA students will create an installation that calls attention to “Waterfront Visions” at 94 Commercial St., home of Casco Variety. High tide is projected to be particularly high that morning, possibly resulting in flooding on Commercial Street. The installation will involve window displays and interactive games.

USM students will do something similar at the same time along Back Cove.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes