Teams of science and design students from prestigious schools like Harvard, Yale and Cornell will be coming to the Casco Bay region this fall to help these coastal communities find ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The students – including a team of architecture undergrads from the University of Maine in Augusta – will participate in the Envision Resiliency Challenge, which began in Nantucket in 2021 and has also spent semesters in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and New Bedford and Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

Dencie and Michael McEnroe, of Southwest Harbor, stand in the floodwaters at Maine Wharf at high tide on Jan. 13, when a coastal storm combined with astronomically high tides to flood the Portland waterfront. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The students from the eight participating universities will be asked to research and design novel ways of living and working in Portland, South Portland and the Casco Bay islands under hotter, wetter conditions next to a fast-warming and fast-rising Gulf of Maine.

“Climate change is the defining issue of our time – but instead of fearing the future, this program asks us to reimagine the future we would like to see and then work toward it,” said Wendy Schmidt, founder of Remain Nantucket, which developed and funds the challenge.

“When we collaborate and approach challenges with creativity, we can work toward a brighter future,” Schmidt said. The “university teams bring the ability to merge spatial and social histories, community input and speculative futures that will become hopeful visions for Portland.”

State environmental officials were excited to learn about the coming collaboration.


“The storms from December and January were a wake-up call for Maine about the urgent need to address impacts of climate change on our communities today and prepare for those in the years come,” said Hannah Pingree, co-chair of the Maine Climate Council. “Initiatives like Envision Resilience can help our communities consider innovative, new ideas to protect our people, businesses, infrastructure and environment from climate effects long into the future.”

The professors and teams of graduate and undergraduate students studying architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science come from the following universities: Buffalo, Cornell, Harvard, Maine at Augusta, Michigan, Toronto, Virginia and Yale.

The teams will spend the fall semester learning about the region’s challenges from municipal and community leaders, business owners, nonprofit groups and science organizations. They will base potential climate adaptation design solutions on those findings.

In Portland, the teams will study how to help the city to grow sustainably; protect its aged working waterfront from rising seas and storms; how to reimagine the B+M baked bean site; renovate its aging housing stock and overhaul its parks.

In South Portland, the teams will consider adaptive designs for the waterfront, possible reuse of former industrial sites, protections for a petroleum infrastructure threatened by the rising sea and neighborhood studies in areas like Mill Creek.

Bob Rulli, the director of planning and community development in Warren, one of the Narragansett Bay communities studied in the program’s second year, said the students’ work was equivalent to that of four paid consulting teams – a tremendous value at no cost to the community.


“People don’t always conceptualize what an inch or 2 inches of sea level rise is,” Rulli said. “The work product that the students have done is another way to convey that message. At the same time, they are coming up with creative alternatives about what could be done.”

Past student participants said they got a lot out of the hands-on approach work.

“It really kind of drives home the idea that you can’t just come up with these big pie-in-the-sky ideas,” said Alena Poulin, a communications graduate student from the University of Florida when she was a participant. “You have to work with people and come up with an idea that is true to their values.”

The program will maintain a high profile this fall. Locals can expect to see soon-to-be architects, urban planners and environmental scientists touring the area’s storm-ravaged waterfront, sizing up housing stock, leading community workshops, and presenting their final designs at a public exhibition.

Since its launch, 22 teams of 346 undergraduate and graduate students from 13 universities have participated in the program. The students collaborated with 70 community advisers from eight Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastal communities.

Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, where the program spent the fall of 2023, said his community benefited from this creative and data-informed way of thinking about its most pressing climate and resilience challenges.

“The model of convening design students with key stakeholders to imagine adaptive solutions grounded in local knowledge and history is an asset to any city,” Mitchell said. “I’m sure the city of Portland will benefit from their participation, as we did.”

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