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Lines in the Sand

Hatteras Island, NC



This research examines the role of private property in transforming the landscape of barrier islands and proposes an alternative land trust as a redistributive approach to preemptive retreat.

On barrier islands of the eastern seaboard, vacation homes occupy a majority of the land use, with properties held as financial assets rather than primary residences. With each successive storm as well as with the slow onset of sea level rise and accelerated sediment erosion, taxpayer dollars are disproportionally allocated towards the re-stabilization and reconstruction of damaged homes and infrastructure. The resilience of barrier islands points not to an ecological capacity to withstand system shocks, but rather to the persistence and preservation of capital in the form of private property in predictably volatile environments.

The primary case study takes place on Hatteras Island, NC; commonly known as the Outer Banks. The case study tests the viability of a new Sand Trust, a nonprofit land trust, that assists in the gradual phasing out of development and incentivizes retreat on barrier islands. One of the tools proposed by the Sand Trust is a digital platform that integrates data points from real estate pro formas, historic erosion rates, and projected sea level rise to paint a more accurate portrait of climate risk and encourage land donations.

Finally, the Sand Trust generates public interest by visualizing the spatial and environmental impact retreat: the process of unbuilding, the transformation of land use from private residence to public open space, and the resulting landscape. By reversing prevailing development logics, this trust seeks to reduce public expenditure on privatized shorelines and ultimately to return the barrier island to its ecological function as a coastal defense line.

This design research was awarded the Harvard Graduate School of Design Master in Design Studies Thesis Prize in 2019.