Innovating for Resilient Development

October 12, 2018

Norfolk, Virginia, harbors some of the nation’s most important shipbuilding and naval assets, but it also has the highest rate of measured sea level rise of any east coast city. The coastline is the heart of the city, an economic driver, and a key amenity to the community. Unfortunately, the city also has a history of flooding caused by heavy rains, wind-driven storm surges, and high tides, all of which have affected the city with increasing frequency in recent years.  The challenges are so serious that Norfolk decided to make increased coastal resilience the foundation of its planning process and zoning regulations.   Last month, Clarion Director Craig Richardson and Norfolk, Virginia, Interim Director of Development George Homewood presented a Clarion webinar on the innovative approaches integrated into the recently adopted Vision 2100 comprehensive plan and Building a Better Norfolk zoning ordinance.

First, Vision 2100 brought a visionary lens to address resilience through the comprehensive plan. The plan focuses on re-orienting the city’s future development towards areas that with lower long-term risks while concurrently managing development so that higher risk areas remain viable.

Second, Norfolk worked with Clarion Associates to draft Building a Better Norfolk – a completely new zoning ordinance aimed at “creating the most resilience-focused ordinance in America.” The ordinance was adopted in January of 2018 and integrates three innovative features: character districts; a resilience quotient; and resilience overlay districts.

Norfolk’s resilience zoning is grounded in a point system that addresses risk reduction, stormwater management, and energy resilience. These point system’s flexible requirements include activities such as including independent energy sources, elevating ground levels of new buildings, using pervious pavement, or installing a green roof. The point requirements increase with the number of residential units or square footage of non-residential development. All new construction (including single family homes) or expansions to existing development must also meet a minimum first-floor elevation of 1.5 – 3 feet above ground level. In return for these improved resilience standards, the ordinance allows increased flexibility along mixed-use corridors, pedestrian-friendly development standards, a greater diversity of housing options, all with a focus on preserving the neighborhood character.

For those communities begin to address both long-standing and recently emerging challenges of resilience, Norfolk’s innovations provide a few key lessons:

  • Resilience is more than just a buzzword; it needs to be integrated into all citywide policies and addressed through a variety of different planning and regulatory solutions.
  • Focusing on long-term changes sometimes makes it easier to gain buy-in on new innovative ideas.
  • Responses to climate change and sea level rise require innovative solutions that address both existing and proposed development.

While Norfolk’s resilience quotient approach was tailored to the specifics of Norfolk’s location, topography, and economy, we believe the process used to create Building a Better Norfolk provides a good model for other communities looking to innovate and create a more resilient development ordinance.

If you missed the webinar and are interested in viewing or would like a copy of the PowerPoint, please email