Facilitating a Collaborative Research Process: The Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project

CBI assists the Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project to facilitate a complex research and stakeholder engagement process with the aim of promoting sustainable shoreline management in the face of sea level rise and more.

Background and Challenges

The Hudson River Estuary stretches 150 miles from rural inland towns to the urban harbor of New York City. It faces many ongoing and potential threats including intense development pressure; an ever-increasing number of floods; invasive species that decimate local ecosystems; and expected sea level rise, which could submerge the area's unique estuarine wetlands. In 2008, the Lower Hudson Estuarine Research Reserve, one of twenty-eight within the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, asked CBI to facilitate their newly-initiated Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project. This collaborative project aims to gather, synthesize, and distribute ecological, engineering, economic, management, and regulatory data on how best to manage the shoreline over time, especially in light of projected sea level rise.

The project focuses on a 127 mile-stretch of the Hudson — located between the Troy Dam and the Tappan Zee Bridge, just North of New York City — where 1.3 million people work and live in 79 different municipalities. Decisions to protect and manage this shoreline are made in an extraordinarily complex legal and regulatory framework, and one in which a number of critical questions need system-wide answers. What elevation of sea level rise is likely in the Hudson? What is the ecological impact of different shoreline management options? Which types of shoreline structures hold the most promise for the overall health of estuary? How are landowners making their shoreline management decisions, and what information might help them in making better ones?

The CBI Approach

The technical nature and the scope of this project presents many communication and management challenges. Over ten different groups of expert researchers are working on a variety of topics and each must accept guidance from, and communicate clearly with the other researchers, project advisors, and stakeholders. Researchers must also examine their work and findings in the context of all the other research, incorporate stakeholder feedback, and explain the implications of their findings where possible, so that their questions, assumptions, and results are repeatedly examined and tested.

For instance, at a recent meeting facilitated by CBI, community members expressed concern that framing the research efforts in the context of climate change and sea level rise might alienate climate change skeptics. They suggested that responsible shoreline management be linked to less controversial topics such as environmental sustainability, or to recreational activities such as fishing, in Project outreach materials. After receiving this feedback, Project leaders decided to take the community's feedback into account when producing materials that would be distributed local leaders.

In order to effectively manage and facilitate this complex multi-year, multi-stakeholder process, the CBI team is employing a number of tools and strategies to:

  • assist the Primary Investigator to manage the many related aspects of the project by tracking action items, maintaining schedules and holding meetings;
  • coordinate research discussions by ensuring that participants are brought in at key moments, that the information they need is available and that issues are framed appropriately; and
  • engage broader stakeholders, including landowners, policy makers, advocacy groups, and the scientific community through the use of focus and advisory groups to help clarify issues and interests and keeping accurate and meeting summaries that identify key topics and questions to be shared and addressed.

Project Update (Spring 2011)

By helping to keep the project's disparate research areas in sync; by enabling technical researchers to test and explain their ideas with each other and stakeholders before producing final products; and by facilitating in-depth conversations about research standards, CBI is assisting the Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project to move toward useful and valuable conclusions that will support the protection of these important shoreline resources.