A Closer Look at Seven ‘11 Most’ Sites Affected by Climate Change
From cities to harbors to cemeteries, the impacts of climate change have the potential to affect all types of historic resources. The approaches to adapting to these challenges are not simple, and require preservationists to work together alongside policymakers, organizations, and professionals to consider new and efficient solutions.
As part of its annual America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has highlighted many endangered sites threatened by climate change, including docks, cemeteries, settlements, and islands. Here is a list of seven historic places that have been included on past 11 Most lists, all jeopardized by climate change.
San Francisco Embarcadero, San Francisco California (2016)
Located alongside the San Francisco Bay, the iconic waterfront roadway emphasizes maritime activities with a ferry hub and tourism alongside the seawall. With shops, restaurants, and the exemplary Ferry Building terminal, the Embarcadero remains a popular attraction for the San Francisco area. In addition to the Ferry Building landmark, the Embarcadero includes piers, sculptures, and museums, as well as cruise terminals and the Alcatraz Landing, the ferry dock that travels to the former prison island.
Despite the Embarcadero’s significance, the area is threatened with rising sea levels and the seawall’s growing vulnerability to earthquakes, putting the waterfront at risk. In 2022, the Port of San Francisco started the Waterfront Resilience Program in an effort to protect and create a more sustainable waterfront, but significant work will be required in order to ensure the Embarcadero’s protection for years to come.
Annapolis City Dock, Annapolis, Maryland (2018)
Since 1690, the Annapolis City Dock area has been a pivotal and significant part of the city of Annapolis, Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay region. One of the oldest and most significant docks on the East Coast, the City Dock was an arrival point for enslaved people, imported goods such as tobacco and sails, and operated as a shipyard by the start of the American Revolution.
The waterfront has retained its historic feel, despite challenges when inappropriate development jeopardized tourism and community use when the Annapolis City Dock was included on the 2018 11 Most list. The endangered listing and advocacy by Historic Annapolis stopped the development plans and helped the nonprofit secure grants for an Urban Land Institute report proposing solutions to key issues at City Dock.
Meanwhile, the waterfront has continued to suffer from rising sea levels and heavy, frequent flooding—an issue that Annapolis has taken seriously. In 2021, a City Dock action committee approved a $50 million dollar project aimed at raising the dock and building more efficient flood walls, as well as a barrier. The project is expected to be completed in March 2024.
National Mall Tidal Basin, Washington, D.C. (2019)
Built in the late 1800s, the National Mall Tidal Basin is a human-made reservoir over a hundred acres in size and a part of West Potomac Park. Surrounded by numerous cherry blossom trees, the Tidal Basin is lined by iconic monuments and memorials, such as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
The Tidal Basin was designed to control water from the Potomac River, built out of necessity after a disastrous 1880 flood; however, the rising sea levels and sinking sediment have resulted in regular flooding of the surrounding sidewalks, frequently making parts of the park inaccessible. In 2010 the National Park Service introduced a fifty-year plan to preserve the Tidal Basin and started the first phase of construction in 2017, but more work needs to be done in order to ensure the Basin remains sustainable and the sidewalks and surrounding infrastructure are repaired.
The National Trust is taking a leadership role at the Tidal Basin. In 2019 the National Trust partnered with the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service for the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab, a call to action to encourage communication and solutions between designers, stakeholders, and the public. Basic responses, such as seawall or rebuilding, are short-term solutions that don’t consider the complexity of the Tidal Basin or the modern environment it exists in today. The Tidal Basin Ideas Lab hopes to inspire new ideas and to challenge our perceptions of public landscapes and memorials.
Ponce Historic Zone, San Juan, Puerto Rico (2020)
Located in Puerto Rico’s second most populous city, the Ponce Historic Zone dates largely to the late 1800s. Made up of numerous structures and buildings that have architectural and historical significance, the Ponce Historic Zone is one of the largest on the entire island and contains many landmarks including the Fuerte de San José, the Museo de la Arquitectura Ponceña (the Museum of Ponce Architecture), and Ponce’s town center, the Plaza Las Delicias.
The neighborhood’s location on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean makes Ponce Historic District vulnerable to the impacts of climate change including hurricanes and earthquakes, as evidenced by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Since 2019, earthquakes and tremors have compounded the structural damage to historic buildings caused by Hurricane Maria.
While government officials have acknowledged the threat and are coordinating a plan, the Ponce Historic Zone will need more support and funding in order to fully preserve the historic district
Boston Harbor Islands (2021)
The Boston Harbor Islands hold incredible American and Indigenous history, including the most intact Native American archaeological landscape remaining in Boston, the oldest continually used and last staffed lighthouse in the country, and remnants of Boston’s Pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary War, Civil War and late 19th century history. There are a number of former forts, a Civil War burial ground, Native habitation areas, Native burials from concentration camps during King Philip’s War (1675-1678), and the remains of smallpox quarantine hospitals. Additionally, the Harbor Islands are a unique geologic landform. They are the only “drowned drumlins,” or unique elongated glacial mounds, in North America.
Made up of 34 islands and peninsulas, the Boston Harbor Islands are threatened by climate change impacts, specifically sea level rise and erosion. While more than 100 archaeological sites have been found on 19 Harbor Islands and 3 peninsulas, there are likely many more. Meanwhile, the islands continue to erode and lose land mass, which means that sites—both previously identified and yet-to-be-discovered—are being continually lost over time. Boston Harbor is one of many coastal communities dealing with archaeological site erosion and can serve as a model for other communities to learn from.
The City of Boston has undertaken an Archaeological Climate Action Plan, including the survey of archaeological sites in coastal areas that are likely to be lost to erosion in the near future. Boston is likely one of the first American cities to create an archaeological climate action plan at this scale.
Other partners like Boston Harbor Now, the Stone Living Lab, the National Park Service, the State of Massachusetts, the Massachusett tribe, and the Institute for New England Native American Studies are part of efforts to document and protect this important cultural landscape for future generations.
Olivewood Cemetery (2022)
Located alongside a bayou in the heart of Houston, Texas, Olivewood Cemetery is one of the oldest-known platted African American cemeteries in Houston, with more than 4,000 burials on its 7.5-acre site. Opened in 1875, the cemetery is the final resting place of many notable figures in Houston’s early African American community and of formerly enslaved Africans.
The nonprofit Descendants of Olivewood, Inc. formed in 2003 to restore and maintain the cemetery. However, the impact of extreme weather events due to climate change threatens the cemetery with flooding and erosion. With the help of a study funded by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the Descendants of Olivewood are formulating plans for mitigating the effects of severe weather on the cemetery, but will need partnership and funding support to implement these plans.
Support the preservation of African American burial grounds. Take Action today.
Jamestown, Virginia (2022)
Perhaps one of the most significant historical sites in American history, Jamestown, Virginia is known as the first permanent English settlement in North America. Established in 1607, the settlement served as the capital of the Colony of Virginia until 1699, when the capital was moved to Williamsburg. Jamestown represents the meshing of cultures in North America, from 12,000 years of indigenous history to the arrival of English settlers and the forced migration of enslaved people from Africa. The original remains of the Jamestown settlement have been the focus of archaeological excavation and museum interpretation since 1994, and more than 3 million artifacts have been recovered to date.
Despite its international significance, Jamestown today faces grave danger due to rising sea levels, storm damage, and recurrent flooding. In tandem with the 11 Most listing, the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation has launched the “Save Jamestown” campaign to raise funds for a comprehensive approach to the site’s challenges, which will likely include improving drainage, raising some site elements, adding berms, and installing pumps, along with seawall repairs already underway.
According to engineers, the next five years are critical to the long-term preservation of Historic Jamestown. Delaying critical protective measures will make future preservation efforts exponentially more challenging and expensive. The preservation strategies developed for Jamestown could serve as models for other similarly vulnerable sites.
Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.
Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.