Filming coastal futures: An experiment in community engagement


By Corey Chao, MFA Transdisciplinary Design and Tishman Center Student Scholar:

Mastic Beach Village is a small coastline community that, like many others, was devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Ever since, residents have been debating start questions about their long-term future there. To stay will require massive change; to go will too. The same is true across the region. According to the Regional Plan Association, just one foot of sea level rise will “inundate nearly 60 square miles [in the NYC metro area], where more than 19,000 residents in 10,000 homes live today, and where approximately 10,000 people work.” One foot of sea level rise is projected within the next thirty years—as much as six-feet could come by 2100 (though scientists continue to raise their estimates).


Stakeholder meetings have multiplied for a whole variety of reasons, but often they are poorly innovated in such a time of need. Constituents are asked to commit time and energy, often for very little in return. They contribute to long-view strategic planning that (at best!) doesn’t begin to materialize for months after community meetings, or (worse) becomes irrelevant, forgotten, poorly repackaged, not shared with similar advocates, poorly implemented, too impractical, too practical, not remotely representative...the list goes on. I bring this up not to critique the sentiment, but to challenge us to innovate this difficult, pressing work.

Through my Tishman Center Scholarship, I have been prototyping new engagement tools for planners focused on sea-level rise. I’ve partnered with the RPA to develop the Coastal Futures Fellowship, a participatory 360º-videomaking workshop that grounds high level plans with grounded stories of future climate realities. And last month I ran the first session in Mastic Beach.

Why 360º-video? One thing participatory filmmaking does extremely well is structure a debate and an eventual resolution. Scriptwriters have to sit around and discuss the project of representing a thing to which they’re all tied; they’ve got to reconcile their ideas in a propositional and creative way. 360º-video presents a new kind of participatory politics. Rather than traditional film, the script can respond to the direction the viewer is looking—thus the writers have a method to assemble difference of opinion into the same piece. What’s more, during the act of filming directors have no camera to hide behind! Because the lenses film a complete panorama, participants must act themselves, or run and hide. This is a lovely dynamic that makes filming fun, conceptual, unfamiliar, unexpected. The workshop was a lot more lively than a planning meeting, and perhaps more sustainable for that reason. The results were interesting, but likely not as specific as are often needed for planners.

This was partly a matter of time: the workshop was too short, and the workshoppers agreed. They said they would be interested in doing a longer session—even an entire weekend. My next steps are twofold: the first is how to revise and improve the specific experience of this workshop/set of workshops. The second is zooming back out, and considering how this sits within a larger planning context. I am particularly interested in how a screening of fellows’ footage might be structured, now with community-generated content as a catalyst for discussion rather than a deck of slides by nonresident planners.

Meanwhile, the Coastal Futures Fellows asked to keep the camera for another month—to film the sites they had scripted. The filming continues.