NEWPORT — Calling the city’s famed Cliff Walk “dramatic” is a little redundant. It’s a cliff; there’s going to be some drama involved in a sheer rock face, especially when it’s bordered by Gilded Age mansions on one side and lapping ocean waves on the other. Have you ever seen a cliff that wasn’t dramatic?
But the cliffs that make up the Cliff Walk have had some extra drama in recent months. In March, almost a year ago now, a section of it collapsed — dramatically — into the water below. Nobody was injured, but the city had to detour the path and embarked on a study about causes and solutions.
Then, just before Christmas, another nearby section was damaged during a storm. The damage was less extensive than the March incident, but the city quickly approved a broader study of the area between Webster Street and Narragansett Avenue.
A year later, the detour is still in place, a chunk of the walk still looking like a missing tooth in an otherwise perfect smile. And the central tension at play in lovely Newport right now — the drama, if you will — is over what to do next.
Some experts on the state’s coast, mindful of the long-term challenges of climate change and the basic nature of cliffs, are wary of rebuilding exactly where it was. To some, the story of the Cliff Walk is an opportunity to raise a concept known as managed retreat — moving infrastructure inland, away from an ever-changing shoreline under increasing pressure from rising seas.
But the city is not giving up. And to explain his thinking, the city manager reaches for a quote often attributed to a man antithetical to the idea of retreat, managed or otherwise: General George S. Patton Jr.
“He said, ‘You’re never beaten until you admit it,’” Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. said. “And I’m not admitting defeat here.”
Nicholson said there’s some reason for hope in rebuilding the path where it is. The firm the city hired to do engineering work, GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc., proposed some high-level concepts to rebuild in place, Nicholson said. There’s no price tag yet. But it showed that rebuilding in that same spot would be feasible, Nicholson said.
This is far from the first time the Cliff Walk has been damaged. During Hurricane Sandy, for example, much of it had to be closed — for over two years, it turned out. (In fact, the part that got damaged in December was the very last post-Sandy project, which involved shoring up previously installed seawalls in 2016.) The city got more than $5 million in state and federal disaster funds to reopen it, and another $1 million in state grant funds were spent to improve the existing seawall infrastructure.
The difference now, though, is that the damage didn’t occur during a big Sandy-like storm, when a lot of federal dollars were flowing in to fix it. There was no disaster declaration for either the March incident or the December one.
One potential solution, the city said, would build on the work of the late US Senator Claiborne Pell to get the Cliff Walk a national natural landmark designation. That could make it eligible for ongoing federal support, rather than one-off disaster dollars. One thing hasn’t changed since the 1980s, when Newport first sought that designation: The city doesn’t have the resources to maintain the Cliff Walk by itself in the wake of these sorts of incidents.
Whatever happens, the city wants people to know that this will not be an easy or quick fix.
“This is a complicated journey, and we’re going to keep at it,” Nicholson said.
Even with the detour, people continue to flock to the walk. After all, it’s still a pretty nice walk. Instead of going by the water, you do a little inland stroll around a private mansion, get to see a little bit of the Salve Regina University campus, and then come back out fairly soon.
Still, many in the city want to get back on the original path.
“This is a particularly iconic stretch of the Cliff Walk,” said Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong. “And it is such a heavily trafficked destination for people coming to Newport — there’s a unique value to us taking a rebuild approach, so long as it is economically feasible for us to do so.”
A team of marketing students at Salve recently worked to apply for a grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation that would assess an even broader stretch of the Cliff Walk.
Andrew Ashton, an associate scientist specializing in coastal geomorphology at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said many coastal towns often take a stand-your-ground approach when facing these sorts of challenges.
“But in the long game, along all our coastlines, we have this future where we’re going to have to figure out at what point are we going to make the economical decision to retreat,” Ashton said. “You have to think about that for a sandy coast. And when it’s cliffs like that, you know that the long term endpoint is going to be more erosion.”
In all, the Cliff Walk stretches about three and a half miles, ranging from paved paths to more natural rock outcroppings. In its modern form, the walk has its roots in the mid-19th century, when the state’s emerging Constitution guaranteed people the right to the shore — even on rocky cliffs where there was no sandy beach, according to historical research.
Over the years it has grown, been spruced up with benches and flat walkways, been shored up with seawalls and ripraps — and often enough, it has been damaged, sometimes catastrophically so.
A cause for the most recent collapse still hasn’t been definitively established, although experts in geoscience say that over the span of enough time, cliffs will change the same way people go bankrupt — gradually, then suddenly.
The geologic formations in that area appear to be weaker than in other spots, with what’s basically a mixture of hardened cobble, sand and mud, rather than the tough granite farther south. That makes the area particularly vulnerable to the constant battering of ocean waves. Some experts have also pointed to potential upstream effects as a possible contributor to the March damage, like nearby lawns, which may have let water seep in and weaken it from the other direction.
As for the more recent damage in December, some experts said it appeared high waves overtopped a wall and took out sediment on the slope behind it.
That’s the thing about cliffs. Part of what makes them dramatic is also what makes them vulnerable.
“Rhode Island is the Ocean State,” said Benjamin Greenstein, dean of the School of Social and Natural Sciences at Roger Williams University. “There’s a lot of coastline here — cliffed, beached, otherwise. There are a lot of communities that are right on the water or near the water. And it’s a densely populated state. So the problems are compounded by all of that.”
Greenstein said that if it were up to him, he’d put the Cliff Walk back 50 feet.
But as Greenstein and just about everyone else acknowledges, cutting inland has its own challenges. The big one: private property owners who might not take such changes lying down. The area adjacent to the recent collapse is a privately owned property; a letter sent to the address didn’t provoke a response.
“In my opinion it is a good idea to move the path farther inland,” said Janet Freedman, a leading authority on the state’s shoreline science, “but that is easier said than done.”
One community that experts say is thinking through these coastal challenges in a farsighted way is Warren — the smallest town in the smallest county in the smallest state, as the town manager, Kate Michaud, likes to say.
Warren has been embarking lately on what’s called the Market to Metacom plan, which would relocate an entire neighborhood vulnerable to sea level rise to a stretch elsewhere in town that’s now car-centric. There are still a lot of moving pieces to the plan, which would involve major zoning overhauls, and it is still early in the process.
Whatever comes of it, many experts say, it’s the way of the future.
“Most of the communities in the state that are on Narragansett Bay are going to have to start thinking this way, to some extent,” said Nathan Vinhateiro, science director of the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island. The forward-looking way Warren is doing it, Vinhateiro added, “is one of the best examples I’ve seen of thoughtful managed retreat from the coast.”