A New Look at Oxford’s Shorelines

Nature-based solutions like living shorelines help build resilience for people and wildlife

Have you ever heard of a living shoreline? According to NOAA Fisheries, “a living shoreline is a protected, stabilized coastal edge made of natural materials such as plants, sand, or rock” that “connect[s] the land and water to stabilize shorelines, reduce[s] erosion, and provide[s] valuable habitat that enhances coastal resilience.”

In other words, living shorelines are a method of protecting coasts from erosion while emulating the natural habitats that coastal wildlife need for food, rest, and shelter. A win-win—especially when compared to traditional shoreline protection techniques like rocky seawalls and bulkheads, which in much of the United States are quite different from the soft, marshy habitats our native coastal wildlife is used to.

Using Nature-Based Solutions

Living shorelines are just one example of nature-based solutions which are increasingly being used instead of traditional shoreline armoring, which decreases or degrades coastal habitat and often increases erosion at adjacent sites. Nature-based solutions create opportunities to protect shorelines from erosion while allowing communities of the human and wildlife varieties to thrive. 

That’s why the National Wildlife Federation is working with communities on the front lines of sea level rise to implement nature-based solutions to storm surge and rising sea levels.

One successful such project just wrapped up construction this October in the town of Oxford, Maryland, where the town’s highly valued recreational beach is now home to a beautiful living shoreline that protects recreational access, addresses flooding along a crucial local road, and maintains natural ecosystem functions.

The shoreline of Oxford, Maryland.

The living shoreline project at Oxford is composed of several components (see image labels for reference):

  • A: Offshore living breakwaters, which will be planted with native vegetation in spring 2024, serve to intercept erosive wave energy before it reaches the shore.
  • B: Living hooked headlands on either end of the project capture sediment, reduce wave diffraction, and create a low-sloping sandy shoreline that can be used by wildlife like shorebirds and horseshoe crabs.
  • C: Newly-constructed sand dunes add elevation to the landward edge of the Oxford living shoreline, shielding Strand Road–the only road leading in or out from this part of Oxford—from coastal flooding that frequently disjoints entire neighborhoods from the mainland.

This project was made possible by years of hard work from Oxford’s town manager (who we interviewed in a previous blog!), in partnership with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and National Wildlife Federation, and with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the DNR Chesapeake and Coastal Service. It was designed and constructed by a local contractor, Underwood & Associates, who used innovative designs to ensure a nature-based approach was successful.

Planning and community engagement was critical to this project’s success, and the partners took great care to engage the community through every step of the process, from planning through design and construction. In fact, the project team updated the project design in response to community input expressed during public meetings, ensuring the project was much more inclusive than typical construction jobs.

An aerial view of living breakwaters in Oxford, Maryland.
An aerial view of one of the project’s hooked living headline (left) and living breakwaters (right), which will be planted with native coastal vegetation in spring 2024, providing substrate stabilization and additional wildlife habitat. Photo Credit: Underwood & Associates

Successful Protection from Winter Storms

Many of our projects on the East Coast recently experienced significant flooding from major storms, some of which dropped over two inches of rain in a short amount of time! Oxford’s new living shoreline held up wonderfully during these events. A key feature of “softened” approaches like living shorelines is that they are dynamic, meaning the natural materials are designed to move and flow, to some extent, with natural processes like rain and floods, just as natural coastal systems do.

In Oxford, some of the living shoreline’s sand and rock shifted during our winter storms, exhibiting this dynamic behavior even as it maintained its designed structure and flood protection functions. This dynamic behavior allows living shorelines to absorb and dampen wave energy, while allowing nature to handle much of the long-term upkeep, as native plants and smart structural design help sediment to naturally accrete and combat erosion.

More Coastal Resilience Work to Come

But, there is still more to be done in Oxford to help mitigate the frequent flooding of the road leading to and from this side of town. While this living shoreline protects the road from one side, a local creek can still flood from the other side until more work is done. The project team was fortunate to receive additional funding from Maryland DNR and Maryland Department of the Environment to complete a second phase of this multi-faceted resilience plan. This will include another living shoreline along the creek and elevation of the lowest-lying parts of Strand Road.

The Town also plans to elevate the public beach’s parking lot by 2 feet, which currently floods so often, there are wetland plants growing in the middle of the gravel lot! After the rest of this work is completed, the Town of Oxford will be more resilient to storms and flooding. The new shorelines will ensure the Town can bounce back quicker after extreme events, and the roadway and parking lot elevation will reduce flooding of these areas significantly. Crucially, the living shorelines will also provide safe harbor for many incredibly important wildlife species, including terrapins, horseshoe crabs, and migratory birds.

We at National Wildlife Federation are so excited to monitor these projects alongside our partners to study their many benefits in the years ahead.