Working Waterfonts Blueprints: Economic Impacts of Sea Level Rise on Georgia’s Coast

Coastal Georgia is a diverse region stretching nearly 100 miles and housing more than half a million people in the adjacent six counties. It contains some of Georgia’s oldest and most historic cities, some of which have grown into major economic engines, and others of which testify to the region’s rich cultural heritage.

The Georgia coast is home to beaches, marshes, barrier islands, and working communities, which coexist with major cities, manufacturing sites, tourist hubs, vital highway corridors, and one of the nation’s largest ports. As such, the working waterfronts of the Georgia coast live within a rich environmental, cultural, and economic system that interconnects them all. These waterfronts are home to diverse industries at different scales including international container shipping, fishing and shrimping, and tourism that benefits from their natural beauty and heritage.


Through a research driven process, the Blueprints team (composed of Georgia Conservancy staff, instructor Jason Chernock and the Georgia Institute of Technology graduate City and Regional Planning studio) worked to uncover some of the major economic forces in two distinct places on the Georgia Coast, and how these will be impacted by rising seas. The team conducted data collection within the communities to produce maps and outputs; some stakeholder interviews and site visits; and a set of conclusions and draft recommendations for stakeholders’ consideration. These recommendations form the basis of this report and will be utilized in the upcoming year to educate stakeholders and advance this knowledge.

The Blueprints process was directed and managed by the Georgia Conservancy. Technical support for the project was provided by Jason Chernock and a studio made up of graduate students in Georgia Tech’s City and Regional Planning program. The Working Waterfronts Blueprints for Successful Communities began in the summer of 2013 with data collection and project coordination and preparation. From August to December 2013, the research based work occurred, coinciding with the semester calendar of Georgia Tech. From December to February 2013-2014, the Georgia Conservancy compiled, edited and added to the planning studio’s work to create this final report, which was published in the fall of 2014.

Scientists have observed sea levels rising along the Georgia coast since the 1930s. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had documented a sustained trend since 1935 of sea levels rising by 2.98 millimeters per year (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2013). Other sea level rise projections have forecasted that sea level rise will continue and accelerate, potentially resulting in a sea level rise of one meter above 1999 levels by 2100 (United Nations 2013). Communities should plan for these effects. By planning now, communities can protect their livelihoods and community treasures with a minimal cost or social disruption compared to acting when disruptions are imminent.

In 2012, the Georgia Conservancy sponsored a studio by graduate students in the School of City and Regional Planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology to investigate the potential impacts of sea level rise in three coastal counties and to detail adaptation opportunities. The studio found that one meter of sea level rise would inundate nearly one third of the three-county studio area, with a disproportionate impact on parks and conservation land, particularly wetland areas. The team also found significant inundation of residential and waterfront commercial properties, inundation of 13 miles of state and national highways, and the flooding of railroads serving the Port of Savannah, one of the nation’s largest container ports. The Georgia Conservancy commissioned the present studio to expand upon the past studio’s work on the Georgia coast, particularly addressing sea level rise’s economic impacts on the coast and the ripples of this region- and state-wide.

Port of Savannah, Garden City Terminal

Port of Savannah, Garden City Terminal

Economic impacts are one of the most understudied but important aspects of sea level rise because the analysis captures relationships that remain hidden from other perspectives. Sea level rise threatens businesses and vital infrastructure in ways that may affect Georgia’s economic vitality and potential. Sea level rise threatens large and small businesses, as well as families and individuals along the coast. Small businesses and economically disadvantaged households may have fewer resources with which to respond, creating a disproportionate impact. Moreover, certain industries such as fishing and tourism depend on the coast’s natural resources. Finally, an economic analysis reveals relationships between seemingly unconnected locations. These relationships involve employees, exporters, consumers, business operators, and others who are not physically located on vulnerable land but whose life and livelihood is linked with the coast. They are the invisible stakeholders that need to be incorporated into sea level rise discussions.

This Blueprints studio describes and quantifies sea level rise’s impact on coastal Georgia’s economy and the potential repercussions. Sea level rise has the potential to affect communities equally but differently, so the Blueprints team focused on two very different sites to capture the diverse impacts. One is the Garden City Terminal at the Port of Savannah, which is one of the country’s largest container terminals and the second busiest container exporter by tons (Georgia Ports Authority 2013). The terminal is expected to continue rapid growth facilitated by a multi-million dollar port deepening project.

While the Port of Savannah is a major economic engine for the entire state, the city of Darien — which is the second study site — is a quintessential small, coastal town. Darien has nearly 2,000 residents and a heritage extending back to 1736. Darien’s economy is heavily dependent on a few industries, namely fishing, tourism and small business, and residential real estate, which makes it more vulnerable to sea level rise than larger cities. Both the Port of Savannah and the city of Darien have diverse constituents that will be impacted based on what is of value to them. The impacts on one site should not be understood to be greater than the other, but rather attests to fundamental differences in character.

Blueprints Studio Team explores the Darien Waterfront

Blueprints Studio Team explores the Darien Waterfront

The Blueprints team analyzed economic impacts on each site, taking different approaches depending on economic characteristics. Whereas the research team analyzed the Port of Savannah using a traditional economic impact study to measure the effects of a port shutdown, it approached the city of Darien entirely differently, conducting in-depth industry studies to draw connections between sea level rise and local livelihoods. Each methodology was chosen based on site-specific characteristics, such as industry makeup, economic scale, and available data.

The studio’s analysis is intended to inform elected officials, residents, industry, community planners, and others as they prepare for sea level rise on the Georgia coast. Moreover, the analysis reveals that sea level rise is not just a coastal issue, but rather is important at regional, state and even national levels because of the accompanying economic impacts.


Partner organizations and decision-makers are instrumental in the dissemination of the research and recommendations found in this Blueprints report in their respective communities. Though sea level rise seems to be on the long-term horizon, action must be pursued now to better position Georgia’s coastal communities to a changed landscape. The Georgia Conservancy is working with the Georgia Port Authority as well as elected officials in the City of Darien to convey report findings and work through some impending issues related to sea level rise. While the research and recommendations in this report are specifically based off two working waterfronts, the communities are of varied sizes, with differing advantages and disadvantages.

Therefore, these studies can be modified to address other coastal communities, as all of our coastal towns have an economic reliance on the water surrounding them in one way or another. The Georgia Conservancy will continue to share this information with thought leaders on the coast and work to make the policy and planning changes to better our community adaptability.

The Conservancy's sea level rise work would not be possible without the generous support of The Home Depot Foundation, Gulfstream and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, as well as the indispensable data supplied by Dr. Clark Alexander at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah.


If you have any questions regarding our Working Waterfronts Blueprints Studio or would like to purchase a print version of the Final Report, please contact Georgia Conservancy Urban Designer Johanna McCrehan at