top of page

How Marty Hylton’s Envision Heritage Is Changing The Way We Look At Sea Level Rise

Interview with Morris (Marty) Hylton III

Director, Historic Preservation Program

College of Design, Construction and Planning

University of Florida

How did you develop an interest in historic preservation and climate resilience?

I visited my hometown of Pikeville, Kentucky fairly recently. It’s a river town in the mountains, and it floods quite regularly. There was a major civil engineering project that took about three decades from planning to completion where they cut a path through the mountain and rerouted the river. Climate resilience hasn’t always been in the forefront of my mind. But when I stood there after spending the last few years focused on issues of resilience, I had a really profound realization that I had grown up in a place where people understood the importance of resilience early on.

Can you tell us about your role at the University of Florida and with the Preservation Institute Nantucket?

I've been at University of Florida as Director of Historic Preservation Program for almost 10 years, where I oversee a graduate level program with a Master of Historic Preservation. We also have a robust PhD program that I oversee, and we offer a certificate in Historic Preservation to other disciplines like architecture, landscape architecture, history, and museum studies. I run a really successful research group called Envision Heritage that utilizes digital technologies, including GIS, but specifically 3D digital imaging tools like terrestrial laser scanning and drone imaging to document and preserve historic environments. This technology isn’t necessarily new, but we’re definitely on the forefront among the programs that are using it. Digital technologies are now part of our coursework and are the thread that connects everything we do in terms of our research. We've developed specifically a methodology in terms of resilience, a methodology for modeling sea level rise in three dimensions digitally, and preparing vulnerability and risk assessments for coastal communities and heritage sites.

We first launched this approach of using this methodology at Preservation Institute Nantucket, which is the nation's oldest, continually operating field school. We also shared the visualizations of 3D sea level rise modeling at a Keeping History Above Water workshop that Lisa Craig helped organize in June 2019. It was transformative. I think it's one thing to see sea level rise mapped out two dimensions where you look at a map, and pick a scenario and a time frame, but I don't think people quite understand what two feet of sea level rise means in reality. If you take it to three dimensions really accurately, which is what we're doing, you’re able to see in three dimensions a building that you walk by every day and see where two feet of sea level rise hits. It’s a transformative moment for a lot of people.

Are people aware of the need for climate resilience planning? Are the communities you work with seeking to plan for climate resilience?

Since I first moved to Florida, I've seen a major change in the level of awareness and recognition of the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. And with this comes the need to plan and put in place measures to enhance resilience and adapt environment where possible, whether in historic or natural environments. All of the municipalities we're working with are in the process of planning for resilience, and we contribute to some aspect of that planning. We’ve worked with Nantucket, St. Augustine, and Cedar Key, on the Gulf Coast, and without exception, all three of them have experienced seven or eight of the worst flooding events in the last 10 years. People are being impacted today, and they're seeing it, whether it's a major storm surge, or an increase in so called high, sunny day nuisance kind of tidal flooding, it's happening.

One of the powerful things about the imaging we do through Envision Heritage, the digital imaging documentation, is that yes, the visualizations help in raising awareness. But we also have this really remarkable amount of data that's on buildings and elevations that can be used by the local municipalities and our local partners as they begin to make decisions about how to meet this challenge of impending sea level rise and increased flooding. We tend to partner with usually government entities, but also in some instances, nonprofit organizations. In the case of Nantucket in St. Augustine and Cedar Key, we have partnerships with the municipalities in all three locations.

Do different communities require different recommendations or plans based on their size or resources?

We’ve been working primarily in two communities – the Town of Nantucket or the Island of Nantucket, and St. Augustine. We have Preservation Institute Nantucket, and we have a sister program in St. Augustine, Preservation Institute St. Augustine, which was formed four years ago. We have long-standing, continual partnerships in those communities. They're similar in size, and they have a lot of similarity in their history and development. For smaller communities like the ones we work with, our challenge is finding the financial resources needed to kind of implement any resilience and adaptation strategy, because there's not a local or state funding mechanism at the moment in place to make these projects happen. But for communities in large metropolitan areas like Boston, New York, Miami, even Charleston or coastal Virginia, they are currently receiving and will likely continue to receive federal attention and funding.

I think the challenge of climate change and sea level rise is one of the greatest we face in terms of humanity. And that potential loss of so many cultural resources and coastal communities, will take a very multidisciplinary, innovative and creative approach for addressing change. That's happening now and will continue in the future.

For more information on historic preservation and climate resilience, check out these resources.

ACKlimate – A repository for case studies, presentations, state and federal guidelines, and more


Major civil engineering project -

Historic Preservation Program -

Envision Heritage -

Keeping History Above Water -

Preservation Institute Nantucket -

Preservation Institute St. Augustine -

Guidelines on Flood Adaptation -

Buoyant City -

ACKlimate -

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page