The flooding of segments of Boston's HarborWalk and waterfront during the January 2014 Nor'easter makes the Winter 2013 issue of ArchitectureBoston must reading for Boston's new mayor, Martin Walsh, and his administration. Boston once again missed a close call. Had the storm's surge hit at high tide midday rather than closer to low tide, flooding of waterfront neighborhoods could have been devastating.
Cities such as those cited in "Coast" are looking at the built environment very differently to meet the challenges of sea- level rise and storm surges. Green infra-structure and adaptive buildings will be key to waterfront cities of the 21st century. As he organizes his team and agencies, the mayor has the opportunity to integrate climate-change adaptation into all aspects of city planning and management in an effort to create more resilient neighbor-hoods and to protect critical infrastructure.
The design community can play an important role in helping to reduce the risks from coastal flooding and sea-level rise. Hopefully, urban development during the Walsh administration will draw on inter-disciplinary expertise, involving not only planners and engineers but also architects, landscape architects, and designers.
President, The Boston Harbor Association
In the "Coast" issue, "adaptable," "flexible," "resilient," and "temporary" are recurring themes used to describe building, public realm, and infrastructure design in our 21st-century world of climate change. These are not words we have used when describing our civic infrastructure for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Great societies build memorials to permanence, stability, and grandeur—or at least that has been the story. Until now.
I see a future where a society's health and wealth will be measured by its ability to adapt quickly to changing weather, technology, settlement patterns, and social needs. In the 2013 report Places in the Making, my research team at MIT found that tactical urbanism, ephemeral events, and temporary interventions that celebrate flexibility and adaptability have great power to shape physical spaces, build communities, and empower people. This power is as great, if not greater, than what comes from the permanent and unchangeable bricks-and-mortar products we have traditionally espoused.
There is a growing alignment here between tactical-urbanism placemaking and climate-change design: Both push back on rigid and often outdated regulations and encourage an embrace of flexible and often unpredictable space design and use. This flexibility will be the key to how our cities and our societies thrive. And much will depend on the ability of public officials, design professionals, and academics to collaborate and cooperate as we envision a new future. May we be up to the task ahead!
Susan Silberberg AIA
Renée Loth challenges architects to deepen their attention to building design, since "buildings contribute more than one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions." I urge architects also to focus on integrating alternative-energy systems, passive and active, more completely into both residential and commercial building design.
The American Planning Association, in six solar briefing papers, begins to address some of these issues, including the installation of roof and ground-mounted solar systems in historic neighborhoods and on historic buildings. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources has begun to address siting issues but not design issues. The nearest mention is a requirement to show the location of vegetation or structures for screening solar collectors in a model-zoning bylaw the department prepared.
Net-zero homes requiring solar orientation with numerous panels on the roof are still not mainstream enough, although some good designs exist. For retrofit of existing homes, groundmount design is driven by the installers and are minimal structures at best. The metal structure supporting the panels on our own household groundmount temporarily caused anxiety among our neighbors. We installed extensive landscaping in response.
We can all do better. A discussion between designers and planners on what constitutes good site and structure design would be an important start. We need to make the existence of solar panels in our neighborhoods an acceptable design feature. There are enough challenges to solar power regarding financing and subsidies—let's not add to those with poor structural design and difficult siting demands.
Community Investment Associates
The "Coast" issue suggests innovative ways for dealing with rising sea levels: creating spaces near the waterfront that can absorb or accommodate flood waters; building waterfront structures with lower levels designed to flood when necessary; and moving basement equipment, apartments, businesses, and public transportation to higher levels. These solutions seem to be primarily for new construction on waterfronts—after all, the issue is focused on the coast. But Boston, a city with a large amount of man-made land, has a number of low-lying inland areas that are densely covered with existing structures—most notably parts of the South End and Cambridge—that will also flood with rising sea levels. Solutions need to be proposed for these areas, too.
Nancy S. Seasholes
Author, Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston
The "Coast" issue inspires compelling solutions for rising sea levels that will impact many cities. New ideas for infra-structure set the stage for durable planning solutions and architectural programming. What is the appropriate strategy now, or 50 years from now? What can we learn from cities with similar problems?
Cities like Houston have a history of addressing flood scenarios at different scales. Its flat and geologically soggy coastal disposition has long rendered it vulnerable to flooding from seasonal rain and hurricanes, with storm surges that follow. Houston is well known for its abundance of freeways; a less-advertised characteristic is how the city's subgrade freeway corridors function as storm-surge zones. Local interventions, such as landscaped flood walls and more than 100 floodgates, protect Houston's medical center above and below. The center is also equipped with underground utilities that enable critical functions through a storm. Likewise, Houston's bayous, once a path of trade, are now ecological habitats and recreational zones that function as basins to manage runoff.
Barriers may be the only solution for specific areas. Superstorms and hurricanes do provide an opportunity to test the efficacy of solutions and prioritize zones to determine the scale of intervention. Defining high-priority zones and staging could help a system reconcile with the architecture of the city and create productive benefits in the interim.
ArchitectureBoston's "Coast" issue shows just how far the conversation on climate change has come in Boston; yet it also demonstrates that we still have a long way to go. We are no longer talking about if the climate changes, but when; and what we are doing to prepare for it. Boston is fortunate to have a sophisticated business and design community, as well as research and higher-education institutions, to help us find solutions that not only prepare Boston for climate change but also protect our unique social, cultural, and environmental infrastructure, and make Boston a more competitive city and better place to live.
Boston has been preparing for the impacts of climate change since 2007, when then-mayor Thomas Menino issued his Executive Order on Climate Action. Nevertheless, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a clarion call, and we wasted no time devising a course of action.
In the past year, the city has made significant progress in preparing for climate change. All city departments convened to identify municipal vulnerabilities in the new report, Climate Ready Boston: Municipal Vulnerability to Climate Change; the Boston Redevelopment Authority adopted new climate-preparedness guidelines for large-project review; and the city worked with the Green Ribbon Commission to contract a report through the Boston Society of Architects that examines strategies existing buildings can take. All this work will contribute to the 2014 Climate Action Plan update, now underway.
We must think long term and collectively. The update will focus on climate prepared-ness, and we hope to capture many of the ideas mentioned in "Coast," as well as from others in the design community. Together, we can make this city a leader in climate resilience. Share your ideas at engage.greenovateboston.org.
Mayor's Office of Environmental and Energy Services