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Resist, retreat, reconsider, repeat

The architectural press is full of celebratory articles about reclaimed urban waterfronts. “The secret to Chattanooga’s downtown revival,” reads one headline. “The rebirth of Toronto’s waterfront.” “Nature, Newark style.” After centuries of treating harbors and riverfronts as our communal backyard — out of sight, overgrown, fit for dumping garbage and other effluvia — we have turned them into our proud new front yards, with fabulous water views, million-dollar condos, and outdoor festivals. From Boston to Berlin, the water’s edge has become the catalyst for economic development, as gritty industrial uses have yielded to an urbanism of delight. How rich — or cruel — is the irony, then: We have rediscovered the allure of the sea just as it has risen to threaten our glittering work with inundation.

The problem of coastal pressure is not just, or even particularly, confined to the developed world. More than 45 percent of the planet’s population lives on the thin border of continental crust along the sea. And the concern is not solely urban, though it is hard to separate “coast” from “urban” because the world’s population is migrating inexorably to port cities, and because it is the dredging, filling, dumping, and building of urban industrialization that has so upset the natural order of things.

This issue of ArchitectureBoston doesn’t spend too much time on consciousness-raising. We assume the readership is aware of the urgent threats to the built environment wrought by climate change. The Boston Harbor Associates’ Preparing for the Rising Tide report lays it all out for us locally, and newly drawn hazard maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will place hundreds of thousands of homes in flood zones for the first time, bring the sobering news to the rest of the country. Instead, we focus on solutions — new thinking about mitigation measures finely honed to the particulars of coastal communities around the globe. (Elsewhere in these pages, Chris Reed of Stoss Landscape Urbanism refers to this as “adopting an amphibious mindset.”)

Still, one point deserves to be underscored: Adaptation to climate change does not mean abdication. Some environmental activists fear that learning to live with sea-level rise will take the political pressure off efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in the first place. Obviously, the two must work together. When the United Nations estimates that buildings contribute more than one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the obligation of architects and designers to eliminate the threat as well as adjust to it is clear.

Similarly, we need a layered approach in response to the hot new world we inhabit. Over just the past few decades, favored solutions have cycled through a “Three Rs” approach: from resistance to retreat to resilience. Massive hardscape concepts such as the Thames Barrier downstream of central London have evolved into more organic approaches, such as reintroducing oyster beds to the Passaic River in New Jersey. But nature’s infinite variety demands equally varied solutions, informed by deep analysis and customized to the unique geology of every space. What will not do is to simply emulate the heroic little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.

Nature teaches us that all things are impermanent — most especially our built infrastructure, skyscrapers, and other hubristic hedges against mortality. We can work with nature, but we cannot armor ourselves against it. The inestimable Rachel Carson had this to say about the coast in 1955, long before the current emergency: “For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.”

If we can live in harmony with this truth, we may just make it through all right.