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Wash ’n’ Dry City

An urban narrative diagram.

Almost everyone now agrees that rising sea levels and increased storm frequency are coming to coastal cities, but architects and urban designers have been less responsive than environmental scientists and planners. Why? Because the generally held principles of the “walkable city” don’t jibe with a city of elevated buildings. One can almost picture Jane Jacobs organizing a picket line to hold back the water.

Our existing historical urban cores pose an even thornier question. Do we abandon central Boston for higher ground, thus letting Boston “attenuate” back to a natural state, or build dikes and floodgates to hold nature at bay — at least for a while? One solution is apocalyptic, the other requires a level of public investment not seen since the Johnson administration. These extreme scenarios can’t be the only solutions.

We are offering a third way — let’s call it “Wash ’n’ Dry Urbanism” — based on a strategy the Venetians have been using for centuries to cope with the city’s annual high-water events. People and seasonal floods can move freely through buildings. The ground itself guides floodwaters across absorptive, sponge-like landscapes and into subsurface cisterns. This retrofit strategy for buildings, streets, and urban landscapes encourages a larger percentage of the city to be publicly accessible and requires new forms of retail and events to occupy these Wash ’n’ Dry spaces.