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Designing for Adaptation + Resiliency

In 2018 the BSA/AIA and the BSA Foundation are tackling the challenges of climate change with new knowledge and new resolve. This past winter, the highest and third-highest tides in Boston’s history forced us to shut BSA Space twice. These storms showed that the risks of sea-level rise are no longer future predictions; we are living with them right now.

In October, the BSA/AIA and the BSA Foundation will launch a partnership with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission (GRC). Through a series of public forums, we will redouble our efforts to replan and redesign Greater Boston, and create a more adaptable, more resilient, more vital, and more equitable city and region. As we move toward the fall, we will continue to provide updates about our progress and will communicate details about the coming public events.

Below are some intial ideas to contextualize our efforts.


Partnering with city and civic leaders

The Boston Green Ribbon Commission (GRC) brings together business, institutional, and civic leaders to develop shared strategies for fighting climate change. The GRC’s 34-member board is co-chaired by Mayor Martin Walsh and Barr Foundation founder Amos Hostetter Jr. BSA/AIA member Carole Wedge FAIA, president of Shepley Bulfinch, serves on the board; many other BSA/AIA members have helped shape the GRC’s meetings, policies, and reports, including the 2013 the Barr Foundation-funded report, Building Resilience in Boston: “Best Practices” for Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience for Existing Buildings

In 2016 the GRC issued Climate Ready Boston. This plan has been adopted by the City and serves as its foundational policy framework. Building on its goals, the GRC is issuing a series of in-depth reports to start to implement the goals of Climate Ready Boston.

Conclusions from these reports are sobering.

  • World-wide, the seas rose 9” during the 20th century, due to melting ice caps and thermal expansion of the oceans–a rate that is now rapidly accelerating.
  • A further 9” of sea-level rise, measured against 2000, is virtually certain to affect Boston between 2030 and 2050, even with a major reduction in global emissions, due to carbon already in the atmosphere.
  • 36” of sea-level rise is highly probable between 2070 and 2100, even with a moderate reduction in global carbon emissions.
  • Coastal flooding will become a monthly reality in Boston. Already we see the Long Wharf awash at the annual king tide. By 2070, between 10% and 20% of Charlestown, East Boston, South Boston, and Downtown will face monthly high-tide floodingeven when there is no storm.
  • By 2070, exposure to severe flooding could expand to vast areas of the city, including the South End and neighborhoods along the Charles River. Almost one-fifth of Boston’s land area will be affected by a 1% storm. Financial losses from flooding are predicted to rise from $137 million / year in 2030 to $1.39 billion / year by 2070 or later. (See a 2070 Flood map in the left column.)

2070 Flood Map
-Climate Ready Boston

The City has adopted these sea-level rise projections for project reviews under the Boston zoning code. The state transportation agencies have adopted parallel standards for infrastructure projects. But most current codes are still based on outdated, backwards-looking FEMA flood maps, which are insufficiently protective because they ignore the realities of climate change. Reforming the State Building Code and local zoning codes will be a priority for resilient planning and design.


What is a 100-year flood in real terms?

​We also need to stop using misleading terms like the so-called “100-year flood”–a flood that has a 1% annual chance of occurring. Houston has suffered three 500-year floods since 2015! In fact, there is one in three chance that a 1% flood will occur during a 30-year mortgage; and a better than average chance that a 1% flood will affect a brand-new building that is still inhabited in 2070.


Climate change impacts are not limited to the harbor and the coast.

  • Stormwater flood risks will worsen throughout Greater Boston, as drainage systems struggle to handle more and bigger rainstorms, paved-over ground surfaces, and backflows from rising sea levels.
  • Extreme heat: With climate change, Boston will experience heat waves that are hotter, longer, and more frequent. Without protective measures, heat-related illnesses and deaths will more than triple. Children, the elderly, and the sick will suffer most.

This is just the beginning

Redesigning Boston for climate change will be an ongoing challenge facing all BSA/AIA members for years and decades to come. The challenges and the costs will be high; but the costs of inaction are even greater. And investing in adaptation and resiliency more than pays for itself; the most recent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences shows that every dollar invested produces six dollars in benefits.

As we plan and design for the risks of flooding and sea-level rise, we need to build on everything we have learned about how to make a vibrant and just city. Over the past 30 years, Boston has done a remarkable job of cleaning up and reclaiming its harbor. The ecology has been restored. The beaches are swimmable. The 40-mile-long HarborWalk system has become a true public meeting place. When we plan and design for adaptation and resiliency, we need to find solutions that strengthen our connection to the harbor—not to wall ourselves off. We particularly need to protect the most vulnerable communities. We can’t permit the threat of climate change to widen the gaps between rich and poor. We need to make resiliency an exercise in community building.

Read more about our work on adaptation and resiliency.