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Living with water, as a threat and a friend

AquaFence installation
Image courtesy of Boston Harbor Now.

On March 2 a gale flooded parts of downtown Boston for the second time this winter. The BSA had to close BSA Space at Atlantic Wharf; an AquaFence system of mobile flood walls was set up as a barricade around the building.

BSA Space was lucky to survive the third-highest tide in Boston’s recorded history without damage. The waters of the Fort Point Channel didn’t quite reach our building. Others in the Boston region weren’t so lucky. Alongside images of waves crashing into beachfront houses, we saw repeat of the images from the January gale: downtown streets and parks turned into rivers and lakes; buildings standing as marooned islands in East Boston and the Long Wharf and the North End.

Scientists have been warning us of these flood threats for decades. Our buildings and our economy run on carbon. That carbon is slowly, almost imperceptibly, causing the global climate to warm and the seas to rise. When a storm hits, those tiny changes become big and visible and potentially devastating to a coastal city like Boston.

Coastal flooding near docks
Image courtesy of Boston Harbor Now.

2018 will be a year of expanding knowledge. The City has studied flood risks and protection strategies for East Boston and Charlestown, and it will soon complete a similar study for the South Boston Seaport. A team from the University of Massachusetts Boston, supported by the Boston Green Ribbon Commission and the Barr Foundation, will issue a report on different options for large-scale harbor barrier systems to resist future storms. The Commission will issue companion reports on two equally important questions. How will we pay for these systems? And will we need a new regional governance system to carry them out?

But we need to go further; we need to make 2018 a year of action, at many different scales. Along with early decisions about regional harbor barrier systems, we will need to start taking incremental steps. Every plan for a coastal neighborhood and every design for a coastal building needs to take into account the best available knowledge about climate change and sea-level rise.

News van flooded with water
Image courtesy of Boston Harbor Now.

A crucial first step will be to rewrite the laws and regulations that shape our buildings and communities. It is unconscionable, in a state as forward-thinking and innovative as Massachusetts, that our state building code and our local zoning codes still rely on out-of-date historical data to define flood risks. The fundamental purpose of these laws is to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. We must use the best available scientific data to define predictable risks for the 50-year time horizon that we actually build to. That scientific standard must become the legal baseline for all new planning and construction.

At the same time, we need to remember that water is not just a threat; it is also an asset. Over the past 30 years the Boston region has reclaimed the harbor as an extraordinary shared resource. We have cleaned up water pollution, and seen the return of seals and porpoises and shellfish.  The 47-mile-long Harborwalk has transformed derelict areas into lively and beautiful civic meeting places. These government actions have attracted new private investments and created booming new districts. As we adapt to the challenges of climate change and sea-level rise, we must not forget what makes a vital waterfront city and region.

Water level at bunch seat height
Image courtesy of Boston Harbor Now.

Two years ago the BSA and the BSA Foundation, together with City of Boston Environment, Energy and Open Space Department; the Boston Planning and Development Agency (then Boston Redevelopment Association); and Boston Harbor Now (then The Boston Harbor Association), held an international design competition called “Boston Living With Water.”  The competition unleashed an innovative set of solutions. Teams of architects, landscape architects, engineers, and planners showed streets and public parks that accommodate flood waters in times of crisis. They showed resilient buildings that endure as places of refuge during floods and storms and heat waves, while continuing to participate in the life of the community. They showed carbon-free buildings and neighborhoods, made possible by a combination of radical energy efficiency and clean sources of solar and wind power.

These are not utopian future schemes. These are the kinds of plans and designs that we know how to build today, with today’s technologies and today’s budgets. As architects and citizens, it our responsibility and our opportunity to do everything we can to realize these ideas.

Living with Water design
Image: Award-winning Living With Water design, by ReDeBOSTON 2100 / Architerra, showing the Fort Point Channel across from BSA Space. Credit: Boston Living with Water

Jay Wickersham FAIA
Noble, Wickersham & Heart
2018 BSA president