Rising seas require changes to waterfront building rules

Boston has nearly half a trillion dollars of waterfront real estate, plus billions more dollars of development in the pipeline for the Seaport District and low-lying neighborhoods from East Boston to Dorchester. All of it is at risk, though, as sea levels are predicted to rise by 1 to 2 feet by 2050. While 2 feet of water may not even reach the knees of some adults, that is enough for nearly a third of the city to be flooded by surges from a storm as strong as Hurricane Sandy.

Seeing the widespread flooding that Sandy caused in New York, Boston wisely accelerated its climate preparedness efforts. Earlier this summer, Mayor Menino’s Green Ribbon Commission released a report advising homeowners and commercial developers on measures that can be taken to retrofit buildings to seal off flood water, redirect it, or remove it as quickly as possible from basements and foundations. With Boston having the highest percentage of pre-World War II housing of any major metro area, the report urged that “resilience needs to be included in capital planning and maintenance schedules right away.” The next major step should be new building regulations to keep lower floors and critical electrical systems, generators, and fuel sources as dry as possible.

European cities can offer lessons and inspiration. Hamburg, Germany, already has a new gleaming downtown district called HafenCity, built to accommodate climate change as it sits atop landfill two and a half stories above sea level. Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, already has a goal of being 100 percent “climate proof” by 2025. That means building offices atop dikes and designing playgrounds and plazas to absorb and shed water.


A key issue in Boston will be coordination between developers and environmentalists. That means reaching agreement on acceptable regulations within the web of city zoning laws, state building codes, and federal flood-plain designations. It would help if Congress could get beyond its gridlock and develop a national strategy on fighting climate change, both through limiting greenhouse gas emissions and funding efforts to retrofit crucial infrastructure.

Against these obstacles, the Menino administration deserves credit for beginning the planning process, and Boston should be able to catch up to European cities by utilizing local expertise in environmental engineering. MIT urban and environmental planner JoAnn Carmin said, “Sea level rise is not as sexy as flooding. What gets traction and attention is flooding and storm surge from hurricanes. When you have a Sandy, everybody relates to that a lot better.” Now that Sandy has gotten Boston’s attention, the city and the rest of coastal Massachusetts should move quickly to limit the impact of future storms and sea levels.