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The Green Issue

How Boston is — and should be — preparing for rising seas

Five things the city is doing now, and five more things it ought to be doing

Scotty Reifsnyder

THERE’S A DARK JOKE in the city planning community that refers to an exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Near the Boylston Street entrance, a floor map titled “Boston Over Time” shows how the city has grown since 1630. Much of that growth, including the Seaport District, the Back Bay, and the land the airport is on, is reclaimed wetlands and marshes  or plain old landfill. As the joke goes, the map also shows the future, because with climate change, the sea is going to take it all back.

While Boston wins accolades for battling carbon emissions — last year the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked it number one of the country’s 34 largest cities because of both energy use and community engagement — the city simply isn’t ready for a rising sea. But it’s coming.


“We’ll see sea-level rise in the next century even if emissions stop today,” says Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of environment and energy since 2012 and a veteran of both the policy and real estate development worlds. Scenario plans such as predictive maps — including those from Ellen Douglas, a hydrologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and other scientists around the world — show that by the year 2050, global sea levels will rise at least 2 feet and by 2100, 3 to 6 feet. (Swett says the city is planning for at least 2.) During normal weather, a 2-plus-foot rise will mean twice-a-day flooding in lower parts of the city. During big storms, there will be higher storm surges, flooding perhaps 30 percent of Boston, according to a report Douglas coauthored.

Scientists predict that climate change and sea-level rise will have various effects on the weather, and city planners across the country and the world are starting to look at ways to adapt. Chicago, for example, will feel more like New Orleans by 2050, and as a result the city has started planting swamp oaks, sweet gums, and other heat-loving trees instead of the white oak that thrived there for centuries. City leaders have also switched to permeable pavement for alleys and streets to help retain groundwater and ward off drought. But Boston is a coastal city. Our big challenge will be sea-level rise. So what’s being done here?


Studies. Boston has since 2007 produced a Climate Action Plan every three years, covering both emissions reduction and climate-change preparation. The next update comes out this year. Former mayor Tom Menino convened a task force after Hurricane Sandy ripped through coastal New York and New Jersey; its “Climate Ready Boston” report came out in October 2013 listing things Boston is and should be doing, such as building climate-change coping mechanisms into capital budgets and planting more trees to help cool a warmer city. Separately, the Green Ribbon Commission, a volunteer group representing the city’s major commercial and nonprofit interests, released a report titled “Building Resilience in Boston” last August. The Boston Water and Sewer Commission is developing a 25-year capital plan. There are still more reports out there.

Cities need plans, of course, especially for dealing with complicated and long-term problems. But “what we do next after the vulnerability assessments and impact assessments is kind of missing right now,” says Mike Davis, an architect, past president of the Boston Society of Architects, and a principal at the firm Bergmeyer Associates. Boston isn’t as far along as New York or Chicago in preparing for climate change, but those cities have different political structures, such as mayors with more autonomy. Boston doesn’t control the MBTA, for example, and it doesn’t run the energy grid, highways, or even control building codes. It also hasn’t suffered a direct hit from a gigantic storm at high tide, to give it the kind of cold wake-up New York City got. Here are five things Boston is doing, and five steps experts agree should come next.


Scotty Reifsnyder


1. Working with private-sector power players

The Green Ribbon Commission was convened in 2007 by then mayor Menino and includes 33 of the private sector’s most powerful executives from finance, health care, biotech, utility, and construction, as well as university presidents, foundation heads, and politicians, who meet once or twice a year. It also has working groups, including a real estate contingent with some of the city’s top developers. Lots of cities have civic groups, but Boston’s is unusual: It’s rare to get CEO engagement in this kind of enterprise, which Boston’s commission has. Plus, the private sector has more financial resources than the city. Close collaboration between city and commerce has already contributed to slowing emissions and could help Boston take measures to prepare for the impact of climate change.

The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital was built to withstand a serious coastal storm. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

2. Building upside down

The year 2050 is well within the useful life span of any building erected today, given that most are made to last 50 to 75 or even 100 years. That means the city — and developers — need to plan now for a future where Boston looks a little more like Venice. When Partners Healthcare opened its Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in the Charlestown Navy Yard in April 2013, it created a model building. The first floor is 42 inches above the current 100-year flood level, and no critical patient activities take place there. All the electrical and mechanical systems are on the roof, with reinforced, waterproofed conduits leading to them. Vents are above the ground floor, and if those systems do fail, the windows can be opened. A surge-resistant “reef” was built around the waterfront site. The building is not floodproof, cautions Hubert Murray, an architect and the manager of sustainable initiatives at Partners. But it’s designed to keep working in and after a Hurricane Sandy-like storm.


Scotty Reifsnyder

3. Preparing for an off-grid emergency

If we do one day all have to head to Worcester to escape a storm, it’s good to know that there are traffic signals and other road infrastructure in Boston with backup power, thanks to a portion of a 2009 grant from the US Department of Energy. Traffic signals, street lights, and emergency radio repeaters at several major intersections along one of the evacuation routes, Washington Street, have solar-power sources in place as backups to the electrical grid, and the city is actively exploring expanding the project, Swett says. Boston’s emergency-vehicle refueling station also has off-grid backup power.


4. Asking owners the right (hard) questions

Boston Redevelopment Authority officials consider whether to approve proposed buildings through a process called an Article 80 review. In 2013, Article 80 was updated to require developers of any major new project to submit comments on how they will prepare their project for sea-level rise. Article 80 doesn’t have the teeth to force follow-through. But owners, especially of large commercial properties, get an important reminder while still in the planning stages that their building will need to keep functioning in a major storm.

Scotty Reifsnyder

5. Flood-proofing heating and cooling

District energy, or microgrids — so called because they serve clusters of buildings from a central source of power — can, if built properly, survive flooding and get buildings’ heating and cooling back online quickly. The city already uses district energy to heat and cool its buildings, as does the privately operated Longwood Medical Center, which also draws power from a microgrid. The city is promoting more use of district energy in waterfront areas like the seaport, where storm surges could knock out power transmission. It is also planning a study on the opportunities district energy presents for the rest of Boston.


Scotty Reifsnyder

1. Studying a “sea belt”

A “sea belt,” a structure that could keep the worst storm surges away from the coastline, might be a terrific investment. And the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Other cities have ponied up for massive public works projects to combat the sea: Providence’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier at the mouth of its harbor was built back in the 1960s, and London’s River Thames Sea Barrier in the ’80s. In 2010, St. Petersburg, Russia, finished a 15-mile-long barrier, now the basis for the $6.5 billion New York Harbor Wall being considered by New York City and its immediate neighbors. Seattle is rebuilding a sea wall in Elliott Bay, and a $1.2 billion wetlands restoration project has been proposed (but not funded) for San Francisco Bay. Cities can choose from three strategies, says Joyce Klein Rosenthal, an assistant professor of urban design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design: retreat, adapt, or armor. Fiona Cousins, a principal at global engineering consultancy Arup, says regions need to think about whether it makes better sense to gradually withdraw from parts of their coasts. There are important cultural reasons to protect downtown Boston, she says, but “there are areas where maybe we should have never built.” Rosenthal says that “Boston’s got some really valuable areas,” adding, “We’re not going to retreat.”

2. Leading with (and incentivizing) smart planning

Boston can’t rewrite state building codes, but it can make changes in its spending, offer tax incentives for smarter building, and lobby Beacon Hill for changes. Architect Murray of Partners Healthcare says the costs of resiliency features are minimal in the grand scheme of putting up a large building. This cause will get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which released new hazard maps last year, reflecting new areas that are likely to flood today, not even looking at when sea levels rise. When the maps take effect in 2015, they will affect insurance rates, and developers have to figure out how to accommodate different requirements. One aid might be to use porous paving, which lets rainwater slip through, rather than run off; today there are at least two pilot projects involving paving Boston alleys with porous materials. Of course, even if all of Boston’s streets (and, say, its private parking lots) were paved with these materials, it wouldn’t prevent flooding from a major storm. But permeable pavement might limit damage. Rules, guidelines, and even tax credits could encourage such permeable parking lots, and more.

Scotty Reifsnyder

3. Encouraging retrofitting

For buildings that already exist, much can be done to mitigate flood damage. Homeowners can elevate their boilers and furnaces without spending too much money, notes Cousins. And the city could encourage households and neighborhoods to develop flood response plans, like California communities do with earthquakes. Incentives like tax breaks or some funding also could be introduced. Retrofitting office buildings is costly and can be complicated, but there are simple things owners could be encouraged to do. Murray notes that one lesson learned in New York during Sandy was that elevators shouldn’t be programmed to go to the ground floor in an emergency. If set to default to the second floor, they can still be used after a major storm.

4. Working with the neighbors

Alone, Boston can only do so much. But Boston’s mayor is the most influential local politician in the state and needs to lead the charge for a regional working group. “Cities and towns in Massachusetts don’t really talk to each other, and that’s one of the issues,” says Jim Newman, founder and principal at Linnean Solutions, an environmental consulting firm in Boston. (One exception: The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority draws input from leaders across the region. And in case you’re worried, the Deer Island treatment plant is already set to withstand a 2-foot sea-level rise.) The area’s universities have some of the world’s best planning, building, and energy researchers. Leaders should take advantage of their expertise.

5. Moving infrastructure inland

There are dozens of giant petroleum and natural-gas containers sitting along the Mystic and Chelsea rivers and next to Boston Harbor, perched in some cases right on the shore. Is that really where we want to store fuel? “All those facilities will be flooded, with all the nightmarish issues that will create,” says Antonio di Mambro, an architect and urban planner in downtown Boston who for years has advocated for major infrastructure change. He recommends moving those facilities away from Boston entirely and turning the land into constructed wetlands. “You have to look at [storage facilities], how well they’re built and what are their vulnerabilities,” says Rosenthal, who coordinates Harvard’s Risk and Resilience program. She notes that old cities like Boston grew up with all kinds of industries on the waterfront, and it has to look broadly at the vestiges of its history.

Michael Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Cambridge. Send comments to