Despite the record harsh winter of 2014–2015 that dumped 111 inches (281 cm) of snow on the city of Boston and the not-so-distant (2012) memory of the near-hit of Hurricane Sandy, instituting measures to safeguard against the effects of climate change and rising seas will not be an easy sell with the region’s utilities, property owners, government agencies, or general public.
That was one of the principal findings of a recent study conducted by ULI Boston/New England and documented in the recently released report, Developing Resilience. The study expanded upon last year’s work, The Urban Implications of Living with Water (also funded by the Kresge Foundation), which proposed design solutions to deal with the effects of climate change for a cross section of typologically diverse Greater Boston neighborhoods.
This report examines the challenges, objections, and possible solutions to the infrastructure and building design issues that will be needed to combat not only major weather events, but also the inevitable rising tides that will greatly affect Boston. Sea-level rise of one to two feet (0.3 to 0.6 m) is expected by 2050 and three to six feet (0.9 to 1.8 m) by 2100, according to a compendium of data compiled by federal and state agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Developing Resilience report is really the second stage of the Living with Water charrette,” Emily Keys Innes, urban planner with the Cecil Group, told the gathering at the luncheon marking the release of the report. “It’s bringing together all of the people and disciplines in ULI, and [asking] what opportunities and barriers there are for looking at the infrastructure and the way that we develop—not just in Boston, but in the Greater Boston area; what is preventing us from addressing these issues; and how we in the development community can participate in this conversation.”
Four separate interdisciplinary teams of 40 to 50 land use professionals examined four key areas (Infrastructure, Housing & Economic Development, Urban Design, and Sustainability) to answer five questions:
- What are the key vulnerabilities and barriers to resilience in Greater Boston?
- What factors contribute to perpetuating these barriers?
- What are the opportunities to make Greater Boston more resilient?
- What actionable steps should be prioritized?
- How can barriers be overcome through creative collaboration with existing networks and funding sources?
Although the report draws its topographical and political conclusions from the Boston experience, the themes that emerged and solutions presented could be globalized to include nearly any seacoast city. The foremost of the barriers to implementing resilience measures were cost and a lack of urgency regarding both sea-level rise and the near-certain recurrence of future calamitous weather events.
In the report’s “Summary of Findings,” the Urban Development team concluded that there was “no sense of urgency within public institutions” and that “climate change events are difficult to visualize and communicate to the general public,” while the Institutional team cited “political skepticism regarding climate change science” as barriers to implementing resilience measures. With regard to financing, the Housing team observed that there was “no concrete information regarding the incremental economic benefits of resiliency” and that insurance companies do not incentivize the implementation of resilience measures. The Infrastructure team added that there was a “lack of sufficient funding for immediate upgrades.”
Many other barriers were discussed in the report, including the difficulty in bringing together all the stakeholders—government, institutions, utilities, and property owners, among others—to discuss the process of achieving resilience. Brian Swett, the former chief of environment, energy, and open space for the city of Boston, and advisory board member for the ULI Center for Sustainability, believes that the process could be advanced through thoughtful regulation, particularly in going forward with new projects or redevelopment.
“I think on an issue like this it’s really important for the regulatory environment to embrace it appropriately,” said Swett. “There is a public sector interest in making sure that all the buildings and infrastructure are built to last, and are built for the full life cycle. We’ve got to put in the right requirements, incentives, and design review processes to make sure that things are being built correctly. In a city like Boston, it’s just not new development, it’s existing buildings and how we prepare the infrastructure of our buildings and our neighborhoods for the next 100 years.”
As daunting as these challenges may appear to be, there was a second report, Technical Assistance Panel Report: Advancing Resiliency in East Boston, that demonstrated how cooperation among community groups, public agencies, and government can lay a framework for developing resilience plans. The entire metropolitan region of Boston relies on infrastructure that runs through or is connected to east Boston, home to Logan International Airport as well as the city’s mass transit infrastructure, major roads, and three harbor tunnels. It is also one of Boston’s most active neighborhoods for multifamily development.
ULI Boston provided a panel of professional land use volunteers (architects, engineers, and public policy and planning professionals) to assist the East Boston Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) community development corporation in “identifying vulnerabilities due to rising sea levels and opportunities for resiliency and adaptation planning.” The panel devised immediate, short-term, and long-term strategies related to resilience planning for individual homeowners as well as for the larger neighborhood. The report also identified financing sources from both government and private developers that could help achieve those ends. The findings were presented at a community meeting attended by residents, NOAH representatives, government officials, and public agency affiliates, and provided stakeholders with a concrete plan as they move forward with development.
“I’m really impressed with ULI’s ability to grab this and make it a priority area nationally,” said Swett of the two studies. “The conversations that are happening here in Boston are certainly at the forefront, but they are not unique. I’ve had the privilege of serving on the advisory board for the Center for Sustainability nationally for ULI, and they are funding initiatives and grants and these types of engagements in district councils throughout the country.”