Metro, Boston

In Face Of Rising Seas, Report Suggests Boston Needs To Get Creative

In a still-struggling economy, it might be the time to tell members of the next generation to invest in the gondola industry—if a recent report by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) regarding rising sea levels in Boston is accurate, it might not be such an absurd way to get around, at least in the Back Bay.

On Tuesday, the ULI of Boston and New England released a report titled “The Urban Implications of Living With Water.” The report illustrated different solutions that the ULI believes can be viable options for Boston to consider in the face of rising sea levels.

“This is a change that’s coming whether we want it or not,” said Dennis Carlberg, director of sustainability at Boston University and contributor to the report in an interview with The Boston Globe. “Instead of being afraid of the problem, we need to embrace it and think about opportunities it offers us.”

With sea levels expected to rise anywhere from 0.7 to 6.6 feet by 2100, according to the report, coastal cities around the world are preparing to waterproof their infrastructures. While the sea level has been rising globally at a rate of 0.07 inches per year, the relative sea level in Boston has been rising at a rate of 0.11 inches per year, simply because the city’s infrastructure is sinking back into the ocean at a rate of 0.04 inches per year. Many of Boston’s neighborhoods have artificially expanded into the bay since the mid 1700s and the man-made areas, such as the Back Bay, will slowly disappear as these sea levels rise, making the city’s plans that much more vital.

Much of Boston sits barely four feet above sea level and there is a risk that parts of the city could flood as often as twice per day at the end of the century, simply due to the tidal patterns. Even if the rise in sea level is not as rapid as projected, mild nor’easters could easily cause major flooding problems for areas like Cambridge, North Boston, South Boston, and much of Logan International Airport. And if a Sandy-esque storm were to hit Boston, these would not be the only parts of the city to find themselves underwater.

During brainstorming sessions that consisted of over 70 engineers, architects, insurance specialists, and other development specialists, the ULI examined four different areas of Boston: the Back Bay, the Innovation District, Alewife Quadrangle, and Revere Beach. While each area has its similarities and differences, the intent was to choose areas that represent typologies for which solutions could be drawn up and then replicated around the city.

Although implementing some sort of canal system in the Back Bay seems like a strange futuristic vision, it is a completely viable project, according to some of the city’s leading engineers, architects, and city planners. Instead of looking at daily flooding as a threat, city officials want to use the canals as a way of welcoming the inevitable flooding and put a positive spin on the situation. With threats of flooding coming from both the Charles River Dam and the Fort Point Channel, the idea is to integrate a canal system into the area’s grid-based street system. The canals would connect the Charles River to Fort Point Channel through a series of locks and by way of the naturally forming Mass. Pike Canal, creating an alternative method of navigating the crowded neighborhood.

Residents don’t have to worry about their beloved neighborhood being remodeled just yet. City officials, while taking the threat seriously, want to have better estimates of future sea level risings before redesigning whole neighborhoods.

“We’re not going to start digging the canals tomorrow,” said Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of energy, environment, and open space, in an interview with The Boston Globe. “But the report makes the important point that you can’t solve 6 feet of sea level rise simply by building a bigger dam on the Charles River.”

Although the canal system in the Back Bay will be a possible addition throughout the city, the ULI report gave other solutions in other areas.

The Innovation District is planning on embracing the threat of floods as design opportunities. The HarborWalk could be re-envisioned to provide a dual service: a location for public gathering and a device that could protect the city from another few feet of rising sea levels. The areas around the walk could also feature flood landscaping that would absorb water and lessen tidal impacts.

New residences in the Alewife Quadrangle might be forced into taller, more concentrated buildings, and new retail areas might be simply moved into an overhead retail corridor that would be above flood levels.

The ULI suggested that Revere Beach raise the height of its sidewalks around Ocean Ave. and install flood landscaping options that will further protect the city. Since the area is continually in development, it was also suggested that “pop up” retail spots be constructed on a seasonal basis that would allow for rapid evacuation during stormy seasons. The ULI also thinks it prudent for Revere Beach to redesign their ground plan, moving their plaza to the heart of the commercial area, and connect to the beach via walkways.

The state and city governments realize the importance and the implications of climate change and the rising sea levels. Former Mayor of Boston Thomas M. Menino created the Climate Action Leadership Committee specifically to overhaul how Boston plans on dealing with climate change and rising sea levels, and Governor Deval Patrick launched a $50 million effort to create a statewide plan for coping with climate change. The ULI was brought in to keep Boston the same quaint and historic city that it is today in spite of all the change that is to come.

“If you just build bigger dams to keep the water out of the Back Bay, you could end up with an unwalkable community,” Carlberg said, according to The Globe. “So this is one way to look at it differently.”

Featured Image Courtesy of OpenStreetMap | Breck Wills / Heights Graphic

October 1, 2014