Paul Kirshen, a professor of climate adaptation at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looks on while Boston Green Ribbon Commission Executive Director John Cleveland reports on the discussion of the Seaport District.

By Carter Craft
Senior Economic Officer, Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York

Where do we live? Is the place we live defined by the walls that surround us or by the city or town in which we dwell?

Is there a local park, a school, a transit hub, or a cultural venue that we mention as a reference point?

Certainly, we live at a specific address, but when we have to answer the question, chances are our response focuses more on the surrounding area, the neighborhood, than what our front door looks like.

In a planning sense, a neighborhood can also be thought of as a “district.” Looking at the pattern of development in the 20th century, our built environment is now a network of districts: distribution hubs, entertainment strips, hospital campuses, and historic downtowns.

Some of these areas may not be thought of as “neighborhoods” simply because they are not human-centric, but in the context of our economy, quality of life, and economic health, all of these districts are key to society’s well being.

The Urban Metabolism Workshop, the culminating event of the Wetskills Boston 2016, included plenary session in the morning followed by roundtable discussions in the afternoon. (For a report and the presentations from the morning sessions click here.) The afternoon session explored Boston’s Urban Metabolism at three different scales: site, district, and region (blogpost coming soon).

The format for each roundtable included policy and urban design perspectives. Key characteristics of each area were introduced by group leaders, then a facilitator and designer helped to map out a better understanding of each area’s vulnerabilities as well as different strategies for addressing them.

District: The Seaport District, Boston

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Photo: Smart Destinations via Flickr.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Photo: Smart Destinations via Flickr.

Once the shipping and rail hub closest to the center city, the area has been redeveloped in dramatic fashion in the past 20 years.

Millions of square feet of office space have been built, along with civic and cultural centers including the Federal Courthouse (1999) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (2006).

The Seaport is also on the front line of the city’s vulnerability to sea-level rise. The new forecast commissioned by the city predicts higher sea level in the range of 1.3 to 3.1 feet by 2070.

John Cleveland, Executive Director of Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission, and Hugh Roberts of Engineering Firm Arcadis US together facilitated this session.

The framework of approaches ranged from “compartmentalization” (i.e., a building-by-building approach to resilience) or the district-wide approach. Ultimately the group of Boston and Netherlands participants agreed the identity and the prosperity of the district demands a strategy that serves the entire district.

Measures to fight the rising sea

Representatives from Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission, ArcadisUS, Amsterdam’s Waternet and International students discuss the future of Boston’s Seaport District as sea level rise appears to be accelerating.

Representatives from Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission, ArcadisUS, Amsterdam’s Waternet and International students discuss the future of Boston’s Seaport District as sea-level rise appears to be accelerating.

To protect from rising sea levels as well as large storms, a range of adaptive measures was discussed including “hard” and “soft” approaches. Given the low elevation of this now dense area, however, there was a consensus that given sea-level rise forecasts and coastal exposure, there is little that soft approaches alone can do.

Interventions in the landscape or even water storage on every site cannot ameliorate the impact of such a huge volume of water that comes into Boston harbor, even with the tides of today.

Ideas for hard solutions included elevating the roads or the perimeter Harborwalk along the waterfront.

It raised an important and complex urban design decision: Should flood defense be created at the water’s edge, allowing the existing buildings to function and interact as they do now? Or should it be moved inland one or two blocks? That way, the force of tides or crashing waves is significantly less, leading to lower construction costs.

A second hard option is whether the entire road network should be elevated. In this approach, as buildings are replaced over the next 20-40 years, the new structures, loading docks, and sidewalks can be designed to meet the roads at that higher elevation.

Beyond urban design and engineering

Of course, the issues are larger than just urban design and engineering. Additional challenges and ideas that were discussed included:

  • How to finance? “Paying forward” through an insurance program to create a capital fund to finance the infrastructure needed?
  • Encourage or require? New guidance and code requirements for building permits to proactively address vulnerability on a site-by-site basis?
  • Where to send the water? Creating flood storage areas in parking lots and underground garages?
  • How to move forward? Formulating and piloting a new governance model that can be tested at the district level and then adapted to other areas?

Ultimately, the Boston and the Netherlands voices seemed to agree that no solution will be workable for an individual site in the Seaport District unless it is considered and applied on the scale of the whole district.

As John Cleveland pointed out, “In the future, this area doesn’t work without something happening that serves the whole district.”

An individual building that takes protective measures may become resilient, but it could also become an island if the rest of the district remains unprotected.

And here lies the conundrum.

One on hand, initiating some district-scale action is made much more complicated by the fact that the properties have such high value. How should the costs be allocated?

On the other hand, thanks to the high value of land and economic assets, there may well be financing tools available here that are not available in other areas.

Along the way, Boston’s efforts to become more physically as well as socially resilient will need to be better integrated if the value of social equity is to remain part of the core strategy.