Julie Wormser of Boston Harbor Now reports back on the Greater Boston discussion.

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

The borders between cities, towns and villages in urban areas are almost indistinguishable. When we talk about these places, however, we talk about a particular city or community, not the service district or the metro area. The greater region generally doesn’t have a strong identity or much influence.

While local governments like to maintain independence, this lack of collective governance creates limits and leads to increased threats. For instance, what happens when workers can’t afford to live in the city, but then public transportation from their neighborhood to the hub is cut?

Recently, a diverse group of nearly 100 practitioners, policymakers, students, researchers and leaders came together to look at Boston’s “urban metabolism.” Discussions ranged from how it has changed, continues to change, and what directions it may go in the future.

Even apart from sea level rise, when viewed on a larger scale, there are additional vulnerabilities for the region, such as catastrophic downpours and extreme heat. These vulnerabilities have complex sources. Downstream flooding can emanate far from Boston, up in the watershed of the tributaries. In the heart of the city, will a comprehensive green infrastructure program adequately address heat stress if the surrounding region is also a massive heat island?

Across these invisible lines, systems for transportation, schools, or water/wastewater are often shared. In terms of public policy and development strategy, the “region” generally lacks decision-making capability of its own.

Instead, the tradition of home rule allows power to remain with the most local municipality. With a few notable exceptions in the US, such as Portland Oregon, control through land use and zoning policy generally resides at the local level.

Sometimes quasi-government entities are created, such as port authorities or water management districts. This is one way to maintain independence and budget control, but when faced with a large scale challenge, such as climate change or sea level rise, how can this work?

The culminating event of the Wetskills Boston 2016, the Urban Metabolism Workshop included a 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 scales: site, district, and region. Key characteristics of each area were introduced by group leaders, then a facilitator and designer helped map out a better understanding of each area’s vulnerabilities as well as different strategies for addressing them.

Region: Greater Boston Metro area

Like many harbor cities, Boston was once a vibrant, water-dependent enclave. The bays and shallows provided safe harbors and fast access to rich fisheries. The network of islands offered a layer of protection to the settlers as well as room to grow.

This image shows the depths of Massachusetts and Cape Cod bays (credit: MA State Ocean Plan, 2009; courtesy: map collection of Charles Norris).

This image shows the depths of Massachusetts and Cape Cod bays (credit: MA State Ocean Plan, 2009; courtesy: map collection of Charles Norris).

And like other cities, urban and industrial development grew by filling the marshes for human use. Some areas filled long ago now continue to subside. The sea level rise forecast maps of Climate Ready Boston show how these low-lying areas may experience nuisance flooding on a daily basis, in as little as 30 years.

Looking ahead at Boston’s vulnerability to the sea, there are at least two major differences between Boston and other cities on the Atlantic, such as New York. The first is Cape Cod, the hook-shaped peninsula to the south and east of the city that acts as a natural and protective breakwater for storms like hurricanes approaching from the south.

The second key difference is the offshore geomorphology. Rather than a single or small number of rivers carving their channels deep out into the continental shelf, Boston faces Stellwagen Bank, a shallow bank situated 25 miles off shore between Massachusetts Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

West of the bank the water can be as deep as 300 feet, and to the east 600 feet or more. Stellwagen Bank, however, is just 100-120 feet deep. Thus, the bank helps to keep surges from the east from flooding in to the harbor.

Before one thinks, however, that Boston is naturally protected from the sea, it should be pointed out that coastal vulnerability in this area is heightened by other factors.

The first is the presence of Nor’easter storms in this part of the Atlantic Ocean. These storms are similar to hurricanes in that there is a typical wind-pattern associated with them. In this case it is winds out of the northeast.

When considering, on one hand, the safety from hurricanes afforded by Cape Cod, with Nor’easters the opposite is true. In these storms the storm tide is pushed down and in from the northeast, while the shape of Cape Cod keeps the water bottled up in the bay, leading to higher tides in Boston and the surrounding estuaries. Nor’easters also move much more slowly than hurricanes. One famous storm in the late 1970s lasted for two days, causing the high tide to be sustained over a number of tide cycles.

The second factor is the Bay of Fundy, farther to the northeast in Canada and on the back of Nova Scotia. Here the vertical tide range is among the highest in the world. When storms come to this greater reach, extending from Massachusetts Bay up to the Bay of Fundy, the volume of water that needs to be accommodated is enormous.

A range of solutions

At the workshop, a range of perspectives came together around the table. Locals provided expertise on a number of levels. Visiting students brought fresh eyes and ideas from other places in the world for how regional vulnerability challenges might be tackled. Scientists talked trends and probabilities. Advocates and talked about the virtues of vision versus the perils of political reality.

Group leaders summarize the major discussion points. From left to right: Karel Hejnert (Deltares US), Julie Wormser (Boston Harbor Now), and Charles Norris (Norris & Norris Consulting).

Group leaders summarize the major discussion points. From left to right: Karel Hejnert (Deltares US), Julie Wormser (Boston Harbor Now), and Charles Norris (Norris & Norris Consulting).

Local civic leader Julie Wormser of Boston Harbor Now facilitated the discussion, while planner and harbor expert Charles Norris captured the ideas, both in text and in sketches.

Around the table a veritable library of Boston and Greater Boston maps informed the discussion, from Antonio Di Mambro’s 1988 “Sea Belt” proposal, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s map of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

The task to the regional group was twofold. One was to generate some ideas that could be considered as short, medium and long-term strategies to address regional challenges. Short-term measures were focused on 10 years from now; medium-term measures look ahead 25 years; and long-term measures look 100 years into the future.

The second task was to articulate some specific ideas, and also to qualify these with a related list of concerns that must be kept in mind when considering any strategy or intervention on a regional scale.

Over the course of the afternoon, two different groups pondered the same question: how to address the vulnerability of the greater Boston region.

Here is the essence of the report back to the whole group, followed by the more detailed list of possible short- medium-, and long-term steps that could be taken to move forward:

  • Boston is more than the sum of its parts. To address the vulnerability of the metropolitan area, a metropolitan scale solution may well be needed. Protecting just a limited number of districts may ultimately prove inadequate to the health of the whole region.
  • Not just a wall. Any new infrastructure needs to create multiple benefits – at the local, district, and regional scale.
  • One piece at a time. A physical phasing plan will allow for a more affordable and manageable financing strategy.
  • Labels matter. A regional approach doesn’t mean a large harbor “barrier,” but it does mean a new harbor edge that could be a seam or it could create a ring.
  • Infrastructure creates economic opportunities. Whatever regional strategy is chosen, new inshore (i.e., shoreside) development opportunities may emerge and transportation options be enabled.
  • Water goes its own way. There are lots of back doors along the harbor where the water can come in. Plus, cloudburst and major precipitation events inland demonstrate that the risk from water may also emanate from the upland/ watersheds.
  • The looming question is governance. Who decides and who implements? The process of formulating a solution and then implementing those solution(s) will require a whole set of strategies to empower and adapt existing organizations, and/or to create new organizations to bring a long-term plan into being.

A ‘perfect storm’ brewing

Looking back at a storm such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, where different weather patterns interacted to heighten meteorological and astronomical conditions, one can envision a Nor’easter storm bottling up a continental system dropping a lot of precipitation.

With flood waters coming down stream toward Boston Harbor and high tide or surge water coming in from the ocean, there is a dual threat. Combined, it’s the recipe for another “perfect storm.”

Looking ahead, without regional action what will happen when sea level rise vulnerability for a city like Cambridge is topographically linked to Charlestown in neighboring Boston?

Can you devise an effective strategy to protect low-lying areas in East Boston, but ignore the people across the creek in Revere?

Failure to address these shared vulnerabilities will undermine the need for both economic viability as well as social equity.

In today’s world, where class and economic divisions are becoming starker, this should not be the time to abandon the American way. This is the time to show the whole world again what it looks like.