Ambassador Henne Schuwer (second from left) is joined by Carl Spector, Environment Commissioner, City of Boston; Eric Frijters, FABRIC; Paulien Hartog (Waternet); Eddy Moors (Alterra/ WaginengenUR); and Austin Blackmon, Chief of Energy, Environment and Open Space for the City of Boston.

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

Every city has a metabolism. Nodes of activity drive the economy and constitute the hubs of daily life.

These nodes are connected by complex circulation systems, below ground, at the surface, and in the air. The networks are both tangible and intangible.

For instance, Boston’s famous “T” metro and the flight paths of planes departing Logan Airport help define people’s physical understanding of how the place works. There are ethereal networks, too, in the form of data, communications, and human relationships that flow through these channels, bringing together people and ideas that are far apart, if only for an instant.

On a recent summer afternoon, a large conference room overlooking Boston’s financial district buzzed with discussion about this metabolic network. Among the group were professionals, policymakers, scientists, and students, all talking about Boston’s “urban metabolism.”

The workshop marked the culmination of the Wetskills Boston 2016 Workshop, an international student program that brings students from various backgrounds together to tackle local water challenges.

Urban metabolism

The program opened with Austin Blackmon, Chief of Energy, Environment and Open Space for the City of Boston, welcoming the group. Ambassador Henne Schuwer, on behalf of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, then discussed some of the shared urban challenges and opportunities that cities face, whether large cities such as Boston and Rotterdam or smaller cities like Eindhoven and Cambridge.  The scale may be different, but the issues are similar: mobility, vitality, and equity, just to name a few.

The morning plenary session followed the metabolism theme.  A series of presentations by the Netherlands- and Boston-based experts described various aspects of how cities work.

Wetskills a

The Dutch delegation enjoyed a joint briefing with Boston’s Metro Area Planning Council. Shown here are Eddy Moors (Alterra/ WaginengenUR); Bob Massie (Sustainable Solutions Lab, UMass-Boston); Irene Pohl (IMG/Rebel); Martin Pillsbury, Eliza Wallace, and Julie Conroy (MAPC); Eric Frijters (FABRIC); and Paulien Hartog (Waternet).

For instance, what happens when a city, or a regional hub, such as an airport is overwhelmed by water or overcome by extreme heat?  Extreme rainfall, storm surges, and sea level rise constitute a triple threat to coastal cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Inland, higher temperatures due to climate change are increasing the damage caused by urban heat islands. These islands are the result of generations of replacing open land and green space with paved surfaces.

These hardened areas collect and store heat from the sun, and deprive the surrounding area of the ability to serve as “natural air conditioning,” which surface water and plant cover naturally provide. When we are inundated with water or overheat environments, our cities’ metabolisms cannot function properly.

To chart the course for the day’s discussions, Eric Frijters of FABRIC provided an overview of the “urban metabolism.” Eddy Moors from the Alterra Institute of Wageningen University Research Center showed how the human impacts effects of extreme heat can vary widely depending on one’s income level.

Bringing water into the discussion, Paulien Hartog from Amsterdam’s WaterNet showed how a comprehensive green infrastructure plan and program can benefit residents, property owners, and the city and region as a whole.

Boston’s metabolism is influenced by the city’s relationship with the harbor. With sea levels expected to rise up to three feet in the next 50 years, this interdependency becomes a much greater vulnerability.  The second part of the plenary, featuring Boston area leaders, examined the metabolism theme at the scales of community, city and region.

Looking ahead to 2100

Environment Commissioner Carl Spector provided an overview of the city’s “Climate Ready Boston Initiative,” an interdisciplinary study to assess the vulnerability of the whole city.

The city has tasked a consultant team including Sasaki Associates, Arcadis, and HR&A to look ahead to the year 2100, and identify vulnerable areas and segments of the population that will be especially susceptible to climate change and sea level rise.

Robbin Peach, Program Manager for Resiliency at the Massachusetts Port Authority showed how Logan Airport and state’s other public assets might be at risk as climate change continues. Massport is already taking measures to adapt its infrastructure to be more resilient through the development of new design guidelines for new buildings and installation of deployable flood defense systems.

Steve Flynn, Director of the Center for Resiliency Studies at Northeastern University, showed how these types of threats are not limited to one city or one urbanized area. Studying recent weather events, such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, there are ongoing threats to the electricity distribution network and the fuel supply infrastructure in the Northeast. Just as with the human body, the metabolism of a region is influenced by the interdependencies between these systems.

Local metabolism

Drilling down to the local level, Chris Marchi and Magdalena Ayad from the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) in East Boston reminded the group that socioeconomics also can influence the resilience of a community.

Economic wealth – or lack of wealth – as well as strength of the social fabric significantly can influence which communities will thrive – or at least survive – given all the uncertainties that come with climate change.

NOAH’s “Climate Care” initiative helps to take large topics, such as vulnerability to extreme heat or flooding, and break it down into a set of problems and particularly actions that individuals can take to reduce the exposure to harm they and their families might suffer.  Metabolism also exists at the scale of a single cell.

Interdependent systems

Through the course of these presentations in the plenary session, it became clear that there is still a large information gap both in the Netherlands and in Boston. One emerging focus area in both places is the understanding of interdependencies. These interdependencies exist not just within sectors but between sectors.

For instance, if the mass transport system is disrupted then other sectors such as health care and finance can be disrupted. When workers cannot get to their desks or their labs, transactions, lab tests, and operations don’t take place.

Similarly, if the fuel distribution system stops operating because there is no electricity to power the pumps and meters, then the food supply chain will subsequently be disrupted.

These interdependencies are not unique to Boston or the Netherlands, but can be found throughout modern cities. To understand and address them, however, may require adapting existing or creating new mechanisms within local, municipal, and regional governance.

While events often force us to refine and improve our emergency response and management approaches, it is still a continuous challenge to guide and steward long term recovery, as well as to gain the needed traction up front to take significant preventative steps before the disaster strikes.

Creating this broader and deeper understanding requires new tools. At every level — from the family all the way up to the regional transportation system — there is a need for individual education, building- and district-scaled guidelines, financing, management and operational strategies.

These tools need to be developed, customized and adapted to local conditions, such as culture, and stress-tested in order for our urban metabolisms to be maintained in a steady and healthy fashion into the future.

For a report on the “Boston’s Urban Metabolism Workshop” interactive sessions held in the afternoon, stay tuned to this blog.