ULI Boston/New England Blog

“Developing Resilience” Examines Solutions and Barriers to Boston’s Rising Tide

Written by Michael Hoban

Developing Resilience coverBuilding on the work detailed in last year’s “The Urban Implications of Living with Water,” ULI’s seminal report that examined potential solutions designed to deal with the effects of climate change for a cross section of typologically diverse Greater Boston neighborhoods, two additional projects were launched that focused on the more concrete process of making those ideas a reality.

The findings of those studies were presented last week at the September Member Lunch before a standing-room-only crowd of stakeholders that spanned the development spectrum from architects to government agencies to property owners. Held at the offices of Brown Rudnick, the presentations were followed by a lively Q&A led by Brian Swett, the former chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space for the City of Boston, who now serves as director of Cities and Sustainable Real Estate for engineering and consulting firm Arup. During his presentation, Swett characterized the findings and the corresponding reports as a “new milestone in a multi-decade process to get the city better prepared.”

The projects, funded by innovation grants from the Kresge Foundation and ULI Boston/New England (as was “Living with Water”), focused on developing and implementing effective resiliency strategies. But the reports also addressed the myriad of barriers to developing and constructing buildings and infrastructure in a manner that addresses the inevitable encroachment of the rising seas, as well as preparing for the next great weather event. The first report, “Developing Resilience,” was developed by ULI Boston/New England’s Climate Resiliency Committee, with separate interdisciplinary teams (local product councils) examining four key areas: Infrastructure, Housing & Economic Development, Urban Design, and Sustainability.

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South Boston with 7.5′ of sea level rise. Image Credit: Arrowstreet

“The ‘Developing Resilience’ report is really the second stage of the ‘Living With Water’ charrette,” presenter Emily Keys Innes, urban planner with The Cecil Group, told the gathering. “It’s bringing together all of the people and disciplines in ULI, and (asking) what opportunities and barriers are there 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 participate in this conversation.”

Each local product council was comprised of 40-50 land use professionals who examined a set of five questions pertaining to each of the key areas:

• What are the key vulnerabilities and barriers to resiliency 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?

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Brian Swett at the September Member Lunch, 9/11/15

The common barriers that cut across nearly all product council responses involved funding issues and a lack of urgency regarding climate change, sea level rise and the near-certain recurrence of future calamitous weather events. As the Urban Development Product Council noted in its summary, “Climate change events are difficult to visualize and communicate to the general public.” And in an interview following the event, Swett articulated, “Financing is a common barrier. It’s much easier to come up with the technical solutions than it is to come up with ways of paying for it.” But he also stressed that “there is a very strong policy argument that it makes sense to use tax dollars from development projects to better prepare buildings, because the taxpayer winds up paying a significant amount for bailing out communities and for the emergency response during natural hazard events.”

Like Swett, Innes emphasized that for each barrier an opportunity and possible solution presented itself. For instance, scientists have predicted a sea level rise of four to six feet by the end of the century, which would place a large portion of the current infrastructure networks underwater. The Infrastructure Council postulated that among the main vulnerabilities that currently exist in the network are a consolidated electrical grid that leaves the region open to a “cascading energy failure across the region.” The report suggests that “breaking up the electrical grid into smaller self-sustaining islands (would) safeguard the larger system from catastrophic failure,” as a solution to the issue. A second infrastructure concern is the lack of investment in the MBTA, and not surprisingly, the report recommends “improving the organization and management of the MBTA…and creating a plan for maintaining service during severe weather,” a problem that was pushed to the forefront following last winter’s record snowfall and subsequent MBTA failures.

There were a multitude of issues discussed in the report, including the role of regulatory agencies and how the lack of discussion among all parties (government, developers, property owners, tenants) inhibits the process of achieving resiliency; how building owner profiles affect development decisions (where short term investors are less likely to be concerned about the life cycle of building); finance (because many solutions are expensive and resources are scarce); insurance (insurance companies are not providing incentives for resiliency measures); and the dearth of geographical space to mitigate flooding, particularly in urban areas.

But the presentation also focused on low-cost, achievable measures that were far less daunting, as exemplified by the Technical Assistance Panel Report – Advancing Resiliency in East Boston. The ULI Boston/New England District and TAP brought together a panel of land use professionals (many of whom had lived or currently live in the neighborhood) to identify vulnerabilities due to rising sea levels. The coastal neighborhood has escaped the “disastrous flooding” seen in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and New York and New Jersey as a result of Superstorm Sandy, the report states, and “this, in large part, has to do with luck. East Boston has missed four 100-year flooding events…because storm surges hit several hours off high tide.”

The council then teamed with the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) to explore opportunities for resiliency and adaptation planning in one of Boston’s most active development neighborhoods. East Boston is also a “transit hub” – home to Logan Airport, as well as the MBTA, MassDOT and the Mass. Turnpike Authority – so the team identified areas that were not only vulnerable to flooding, but that “agencies would have a stake in besides just the community,” said presenter Jordan Zimmermann of Arrowstreet. The agencies, community and TAP began sharing resiliency plans at meetings “so that the conversation could overlap and everyone could be sharing their ideas and proposals for reducing vulnerability,” said Zimmermann.

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East Boston flooding vulnerabilities after 2050 storm surge. Image Credit: Arrowstreet

What emerged was a plan that addressed a way to prioritize which of the region’s assets needed to be up and running during a storm, within 72 hours of a storm, as well as what processes need to be in place by the year 2050 to combat the effects of the rising sea levels.

The enthusiastic Q&A that followed the presentations provided additional fodder for the upcoming Climate Resiliency Committee meeting to be held on October 13. Sarah Slaughter, president and founder of the nonprofit Built Environment Coalition, expressed her thoughts on the work being done by the committee following the luncheon. “I think this idea of bringing people together – all of these voices and resources and knowledge and experience and all of the networks – is a huge opportunity to build a community of expertise, and a rising tide lifts all boats.”

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