In 2014, the Urban Land Institute released a meaningful report called “Living with Water,” which sought to highlight strategies for dealing with the storm surge and projected rising sea levels. A sketch on Page 26 showed a person kayaking down a proposed Clarendon Street Canal—a recreational benefit of the plan to let the water blocked by the Charles River dam into the city and create series of canals through the Back Bay. The image went viral and helped prompt a broader conversation about how this region needs to plan for a changing climate future.
In 2016, the city of Boston released the executive summary of its Climate Ready Boston project, which noted, “The challenges from climate change are substantial and complex but can be addressed through bold and creative actions that support the city’s vitality and livability.” One clear challenge facing the Hub and the nation is rising heat levels. Heat is the cause of more deaths every year than tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding or lightning. Following Europe’s recent heatwave, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said June 2019 was the hottest June since record-keeping began 140 years ago.
Climate Ready Boston projects that by the year 2070 “the temperature may reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit almost every day of the summer” in eastern Massachusetts. The buildings and systems that we have created over the past 100 years were not designed to deal with such conditions. Moreover, hotter climates demand more energy use, which can exacerbate the problems of climate change.
As it did five years ago, ULI Boston/New England assembled dozens of commercial real estate leaders for a recent full-day charrette to design solutions to mitigate the effects of extreme heat. Participants studied four sections of Greater Metro Boston: Chelsea, Somerville, East Boston and Roxbury—each classified by the Trust for Public Land’s Climate Smart Region tool as urban heat islands, where heat is trapped in “concrete, steel, and other building materials.” Those materials retain more heat than vegetation and are highlighted in red on the city’s interactive Climate-Smart Region Map Explorer.
Participants studied the characteristics of each neighborhood, listening to stakeholders and examining various options for mitigating extreme heat. They were encouraged to come up with “big-picture ideas to find solutions,” as one organizer called them. Among the solutions: planting trees to create a cooling canopy, increasing ground vegetation to offset heat-trapping asphalt surfaces, and harnessing cool water from rivers and the ocean to develop cooling corridors. In East Boston, for example, the group focused on how to capture ocean breezes and funnel them throughout the neighborhood.
Other design solutions centered on using buildings as resources of cool air instead of vacuums that trap heat. One way to do that is to make rooftops white instead of black. Virtually all building roofs are black because builders have always wanted to use the sun’s heat to melt ice and snow. But, in an overheating climate, trapping heat on roofs is counterproductive; mitigating heat in the summer now takes precedence over melting ice in the winter.
The group examining heat mitigation in Roxbury looked at social solutions to extreme heat, such as mobile spray trucks, which not only would keep people cool but could also enhance the community by bringing people outside where they are better connected and therefore more resilient in the face of serious events. Other big-picture ideas were also discussed.
This fall, ULI will release the “Living with Heat” report to highlight solutions to extreme heat and offer policymakers additional resources for addressing one of the most critical issues of our time. Participants in the recent charrette not only discussed how we can survive the heat but also how addressing this crisis can also improve the social equity of Metro Boston’s various neighborhoods. To truly make a difference, solutions to our overheating planet have to address social, environmental, logistical, and financial concerns.