Troubled Waters – Boston Society of Architects Forum

BSATroubledWaters2

Image:Sasaki Associates

On Tuesday, the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) hosted a panel discussion to a packed crowd on tackling the issue of sea-level rise in Boston at their financial district exhibition center BSASpace.  The panel consisted of Chris Reed of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, Hubert Murray of Partners Healthcare and Nina Chase of Sasaki Associates.  A very amusing Tom Ashbrook from WBUR served as moderator.  So many ideas circulated and from a design perspective, there appeared to be optimism that adapting Boston to climate change-induced sea-level rise was a manageable problem.  Murray, one of the architects behind the newly built and flood-resistant Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, pointed out that “Boston is in denial about its topography.”  Check out a map of Boston from the colonial era and it is easy to see how much of our city was originally underwater and those are the areas – valuable real estate along the waterfront, Back Bay, South End and large sections of South Boston – which are vulnerable to returning waters.  A report last year from the Boston Harbor Association (BHA) showing which areas would flood with sea-level rise has piqued interest in the topic.  Reed’s position is that Boston must “let the water in” rather than retreat to the interior.  Learning to live with it around us can mean a variety of structures like canals, floodable green areas or first floors modified for uses allowing contents to be temporarily moved and able to withstand floodwaters.  Plans from London, Seoul and other cities were discussed but there is, however, no Boston plan.  A young representative from the City’s Environment department was put on the spot but she merely invited the public to submit ideas to the Greenovate website.  Clearly the discussion is in the very early stages which is alarming since, according to the BHA, Boston narrowly missed Nemo, Sandy and Hercules hitting at high tide which would have been disastrous.  Our luck can only run for so long, what are we waiting for?  Well the conversation turned from bright design ideas to the sobering reality that there is no political will, nor funding, to come to grips with the flooding issue.  The City would struggle to implement grand infrastructure plans, the rest of the state is fed up with money being funneled to Boston for decades and private enterprise has no reason to commit itself to preserving Boston when it can just move inland.  But, as Murray pointed out, no community has ever voluntarily given up its home so it remains to be seen what sort of interest this topic will generate and what shape it will ultimately take.

This forum was organized to complement the current issue of ArchitectureBoston, the quarterly publication of the BSA, titled Coast.  The entire issue is available online and makes for very interesting reading.

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