NPR Cities: Urban Life In The 21st Century
2:13 pm
Tue August 21, 2012

Boston Plans For 'Near-Term Risk' Of Rising Tides

Originally published on Wed August 22, 2012 3:13 pm

While many cities around the country grapple with drought and excessive heat this year, city planners in Boston have something else on their minds: the prospect of rising water.

In this coastal metropolis, scientists and computer models predict that climate change could eventually lead to dramatic increases in sea level around the city. Coupled with a storm surge at high tide, parts of the city could easily end up under water.

The area that's home to Boston's Faneuil Hall, the city's first public market, is one of them. The land the hall was built on was once waterfront property, but by the late 1800s, the growing city needed more room. So the marshes and mudflats along the wharf were filled in — and the city expanded.

A 'Near-Term Risk'

"Now, today, more than 50 percent of downtown Boston is filled tidelands," says Jim Hunt, Boston's chief of environmental and energy services.

Hunt helped Boston create a comprehensive climate action plan. It focuses both on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and on adapting to the dangers of a warmer climate such as heat waves, storms and the rising sea.

"How do we prepare our residents and businesses for the impact that we are already experiencing?" Hunt asks. "And that are sure to get more [intense and frequent], given the amount of carbon in the atmosphere?"

Regardless of the ongoing national debate about climate change, Boston is calling the projected sea level rise a near-term risk. Projections range from 2 to 6 feet here by the end of the century, depending on how fast polar ice melts.

Add to that a hurricane storm surge, and some models show parts of Boston under 10 feet of water. Researchers have told the city that by 2050, that could happen as often as every two to three years.

With those risks in mind, Boston is asking developers along the waterfront to plan now for more frequent flooding.

The Boston-based health care group Partners for Healthcare, which is building a new rehabilitation hospital in downtown Boston, is heeding the call.

Building For A Higher Waterline

"When Hurricane Irene came by last year and there was a high tide, it was within 12 to 18 inches of the top of the wharf here," says Hubert Murray, Partners Healthcare's manager of the sustainable initiatives. "You can imagine what could happen if we have a 30 to 60 inch rise in the actual sea level, what that would do. This whole site would be awash," he says.

But the way Partners Healthcare has planned this new building, which sits right where the Boston Harbor meets the Charles River Basin, it won't be. Because the hospital was designed to sit more than 12 feet higher than sea level, and all the patient rooms are on the upper floors.

David Burson, senior project manager for the site, shows off how the company has designed the hospital with potential flooding in mind. While the mechanical equipment that drives large buildings is typically housed in the basement, this hospital takes a different approach.

"The guts [are on] the roof," Burson says. "This is our mechanical electrical penthouse space. So there is where all of our chillers and boilers and air handling units are."

These systems are safer from flooding on the roof, adding a layer of protection to the building's essential functions.

Down in the patient rooms, Burson shows off another design feature — one that stirred some debate within the company and required a waiver from the health department: In each room, a window can be opened with a key in the event of a power outage.

Unlocking a window, Burson demonstrates how the feature will let patients inside "feel the fresh breeze coming in from the harbor."

Looking For Guidance

Across the harbor in East Boston, Magdalena Ayed is also worried about flooding. Ayed lives in a publicly funded housing project that's located right at the point where rising sea levels would have an impact — right along the harborside.

"It's gorgeous," Ayed says. "I mean, anytime you can come out to the pier here and every day, it looks different."

Ayed likes to walk her kids to the dock to watch the tides. And while the tides amuse her children, the sea level projections worry her.

"I worry about it as an adult. We get subsidized housing. Because the situation we're in, my husband doesn't make enough money, he has a heart condition," Ayed says.

"I love this place but sometimes I think about 10 years from now. I read a lot, and I've read the reports that this part of Boston will be basically underwater in 30 or 50 years. ... What are our options? Where would we go?"

Ayed says she wishes city officials would talk to Boston residents about rising sea level and provide guidance on what local residents should do in response.

'There Would Be No Way Of Getting Around'

So far, city officials have been studying the dangers and the possible effects of flooding on sewers and roads. The city is also undertaking a major environmental restoration project on the Muddy River to control flooding.

Essentially, the city is looking at the big systems, in the hopes of preventing flooding in housing projects in East Boston or in million-dollar condominiums in the historic Back Bay neighborhood.

Tedd Saunders, a resident of Back Bay, is a consultant who advises hotels on how to incorporate environmental sustainability into their operations. Under some scientists' projections, his neighborhood could be completely flooded — the Venice section of Boston, perhaps.

"I think the 'Venice section of Boston' makes it sound like it's more romantic than it might be," Saunders says. "There would be no way of getting around."

While Saunders thinks a great deal about preventing climate change, he's only just starting to think about the importance of adaptation to Boston's future.

"I've been more focused on what I can do ... as a consumer, as an individual, as a business person ... to have a positive impact in slowing climate change," Saunders says. "But we do need to think about adaptation. Because climate change is coming, and it's just going to get more dramatic."

What Saunders is describing here in Boston's Back Bay is what's being called "resilience thinking." Boston is now giving the same priority to adaptation as it once did to climate change prevention.

And according to a recent study by MIT, Boston is not alone. More than half of American cities are also thinking about ways to become more resilient in the face of anticipated changes.

Monica Brady-Myerov reports for member station WBUR. Read more from WBUR's coverage of how Boston is planning for climate change.

Copyright 2013 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. And now to the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME)

BLOCK: One thing we've been talking about is resilient cities - resilient to a harsher environment and disasters that can come with it. Last week, we heard about challenge of an even hotter climate in Phoenix. Well, warmer temperatures are also a concern in places far from the desert, like Boston, Massachusetts.

And that's where we find Monica Brady-Myerov of member station WBUR. Monica, hi.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV, BYLINE: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And apart from concerns about rising temperatures, what are some of the other things that Boston officials are worried about?

BRADY-MYEROV: Well, as you know, Boston is coastal, so flooding is a big concern. And scientists have looked at this and the models predict that sea levels around the city could rise dramatically. And if you put that with a storm surge and high tide, parts of the city could be under water.

BLOCK: So, parts of Boston under water. And I gather you are in one of those parts of Boston right now?

BRADY-MYEROV: Yes, I am. I'm in front of Faneuil Hall and this was Boston's first public market and it used to be waterfront property. But in the 1800s, Boston needed more room to grow for residences and homes, so they started filling in the marshes and mudflats along the wharf.

And looking now to my right too, I see City Hall and that's where I met Jim Hunt.

JIM HUNT: Now, today more than 50 percent of downtown Boston is filled tidelands.

BRADY-MYEROV: Hunt was Boston's Chief of Environmental and Energy Services and helped Boston create a comprehensive climate action plan. Hunt says it focuses both on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and on adapting to the dangers of a warmer climate, such as heat waves, storms, and a rising sea.

HUNT: How do we prepare our residence and businesses for the impacts that we're already experiencing and that are sure to get more intensity and frequency, given the amount of carbon in the atmosphere?

BRADY-MYEROV: Regardless of the ongoing debate about climate change, Boston is calling the sea level rise a near-term risk. In New England, sea level is likely to rise higher than the global average. Projections for Boston range from a two to six feet increase by the end of the century, depending on how fast polar ice melts. Add to that a Hurricane storm surge and some projections show parts of Boston under 10 feet of water. And researchers have told the city that could happen as often as every two to three years by 2050. Boston is asking developers along the waterfront to plan for more frequent flooding.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

BRADY-MYEROV: Should we go look at the tidal level first?

HUBERT MURRAY: Sure.

BRADY-MYEROV: Hubert Murray is manager of sustainable initiatives for Partners Healthcare, which is building a new rehabilitation hospital.

MURRAY: When Hurricane Irene came by last year and there was a high tide, it was within 12 to 18 inches of the top of the wharf here. And you can imagine what would happen if we have a 30 to 60 inch rise in the actual sea level, what that would do. This whole site would be awash.

BRADY-MYEROV: But it won't be because the building was designed to sit more than 12 feet above sea level. And all the patient rooms are on the upper floors. David Burson, senior project manager for the site, shows me around.

So we're in the guts of the building but we're not in the basement.

DAVID BURSON: The guts on the roof, yes. This is our mechanical electrical penthouse space. So this is where all of our chillers and boilers and air handling units are. And, as I mentioned...

BRADY-MYEROV: These systems are safer from flooding on the roof. Down in patient rooms, Burson shows off another feature, a design that stirred some debate within the company and involved a waiver from the health department. In each room, you can open a window in the event of a power outage.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

BURSON: This is a bit tricky.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

BURSON: There we go. So the keys are in. We just pull these latches, bottom and top, and push it out to just about four inches. And feel the fresh breeze coming in from the harbor.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER)

BRADY-MYEROV: I've now come across the harbor to east Boston to meet some residents who live along the water, in a publically-funded housing project. And we're standing right at the point where the rising level of the sea will have an impact. And several of these residents know it.

MAGDALENA AYED: My name is Magdalena Ayed, A-Y-E-D.

BRADY-MYEROV: And you have a stunning view of downtown Boston.

AYED: It's gorgeous. I mean, any time you can come out to the pier here, and everyday, I mean it looks different.

BRADY-MYEROV: She likes to walk her kids to the dock to watch the tides. The tides amuse her kids, but the rising tide is a concern to her.

AYED: I worry about it, as an adult. You know, we're in a position where, you know, we get subsidized housing because the situation we're in, my husband doesn't make enough money. He has a heart condition, so forth. I love this place but sometimes I think about 10 years from now. You know, I read a lot and I've read the reports how this part of Boston will be basically under water in 30 or 50 years. I don't exactly what they predicted when. But I think about that. You know, what are our options? Where will we go?

BRADY-MYEROV: Ayed wishes the city would talk to its residents about rising sea levels and let them know what they should do.

So far, Boston is essentially studying the dangers and the possible effects of flooding on sewers and roads. They're also undertaking a major environmental restoration project on the Muddy River, to control flooding. They are looking at the big systems, in the hopes of preventing flooding in housing projects in east Boston or in million-dollar condominiums in the Back Bay.

TEDD SAUNDERS: I'm Tedd Saunders and I'm a resident of the historic Back Bay area of Boston.

BRADY-MYEROV: We're standing on Commonwealth Avenue. And under some projections this could be completely flooded. You could be in the Venice section of Boston. Have you thought about that?

SAUNDERS: I have. I think the Venice section of Boston, it makes it sound more romantic than it might be. There would be no way of getting around.

BRADY-MYEROV: Saunders is a consultant to hotels on how to be green. But he's just starting to think about adaptation.

SAUNDERS: I've been more focused on what I can do to slow, you know, as a consumer, as an individual, as a business person, what can I do to have a positive impact in slowing climate change. But we do need to think about adaptation because climate change is coming and it's just going to get more dramatic.

BRADY-MYEROV: What Tedd Saunders is thinking about in Boston's Back Bay is what's being called resilience thinking in many places. Boston is now giving the same priority to adaptation as it once did to climate change prevention. And according to a recent MIT study, more than half of American cities are also thinking about ways to becoming more resilient.

From the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street in Boston, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov for the NPR Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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