Logan Airport runways flooded. The Blue Line completely underwater. Atlantic Avenue actually part of the Atlantic.
Climate change flooding in Boston isn’t just a hypothetical. It’s being treated as a reality by developers and every part of government, not just in Boston but across the New England region.
That was the takeaway from this fall’s Building Boston 2030 event, “Is Climate Change Flooding Boston’s Future?” Cohosted by the Sawyer Business School’s Center for Real Estate and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the gathering took place at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre (on a disturbingly windswept, rainy day, no less) and brought together a panel of experts from the national, state, city, non-profit, and real estate communities.
The first panelist was William Golden. Students of Boston history will know him as the person who filed the lawsuit to clean up Boston Harbor. The success of that action can be seen with a completely rejuvenated waterfront and the on-fire development of the Innovation District. As the cofounder and executive director of the National Institute for Coastal & Harbor Infrastructure, Golden knows a lot about the challenges we’re facing.
“We have before us a triple threat: rising sea levels, extreme storms, and aging infrastructure,” Golden said during his presentation. “And this does pose a clear and present danger today to our national security, to public safety, and to our national economy.” The problem is that, until now, federal, state, and local government policy viewed this extreme weather as episodic acts of nature. That has to change, according to Golden. “We need to move from respond and repair to plan and invest.” Meaning, a good offense is a strong defense.
Other panelists also demonstrated how environmental issues are top of mind at every level of government:
- Kate Fichter, assistant secretary for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation showed how climate change planning works on a state level and how MassDoT is being proactive with projects like a rebuilt seawall near the Charlestown bus depot, flood protection for the Green Line, and a Blue Line Vulnerability Assessment. “Environmental protection issues are coming up farther and farther on the list of things MassDoT thinks about,” said Fichter.
- Richard McGuiness, Deputy Director for Climate Change and Environmental Planning at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, showed how far the city has come in just a few years when it comes to thinking about climate change issues. “The first time we really referenced climate change and sea level rise during a comprehensive project approval, it was just one sentence: ‘Make sure the project complies with any policies and regulations.’ That was only in 2010.” Now climate change is threaded throughout the city’s planning and development, including in the recently-released multi-agency master plan for the City of Boston.
- Developer Yanni Tsipis showed how private developers are just as focused on flooding issues as government. “What should we do to be good corporate citizens and protect our and others’ investments?” he posited. Answers include raising ground floors to reduce flooding damage, installing infrastructure such as generators and HVAC on third floors, and using materials that don’t wick water. “We are thinking district-wide for a more sustainable future,” he said.
- Kathy Abbott, president and CEO of Boston Harbor Now, reiterated that all constituencies are partners and must work together—and that, in Boston, that’s actually working. “Boston’s doing the planning that needed to be done. And working across political boundaries: that’s really happening now.”
So what’s a New Englander to do in the face of all this grim news? Head for the (Blue) hills, as Golden suggested? Hope the problem goes away? His answer is the one that makes the most sense–and will take the most political courage.
“My advice is to really think big. Think about Boston’s future and our values and choose wisely.” he said. “You can ignore the reality of climate change. Or you can invest in a layered defense that will protect Boston for 100 years or more and buy time to adapt.”
Words to the (weather) wise, indeed.