By Michael Fitzgerald
THERE’S A DARK JOKE in the city planning community that refers to an exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Near the Boylston Street entrance, a floor map titled “Boston Over Time” shows how the city has grown since 1630. Much of that growth, including the Seaport District, the Back Bay, and the land the airport is on, is reclaimed wetlands and marshes or plain old landfill. As the joke goes, the map also shows the future, because with climate change, the sea is going to take it all back
While Boston wins accolades for battling carbon emissions — last year the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked it number one of the country’s 34 largest cities because of both energy use and community engagement — the city simply isn’t ready for a rising sea. But it’s coming.
“We’ll see sea-level rise in the next century even if emissions stop today,” says Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of environment and energy since 2012 and a veteran of both the policy and real estate development worlds. Scenario plans such as predictive maps — including those from Ellen Douglas, a hydrologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and other scientists around the world — show that by the year 2050, global sea levels will rise at least 2 feet and by 2100, 3 to 6 feet. (Swett says the city is planning for at least 2.) During normal weather, a 2-plus-foot rise will mean twice-a-day flooding in lower parts of the city. During big storms, there will be higher storm surges, flooding perhaps 30 percent of Boston, according to a report Douglas coauthored.
Scientists predict that climate change and sea-level rise will have various effects on the weather, and city planners across the country and the world are starting to look at ways to adapt. Chicago, for example, will feel more like New Orleans by 2050, and as a result the city has started planting swamp oaks, sweet gums, and other heat-loving trees instead of the white oak that thrived there for centuries. City leaders have also switched to permeable pavement for alleys and streets to help retain groundwater and ward off drought. But Boston is a coastal city. Our big challenge will be sea-level rise. So what’s being done here.
Studies. Boston has since 2007 produced a Climate Action Plan every three years, covering both emissions reduction and climate-change preparation. The next update comes out this year. Former mayor Tom Menino convened a task force after Hurricane Sandy ripped through coastal New York and New Jersey; its “Climate Ready Boston” report came out in October 2013 listing things Boston is and should be doing, such as building climate-change coping mechanisms into capital budgets and planting more trees to help cool a warmer city. Separately, the Green Ribbon Commission, a volunteer group representing the city’s major commercial and nonprofit interests, released a report titled “Building Resilience in Boston” last August. The Boston Water and Sewer Commission is developing a 25-year capital plan. There are still more reports out there.
Cities need plans, of course, especially for dealing with complicated and long-term problems. But “what we do next after the vulnerability assessments and impact assessments is kind of missing right now,” says Mike Davis, an architect, past president of the Boston Society of Architects, and a principal at the firm Bergmeyer Associates. Boston isn’t as far along as New York or Chicago in preparing for climate change, but those cities have different political structures, such as mayors with more autonomy. Boston doesn’t control the MBTA, for example, and it doesn’t run the energy grid, highways, or even control building codes. It also hasn’t suffered a direct hit from a gigantic storm at high tide, to give it the kind of cold wake-up New York City got. Here are five things Boston is doing, and five steps experts agree should come next.
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