An imagined future reflection on a well-planned 21st century in Boston:
We can finally declare summer 2084 has started as indicated by the number of daily boat and canoe commuters, together with the daily increase of water level (finally the latest snow storms have started melting). As of next year MBTA will also provide a “hydropolitan” line from Medford to Winthrop, which will probably become more popular under the name of “periwinkle line.”
According to weather experts the famous 2015 record for amount of snow was beaten by 10 inches this winter, while even more snow is expected for next year. Looking back in time, 2015 was also the year when two major events marked the course of the city’s history and future shape:
- Monday, August 10th, Mayor Marty Walsh named City of Boston’s first chief resilience Dr. Atyia Martin
- The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), in collaboration with the Boston Harbor Association and the Boston Society of Architects, launched an architectural competition to retrofit the city to face rising waters. The Competition finalists consisted of nine teams; of those only 3 three local firms were able to turn their drawings into reality; it is the case with Architectural Resources Cambridge (ARC), NBBJ and Paul Lukez Architecture.
Urban planning had (and has) always proven to be a dear subject for a progressive city like Boston. As a discipline, it was initially instituted to find solutions to the fast changing needs of industrialized and fast paced cities; until today, when it often becomes a tool to morph and retrofit existing cities according to the latest weather conditions. Planning a city had always solved functional aspects such as water planning for healthier environments.
That outcome is thanks in a large part to the creation of the country’s first urban planning school, at Harvard. The University founded a school of landscape architecture in 1898. It was, effectively, a vanity project, slavishly devoted to Frederick Law Olmstead (in fact, it was started by Olmstead’s son). At the same time, it was a place to start. Soon after, they began offering classes in city planning, a first for higher education in America. […]
For example, let’s think about the somewhat controversial Big Dig Project; it passed to history as a visionary project which hasn’t seen any equals, yet. Moreover, it triggered a majestic process of beautification of the city that is not only still going, but has also proven to be resilient and flexible to respond to the latest weather changes.
Ever since the BRA launched the “Living with Water” competition, planning has embedded two other concepts: resilience and sustainability. Planning doesn’t simply mean “designing for future growth” any more; its concept is shifting to”capability of designing for unpredictable changes while keeping citizens and local economy as safe as possible”.
Let’s now go back to the three firms enlisted above and take a closer look at their resilient designs. In fact, it took almost 20 years to declare the projects fully completed and functioning as they were originally planned. It might be an interesting exercise to find what has or hasn’t changed since. Three projects to solve the raising water challenge applied to three different scenarios: a building, a neighborhood and, lastly, an infrastructure.
- FUN(d), by ARC – solving a building challenge
Paramount throughout this competition, balance between the technical and the aesthetic, the landscape and the built environment were our guiding principles. […] Although we chose the Prince building as our site, our team recognized that one key to making the project successful was to expand beyond the immediate building site.
Establishment of the FUN(d) in the early years of the 21st century enabled building owners within the district to organize collectively in what became known as “Block Coops,” or confederations of neighbors who combined resources for investment in resilient infrastructure and renewable energy. The first of the Block Coops formed around Commercial Wharf and the Prince Building in 2017. […]This cleared the way for the first air rights development – a vertical addition of four stories on top of the former Spaghetti factory, completed in 2021. Simultaneous development of the inter-tidal area for marine activities coincided with the first stages of a living breakwater, consisting of submerged berms to reduce wave intensity. By 2025, a new layer of wharf development with a raised elevation to accommodate predicted sea-level rise was interspersed with created inter-tidal wetlands which served as sponges for flood events – a bold continuation of Boston’s tradition of land-making in the face of rising sea levels.
During this early stage of adaptation, the construction of a newly sited Harbor Walk with expanded recreational amenities along a Living Shoreline began to attract visitors to the changing waterfront. The early stages of a planned elevation of circulation and infrastructure required the erection of support pylons, used initially for street lighting. By 2040, utilities and mechanical infrastructure had been relocated to the new “Mezzo” level and the next stage of construction (walkways and elevated amenities) had begun.
The Living Breakwater provided a harmonic buffer to absorb wave energy on the Harbor side and minimize turbulence on the city side. The result was calmer water for recreation and protection against storm surge and wave action for the waterfront. The Living Shoreline, a created wetland with a high degree of bio-diversity, provided the ability to further modulate storm energy. These measures proved to be critical during the major storm events of the 20’s and 30’s, and, along with the creation of canals both under and in vehicular roadways, spared the neighborhood from major damage while enhancing the quality of life for area residents.
- RESILIENT LINKAGES, by NBBJ – solving a neighborhood challenge
The future holds many unknowns and risks from a variety of climate-based hazards. “Resilient Linkages” proposes a strategy that embraces the fluctuations of the tide and mounting sea level by building a higher level “ground plane” through public and private investment. The incrementally built elevated road and utility system would eventually rebuild a resilient city fabric out of harm’s way. Incentives would leave space for aqueous parks that would double as water management systems. Planning policies should be put into place today that raise resiliency requirements, incentivize responsible building design, and directs contributions to the public realm. It will take decades to implement a successful resilient urban district but we must begin now.
- THE HYDROELECTRIC CANAL, by Paul Lukez Architecture – solving an infrastructure challenge
PLA’s proposed hydroelectric canal transforms Columbia Point into a self-sustaining mixed-use community that powers itself by capturing electrical energy from rising tides with tidal turbine technology. Connecting two bodies of water, the canal is equipped at both ends with tidal barrages containing low-head turbines, through which rising and falling tides are funneled. This electrifies 1,000-2,000 homes at peak performance. New Living Building Quad (LBQ) urban blocks by the canal receive more than 105% of their energy from turbine, solar, geothermal and biomass technologies. The blocks have naturally landscaped courtyards that retain storm-surge water as a wastewater management/recycling system, while reservoirs holding up to 130,000 cubic meters of tidal overflow prevent flooding.
Concurrently, new hybrid land-form and floating buildings serve as components of dikes and levees that guard UMass-Boston from rising water levels while creating a new system of public spaces and infrastructures. Also, fringe salt marshes, shellfish beds, tidal flats and pools, and other natural habitats are restored and integrated with human habitats, providing organic food production and transforming preserved wetlands into a public park. Mostly financed privately, the hydroelectric canal’s infrastructure is operated by a public-private entity. Its investment could be paid off in 30-50 years, after which its profits would fund construction and management of future public amenities. Therefore, this proposal reduces financial risk to investors by generating self-sustaining revenue streams through surplus energy generation.
Flashback to now:
The projects shown above are a clear example of “ongoing planning”; meaning that all projects showcase incremental adaptability to nature and its challenges. A common thread applies to all the projects: the boundaries of the initial projects were stretched not only to better respond to the local geography; but also to preserve local communities: the engine of our neighborhoods. Furthermore, incremental adaptation is what turns these projects into feasible responses to the predicted 18.5 ‘ water level rise for the city of Boston (Boston City Base Datum).
Sheltering from the elements is what induced humankind to build homes, neighborhoods and cities; now humankind is facing the problem of how to re-adapt what’s existing into a flexible and incremental project for future generation to live in. According to Urban Land Institute (ULI), “’Resiliency thinking’ requires us to think not only about bouncing back from environmental, economic, and social crises, but adapting to changing circumstances by ‘bouncing forward’ through new paradigms, processes, and ways of working.” It not simply our “shelter” that will adapt to nature’s changes; our gathering places will do so, too. The concept of “piazza” will most likely change to embed nature as one of the active participants of our communities.
Life on earth is possible thanks to water; and thanks to water we will probably see the birth of new architectures and infrastructures, capable of becoming more earth-friendly, not just built with eco-friendly materials. “Boston’s resilience initiative includes a unique focus on social and economic resilience in a city affected by historic and persistent divisions of race and class, along with a clear eye toward potential shocks to which the city may be exposed. Disparities in health, economic and educational outcomes threaten community cohesion and weaken Boston’s overall resilience.” In this case water, despite its disruptive potential, can help our communities in overcoming our disparities and teach them how to focus on cohesion. We shall, in fact, remind ourselves that communities are complimentary to the success of architectural and urban projects.
Change, as always, calls for challenges. The ability to create good responses to the latter can generate better and innovative solutions; in this case, better “shelters” (aka livable places).
- The Hydroelectric Canal – a video of how it shall work, here: VIDEO.Hydroelectric Canal by PLA
- Future Proof Boston Event – a video by ARC, here: VIDEO.Future Proof by ARC
I would like to use these last lines to thank my dear friend Amelia Thrall for bringing me to the Future Proof Boston Event and being the engine of this collaboration. Furthermore I would like to thank all the architects who have patiently collaborated with me on this article. In no particular order: Mark Urrea, Paul Lukez, Alan Mountjoy, Matt Uminski, Sarah Walker and, Christopher Angelakis. My most sincere compliments go to their collaborators, too, for the beautiful work that was produced.
All images copyright reserved with express permission graciously granted by copyright holders.