A Call to Action on Sea Level Rise

by Dennis Carlberg, Emily Keys Innes and Brian Swett

Two recent reports from ULI Boston/New England, “Advancing Resiliency in East Boston” and “Developing Resilience: Living with Water Strategies for Greater Boston,” are furthering the conversation around how sea level rise will impact the Greater Boston area.

The conclusions of both reports, and the implementation strategies they recommend, are a clear call to action for all members of the development community to address the regional risk of sea level rise. As the reports note, implementation strategies have different implications at different scales, in part because smaller communities and owners of smaller properties have fewer resources and capacity to address the impacts than larger ones.

What are the barriers that keep all of us from fully understanding and addressing the projected impacts from sea level rise? At the most basic level, we need a better understanding of what those impacts are, when they are likely to occur, and how they will affect both our daily lives and our plans for the future. Current scenarios show a range of projections that can be confusing to those who prefer a more precise measurement of risk.

New Englanders know what to do when a storm approaches. We always buy bread and milk. If it’s a blizzard, we stock up on salt and grab the shovels. For a hurricane, coastal owners bring out the plywood and the sandbags. Municipalities have their own practiced plans for these emergencies.

Our preparation for sea level rise will be more complex and require new ways of thinking and acting. Sea level rise is not a single event – it is a fundamental change in our relationship with our shoreline. How will we react to this change? How will our reactions – as developers, architects, planners, property owners, politicians and investors – change the future of the Greater Boston region?

Education is critical. Residents and officials of non-coastal communities should understand that they too are affected by sea level rise. Low-lying transportation routes – whether major highways or bus and subway routes – may prevent goods, services, employees and emergency vehicles from reaching their destination. The breakdown in transportation was vividly illustrated by last winter’s shutdown of parts of both the subway and the commuter rail lines. The impact on individuals and businesses was significant.

Looking Ahead

East Boston, the subject of “Advancing Resiliency,” is the perfect example of how sea level rise has implications for individual property owners and tenants, the neighborhood, and the region. While the East Boston neighborhood is well-defined both in terms of geography and existing community resources, the lessons of New Orleans prove that social cohesion, even with the prevalence of social media, is hard to maintain when a neighborhood is disrupted. “Advancing Resiliency” provides recommendations for actions individuals can take to protect where they live. The report identifies what infrastructure and services must be in place during and immediately after a storm event and evaluates how sea level rise plus storm surge would impact those resources – an exercise all coastal communities and their neighbors should undertake.

East Boston is home to substantial infrastructure with regional implications. Logan Airport, the MBTA, the Ted Williams and Sumner Tunnels are all threatened by the flooding that would occur under the current scenarios for sea level rise and storm surge. The effect of such scenarios has implications far beyond the East Boston neighborhood.

“Developing Resilience” identified barriers that prevent us from addressing the impact of sea level rise. Our consolidated electrical grid, dependence on natural gas, outdated delivery systems for potable water, outdated stormwater and sanitary sewers systems are all problems that require regional solutions.

Existing regulatory requirements are backward-looking: most solve the problems that have occurred and rarely anticipate future problems. Regulations – whether federal, state or municipal – change slowly, requiring a public approval process. New building technologies, innovative site design treatments that create transitions between water and land, and changes in our understanding of the level and timing of the rising sea enter the development process faster than the regulatory environment can adjust. We need to understand the implications of regulatory requirements that may be outdated given rapidly-changing conditions.

Boston, Cambridge and Quincy have begun to address the questions of impacts and solutions, but smaller communities throughout the Greater Boston region have fewer resources available for such an effort. The lack of true regional planning represents a critical barrier since addressing the threats is the responsibility of no single entity.

With support from the Kresge Foundation, ULI Boston/New England is working to focus the dialogue around sea level rise in our region. As the studies have shown, more coordinated action is needed to eliminate the barriers to better planning. The time to start is now – before the storm hits.

Dennis Carlberg is sustainability director for Boston University and co-chair of the ULI Boston/NE Climate Resilience Committee. Emily Keys Innes is a senior urban planner with Harriman. Brian Swett is director, cities and sustainable real estate at Arup.

This article originally appeared in Banker & Tradesman, October 4, 2015