Boston from the Ground Floor

The Boston Living with Water design competition ponders a wetter future.

By Elizabeth S. Padjen 

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ReDe Boston 2100, designed by Architerra, imagines an accessible waterfront that allows for tidal submersion.

All this talk of sea-level rise and 100-year floods…. If you’re a Bostonian, you can talk in terms of 30-day floods.

That’s the interval between astronomical high tides—the so-called wicked high tides (no one bothers with quotation marks around “wicked” anymore) that regularly flood parts of the city. Locals have been industriously filling in tidelands and marshes for a few centuries now, increasing the city’s land area by more than half. But in just the past century, sea level has risen by almost a foot, with a projected additional five- to six-foot increase by 2100 that will flood most of that filled land, leaving dry zones that almost match the footprint of the original 17th-century Boston.

Bostonians have got the message: The sea is calling, and it wants its stuff back.

The most recent effort to negotiate palatable terms of surrender is Boston Living with Water, an open, international, two-stage competition that attracted 50 entries representing more than 340 individuals. Winning submissions were announced on June 8 by Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, at a standing-room-only event that attracted more than 150 attendees, including designers, civic and business leaders, community members, students, and even Miss Earth Massachusetts (Olea Nickitina, resplendent in a sash and suitably green frock).

Selected from a field of nine semifinalists, the winners were:

Prince Building Piers (team led by Stephanie Goldberg and Mark Reed, architects, in Boston)

ReDe Boston 2100 (team led by Architerra, architects, in Boston)

Total Resilient Approach (team led by Thetis S.p.A., environmental engineers, in Venice with PROAP, landscape architects, in Lisbon)

An Honorable Mention was also awarded to Resilient Linkages (team led by NBBJ). The winners each received $10,000 and, in lieu of an additional $10,000 to an overall winner, the jury elected to split the grand-prize winnings among the three teams.

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Prince Building Piers, by Stephanie Goldberg and Mark Reed, lift and protect new construction from tides.

Although framed as an ideas competition, Boston Living with Water seemed designed to discourage the sort of fruitcake submissions that can derail sponsor intentions. A thoughtful brief invited designers to focus on any of three scales: building (the Prince Building, a residential condominium in the North End), neighborhood (the 100 Acres site in the Innovation District), or infrastructure (Morrissey Boulevard). Winners were chosen for each site. Guidelines focused on multidisciplinary solutions and creativity, but also incremental, feasible strategies—“implementability” is the latest entry to the local resiliency lexicon. Most significant, the brief mandated a “Living with Water” design—referring to an approach developed by the Dutch that advocates an ecological accommodation of rising water levels as opposed to hard infrastructure solutions such as levees and seawalls. The serious nature of the undertaking was underscored by the range of sponsors (the City of Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Boston Harbor Association, and the Boston Society of Architects) and by an impressive jury, none of whom was likely to be swayed by flashy graphics.

Each iteration of the sea-level discussion in Boston suggests new opportunities and solutions—and questions. Many of the competition submissions recommended a “vertical retreat” strategy, which includes sacrificial, floodable ground floors that will someday be abandoned in favor of new raised street levels—a dire prospect for many existing structures, even if property owners are compensated with air rights allowing additional building height.

New tidal marshlands are another common suggestion—somehow always drawn at high tide, lush and green and populated by elegant egrets instead of the shopping carts that commonly roost in most metropolitan marshland. “Marshes aren’t urban,” said Shauna Gillies-Smith, a landscape architect and the principal of Ground, who participated in the Resilient Linkages submission, which proposed a solution more akin to rocky tidal pools. Her comment points to a larger issue: character. Do we need to redefine an understanding of “urban”? Or do we need to find solutions that somehow extend the inherent personality of the city?

We do need to identify what we don’t know. How viable are urban marshes really when so many naturally occurring marshlands are struggling? Even the jurors noted that they could not discern the long-term effects of some solutions—would new canals, for example, simply bring flooding into new areas? One thing we do know: Mistakes will be made.

The biggest challenge clearly is the timeline for change, which all of the finalists grappled with. Because sea-level rise will presumably occur at an uneven pace over an unspecified unit of time, determining when to make some accommodations will be a political and economic battlefield. When do you abandon that ground floor? What if the building owner next door cannot? How do new raised streets mesh with existing street patterns? How are these decisions made within the context of other social goods, such as accessibility and economic justice? And how are they made when most developers and many occupants have short-term commitments to a property?

The best ideas competitions throw a spotlight on new and emerging ideas, and Boston Living with Water offered several. The decentralized generation and distribution of energy, suggested in several entries and promoted in ReDe Boston 2100, is one such notion—not a new idea, by any means, but one that has yet to gain real traction, perhaps because it lacks sex appeal up against images that show harborside skateboard parks.

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Total Resilient Approach, by Thetis S.p.A. and PROAP, uses a multidisciplinary approach for Boston.

Another is the emergence of hybrid approaches, such as the proposal submitted by the Total Resilient Approach team, perhaps growing out of the team members’ experience with the Venice MOSE project, the flood barrier currently under construction in the Venetian lagoon. Offering what may prove to be the next level of sophistication in coastal design, they combined Living with Water strategies with gray infrastructure such as levees, canals, and, most notably, a cross-harbor flood-control barrier—an idea first proposed by the architect Antonio di Mambro in a 1988 ideas competition. The team calls for a cost–benefit analysis of such a barrier, which, given the complexities revealed in this competition, seems more and more compelling.

But one of the most appealing suggestions—easily and immediately “implementable”—came from the semifinalist No Building Is an Island submission from a team of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design led by Thaddeus Pawlowski, a Harvard Loeb Fellow who, as an urban designer in the New York City Department of City Planning, is credited with developing planning principles for storm resiliency even before Hurricane Sandy. Focusing on policy and incentives, the team proposed “resilience report cards”—a rating report for individual buildings even easier to understand than a Nutrition Facts Label. Is the first occupiable floor above flood levels? Are the mechanical systems in a floodable basement? It’s all there.

The beauty of the report card is that it brings resiliency discussions to the marketplace, much as LEED ratings did for sustainability concerns. And that can happen none too soon. Daniel Bernstein, a principal of Architerra, described a recent presentation by a local developer. “Someone asked him what his strategy was for sea-level rise,” Bernstein said. “His answer was ‘sandbags.’” Two and a half years after Hurricane Sandy, it’s an answer that seems shockingly out of touch.

Elizabeth S. Padjen is an architect and the former editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine.

Credits: ReDe Boston 2100, designed by Architerra, courtesy Boston Living With Water; Prince Building Piers, designed by Stephanie Goldberg and Mark Reed, courtesy Boston Living With Water; Total Resilient Approach, designed by Thetis S.p.A. and PROAP, courtesy Boston Living With Water.

3 thoughts on “Boston from the Ground Floor”

  1. Developing planning principles for storm resiliency even before hurricane sandy? wow.. Congrats to the team from Harvard graduate school of design.

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