The Urban Implications of Living with Water (Boston, Massachusetts)

From the Urban Land Institute (ULI) of Boston/New England, this report examines the threats of climate change in Boston - specifically, sea level rise and its related impacts. The report also provides short-term, mid-term and long-term solutions, which the real estate community and public sector can adopt to improve preparedness and response to the effects of rising seas.

This report is the result of the collective efforts of 70+ industry experts, including engineers, architects, financial and real estate development professionals, property insurance specialists, and policy-makers. All the ideas presented emphasize the role private developers can play in concert with city government to make Boston a safer and more resilient city.

According to ULI, “The Urban Implications of Living with Water” charrette set out to explore a broad set of risks, opportunities, common themes, and divergent strategies related to sea level rise at four different neighborhoods and development projects in the Greater Boston area. These four sites were chosen for their similarities as well as their differences, and are meant to represent typologies rather than site-specific solutions. In addition, the sites have different time horizons for planning, which allowed for a greater breadth in ideas. The intent was for the issues raised and solutions proposed to be replicable, and have wider applicability beyond these given locations.

The report looks at how Boston might address rising sea levels by advancing potential solutions for four different neighborhoods including: Revere Beach; Alewife in Cambridge; the Innovation District on the South Boston waterfront; and Back Bay. Each of the 4 locations are described with a Risk Profile, as well as location specific Key Strategies are provided, along with with the potential obstacles and barriers to resiliency planning. 

The critical questions addressed for each case study were:

  • What types of resilient strategies could be implemented over time, to upgrade and protect existing buildings and properties within the district?
  • How can we develop new urban design solutions that address both sea level rise and more frequent storm events while maintaining a vibrant streetscape?
  • How do we pay for this and what is the cost of doing nothing?
  • What barriers to resiliency planning currently exist at the local, state, and/or federal levels?
  • What development opportunities arise if we strategically rethink our relationship with water?

ULI concludes overall recommendations for Boston:

  • In the absence of clear design standards, architects and engineers need to be able to make a professional judgment about what design flood elevations should be and evaluate these elevations in conjunction with other strategies of managing water.
  • Cities and utility companies need to invest in infrastructure upgrades and increase storm system capacities or risk being sued.
  • Developers need to look beyond their typical development costs and evaluate how changing insurance premiums and increased flood risk over a much shorter time frame might influence the resiliency strategies they build into developments.
  • And we all need to work together to develop the robust public/private partnerships, public policy changes, and strong governmental leadership that will ultimately result in more resilient communities and the region.

The ULI report cites figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that show the high tide line in Boston Harbor has risen almost a foot in the last century. Projections for the next hundred years range widely, from one foot to six feet.



Publication Date: October 1, 2014

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  • Case study
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

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