Contact Us

Boston Wages War On Climate Change By Retrofitting Revolutionary History With Rising Sea Levels

The Founding Fathers' old stomping ground is grappling with storm resiliency.


Roughly $80B in Boston real estate is threatened by rising sea levels, and that isn’t just limited to new, glassy towers downtown or in the Seaport. Historic neighborhoods like Bay Village and landmarks like Faneuil Hall and parts of the Freedom Trail are vulnerable and exposed to future stormwater flooding and flooding from the Charles River, Boston Harbor and Fort Point Channel.  

Protecting the city’s, and America’s, most historic areas won’t be easy or cheap. 

“How do you tweak the Paul Revere House and make it storm resilient? You can’t,” Stantec Sustainability Design Leader Blake Jackson said. “It’s like opening a time capsule of bad news when you look into these old buildings. It’s really a challenge to save them and maintain their historical integrity.”

Stretches of downtown waterfront have flooded on sunny days with king's tide, the highest tides of the year climate scientists say could be a normal occurance by the 2070s. Climate change’s impact on the Seaport was evident with an early 2018 storm that flooded neighborhood streets. Developers of buildings like the St. Regis Residences, Boston, market storm-resilient building practices like 100-year flood-proofing. 

But more than the waterfront needs protection from the planet's future.

The Climate Ready Boston report highlights areas most vulnerable to climate change, and Faneuil Hall and the latter half of the Freedom Trail are in areas the city report claims will be at risk of annual coastal flooding as early as the 2050s. The city of Boston, which owns Faneuil Hall and oversees the Freedom Trail, told Bisnow it is underway with a process, called Climate Ready Downtown North End, to analyze flood paths into the city and plans to release a report this fall.  

Trinity Church

The city's Coastal Flood Resiliency Design Guidelines, a new reference for resiliency strategies, goes before the Boston Planning & Development Agency for approval Thursday night. 

Retrofitting existing structures for storm resiliency is a costly endeavor and often a tough sell in a place like Boston. Historic preservationists will often argue against moves that disrupt the aesthetic of a historic building, like moving mechanical equipment from a basement to a more visible and less vulnerable position on the roof or lifting a building's foundation. 

But architects Bisnow spoke to for this story say a variety of initiatives, both directly on a property or farther away and more expansive, like a storm barrier, are needed to keep the city’s historic architecture above water for future generations. 

“If the alternative to protecting historic structures is they’ll be destroyed, that’s a powerful argument,” said Kate Bubriski, Arrowstreet's director of sustainability and building performance. “A lot of measures you’d want to do from a flooding standpoint don’t change the way the buildings look.”

Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Moving mechanical equipment from a basement to a roof or elevating first floors, two measures the city of Boston listed in a 2018 report on retrofitting historic structures, might be effective for sustainability, but they could also face the most scrutiny before a city approvals process and neighborhood architecture commission. Deployable or inflatable floodgates are less aesthetically invasive and still protect a historic structure from flooding. 

“I don’t think [historic integrity and storm resiliency] are battling each other,” Bubriski said. “Informing people of what the options are is key to saying we’re not going to board up buildings and that’s how it’ll be. It’s only something that happens in an event.”

Others argue physical changes to a building shouldn’t be a nonstarter to building preservationists. 

“You can’t think of them as static things, but more as a dynamic venture,” said Rami el Samahy, a founding principal at architecture and urban planning firm OverUnder. “Faneuil Hall doesn’t look the way it looked when Paul Revere walked around.”

There are ways to allow water to enter a building in a manner that is beautiful and respectful to its historic integrity, el Samahy said. Architect Carlo Scarpa’s design for the early 1960s renovation of Venice's Querini Stampalia, a vulnerable city palazzo in need of protection from flooding, avoided using floodgates like most Venetian buildings. Instead, it allowed the water from the outside channel to flow through the building’s lower floor and into a back garden. 

“I’m not saying we do exactly that, but Boston can consider similar alternatives informed not just by engineering, but architecture,” el Samahy said. 

Water from a channel runs through Querini Stampalia as part of a 1960s renovation.

HafenCity, a neighborhood in Hamburg, Germany, along the Elbe River, is susceptible to flooding, but the area near Europe’s second-largest port has become a hot development zone. Dikes were initially considered but, as Boston officials are accepting in their own region, deemed too expensive. The city has instead enacted strict flood-protection guidelines in the development zone. 

New roads and public spaces are built on sand terraces 25 feet above the normal high-tide mark. The neighborhood’s original coastal elevation just above the high-tide mark was kept and developers can still build there. But projects must be waterproofed up to the new street elevation code, and buildings must have entrances at the higher street level to keep them habitable during a flooding event. 

While a 2007 North Sea storm with an 18-foot storm surge flooded other parts of Hamburg, the HafenCity district remained above water and functional. 

“It’s doable,” SMMA principal and Director of Sustainable Design Martine Dion said. “You can retrofit and protect the existing building stock, but there’s a lot you can do with the new, both on buildings and infrastructure, to absorb some of the surge.”

HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany

Storm resiliency is also leading architecture and preservation discussions in Boston's Back Bay, where tourists flock to see the Romanesque architecture of Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library’s Renaissance Revival McKim Building and the brownstones along Newbury Street

Back Bay Association President and Executive Director Meg Mainzer-Cohen credits Boston leaders with outreach to the neighborhood about climate change initiatives and how the neighborhood can be impacted by future storm surges and sea levels. 

Most of those discussions have centered around storm barriers to protect the area from a storm surge rather than doing anything to an individual building structure. But Mainzer-Cohen also recognizes one solution may not be enough. 

“Believe me: I do know the value very much and the charm of the tourist attractiveness of this neighborhood,” she said. "But we also need to protect it from an oncoming catastrophe."