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Boston Looks To Green And Glass Solutions To Combat Coastal Storms

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An early 2018 winter storm that turned Fort Point streets into temporary canals and city dumpsters into seafaring vessels was a reminder that Boston Harbor is more than just a pretty body of water to look at.

But engineered solutions to rising seas have price tags in the tens of billions of dollars range. Developers, designers and city officials say there are green solutions that require, well, less green.

Boston skyline

“The conversation is being driven now by so many different points of view because it has become such a focus of attention,” Sasaki principal Victor Vizgaitis said. “Questions are also being raised of what can you do that don’t turn into these massive cost efforts.”

The 2018 storm, combined with Superstorm Sandy’s $19B impact on New York City in 2012, propelled Boston’s climate preparedness conversation forward. Higher sea levels and coastal flooding put $80B in Boston real estate, much of that in the Seaport CRE hot spot, in jeopardy. 

The city’s Climate Ready Boston report released in late 2016 is Boston’s go-to storm resiliency plan and includes the possibility of constructing a 4-mile storm barrier across Boston from Winthrop to Hull. A civil engineer team from the University of Massachusetts Boston told Bisnow in 2017 a barrier would only be built if its economic benefit “far exceeded” its cost. 

But it is hard to get an exact price tag on what a Boston sea wall would cost. 

A report by the Center for Climate Integrity estimates Miami would have to spend $3.2B on a 267-mile coastal barrier system. It would take nearly $890M to build a sea wall in Barnstable on Cape Cod to protect it from storm surges. The UMass Boston team two years ago said Boston’s potential barrier network doesn’t have an estimate yet, but that it would cost billions of dollars. 

The assured, albeit vague, high cost estimate has developers and city officials looking closer to land for a storm resiliency solution. 

“Citywide, landscape architects are really pushing ourselves and the work we do to be more mindful of what’s to come,” Copley Wolff Design Group landscape architect Christine Wilson said.

Boston Looks To Green And Glass Solutions To Combat Coastal Storms
The Climate Ready Boston report identifies where in the city is most vulnerable to future flooding.

In October, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh released the Resilient Boston Harbor plan, which is an extension of the greater Climate Ready Boston and Imagine Boston 2030 plans. While earlier plans mentioned the possibility of storm barriers off the city’s coast, the newest plan focuses more on greenwashing the city in coastal parks that double as insurance against rising seas. 

Resilient Boston Harbor calls for 67 new acres of green space and new, land-based sea walls to combat rising seas on Boston’s 47-mile coastline. 

Copley Wolff’s projects, including Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital’s Charlestown campus, Lovejoy Wharf and the Eddy in East Boston, already incorporate green solutions to future storms. Landscapes are sculpted in a way that vegetation is designed to absorb stormwater. 

The architecture firm also implements design features like granite-locked benches and other public gathering areas to double as storm barriers. Copley Wolff works with ecologists to mold the topography of a project to slow down water and divert it away from buildings. 

“It seems mundane, but that is less expensive long-term than engineered solutions that will need to eventually be replaced 20 to 30 years from now,” Wilson said.

Boston Looks To Green And Glass Solutions To Combat Coastal Storms
Copley Wolff Design Group's landscape work at Lovejoy Wharf also protects the building from the threat of rising seawater.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in April the $14B network of levees built to protect New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina will stop providing sufficient protection to the city as soon as four years from now. 

A key component of Boston’s storm resiliency plan relies on private property owners signing on and contributing to the mayor’s park and storm wall network, which Boston Planning & Development Agency Senior Waterfront Planner Chris Busch admits can lead to “tough discussions” with stakeholders. 

But the plan’s multipurpose approach in tackling storm preparedness by improving waterfront access also increases property values, something more palatable to building owners than just erecting massive barriers. 

“We don’t have to think about this in terms of building fortresses,” Vizgaitis said. “It’s not about building a giant wall around the city.”

Boston Looks To Green And Glass Solutions To Combat Coastal Storms
Copley Wolff Design Group's seating and landscape design also protects the Eddy in East Boston against rising seas.

But there are neighborhood critics who question whether developers have been allowed to get ahead of storm preparedness in the Seaport. Boston had two significant coastal flooding events in 2018, and the city recognizes it is a meteorological taste of what is to come in future decades. 

WS Development Senior Vice President Yanni Tsipis said the Seaport’s range of new developments are among the safest places to be in hurricanes and other coastal storms. 

“The best response to increasing hurricane intensity is not just about operational preparedness — it starts with engineering and constructing survivable and resilient structures,” he said. 

Because of advances in building design and city building codes, Tsipis said WS Development’s Seaport Square project and other modern high-rise buildings are more than ready to take on storms of the future. Seaport Square buildings are built 3 to 4 feet above the 500-year floodplain, and their curtainwall design wind loads can sustain winds of around 130 mph, compared to the city’s older building stock that don’t have similar wind protection. 

While nobody interviewed for this story denied storms are likely to get worse in Boston in coming years, everyone said the ongoing climate conversation and industry adaptations are making the city prepared for what is to come. 

“In terms of the concept of mass destruction, I don’t foresee that as something that will be a result, but we’re doing everything we can to prepare for these types of risk,” Busch said. “We have a better understanding of what these future flood risks are. These are storms that are rare but could happen.”