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Boston Plans For 'Near-Term Risk' Of Rising Tides

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While many cities around the country grapple with drought and excessive heat this year, city planners in Boston have something else on their minds: the prospect of rising water.

In this coastal metropolis, scientists and computer models predict that climate change could eventually lead to dramatic increases in sea level around the city. Coupled with a storm surge at high tide, parts of the city could easily end up under water.

The area that's home to Boston's Faneuil Hall, the city's first public market, is one of them. The land the hall was built on was once waterfront property, but by the late 1800s, the growing city needed more room. So the marshes and mudflats along the wharf were filled in — and the city expanded.

A 'Near-Term Risk'

"Now, today, more than 50 percent of downtown Boston is filled tidelands," says Jim Hunt, Boston's chief of environmental and energy services.

Hunt helped Boston create a comprehensive climate action plan. It focuses both on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and on adapting to the dangers of a warmer climate such as heat waves, storms and the rising sea.

"How do we prepare our residents and businesses for the impact that we are already experiencing?" Hunt asks. "And that are sure to get more [intense and frequent], given the amount of carbon in the atmosphere?"

Regardless of the ongoing national debate about climate change, Boston is calling the projected sea level rise a near-term risk. Projections range from 2 to 6 feet here by the end of the century, depending on how fast polar ice melts.

Add to that a hurricane storm surge, and some models show parts of Boston under 10 feet of water. Researchers have told the city that by 2050, that could happen as often as every two to three years.

With those risks in mind, Boston is asking developers along the waterfront to plan now for more frequent flooding.

The Boston-based health care group Partners for Healthcare, which is building a new rehabilitation hospital in downtown Boston, is heeding the call.

Building For A Higher Waterline

"When Hurricane Irene came by last year and there was a high tide, it was within 12 to 18 inches of the top of the wharf here," says Hubert Murray, Partners Healthcare's manager of the sustainable initiatives. "You can imagine what could happen if we have a 30 to 60 inch rise in the actual sea level, what that would do. This whole site would be a wash," he says.

But the way Partners Healthcare has planned this new building, which sits right where the Boston Harbor meets the Charles River Basin, it won't be. Because the hospital was designed to sit more than 12 feet higher than sea level, and all the patient rooms are on the upper floors.

David Burson, senior project manager for the site, shows off how the company has designed the hospital with potential flooding in mind. While the mechanical equipment that drives large buildings is typically housed in the basement, this hospital takes a different approach.

"The guts [are on] the roof," Burson says. "This is our mechanical electrical penthouse space. So there is where all of our chillers and boilers and air handling units are."

These systems are safer from flooding on the roof, adding a layer of protection to the building's essential functions.

Down in the patient rooms, Burson shows off another design feature — one that stirred some debate within the company and required a waiver from the health department: In each room, a window can be opened with a key in the event of a power outage.

Unlocking a window, Burson demonstrates how the feature will let patients inside "feel the fresh breeze coming in from the harbor."

Looking For Guidance

Across the harbor in East Boston, Magdalena Ayed is also worried about flooding. Ayed lives in a publicly funded housing project that's located right at the point where rising sea levels would have an impact — right along the harborside.

"It's gorgeous," Ayed says. "I mean, anytime you can come out to the pier here and every day, it looks different."

Ayed likes to walk her kids to the dock to watch the tides. And while the tides amuse her children, the sea level projections worry her.

"I worry about it as an adult. We get subsidized housing. Because the situation we're in, my husband doesn't make enough money, he has a heart condition," Ayed says.

"I love this place but sometimes I think about 10 years from now. I read a lot, and I've read the reports that this part of Boston will be basically underwater in 30 or 50 years. ... What are our options? Where would we go?"

Ayed says she wishes city officials would talk to Boston residents about rising sea level and provide guidance on what local residents should do in response.

'There Would Be No Way Of Getting Around'

So far, city officials have been studying the dangers and the possible effects of flooding on sewers and roads. The city is also undertaking a major environmental restoration project on the Muddy River to control flooding.

Essentially, the city is looking at the big systems, in the hopes of preventing flooding in housing projects in East Boston or in million-dollar condominiums in the historic Back Bay neighborhood.

Tedd Saunders, a resident of Back Bay, is a consultant who advises hotels on how to incorporate environmental sustainability into their operations. Under some scientists' projections, his neighborhood could be completely flooded — the Venice section of Boston, perhaps.

"I think the 'Venice section of Boston' makes it sound like it's more romantic than it might be," Saunders says. "There would be no way of getting around."

While Saunders thinks a great deal about preventing climate change, he's only just starting to think about the importance of adaptation to Boston's future.

"I've been more focused on what I can do ... as a consumer, as an individual, as a business person ... to have a positive impact in slowing climate change," Saunders says. "But we do need to think about adaptation. Because climate change is coming, and it's just going to get more dramatic."

What Saunders is describing here in Boston's Back Bay is what's being called "resilience thinking." Boston is now giving the same priority to adaptation as it once did to climate change prevention.

And according to a recent study by MIT, Boston is not alone. More than half of American cities are also thinking about ways to become more resilient in the face of anticipated changes.

Copyright 2012 WBUR. To see more, visit


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