Surge protectors

Will the Boston Harbor ocean barrier rise again?

Built on four centuries of filled land, Boston is wildly vulnerable to the next major hurricanes or winter northeasters. These risks only accelerate as storms get worse and sea levels rise. To their credit, the city and state understood this exposure years ago and have been steadily working away on climate resilience initiatives. One project was to consider a grand Boston Harbor barrier that would close off much or all of the harbor against big ocean storms. A study led by the University of Massachusetts found, however, that such a barrier would be thoroughly impractical.

But maybe not. William Golden, famous here for kicking off the legal struggles that triggered the harbor cleanup a few decades ago, today launched an open meeting of a Boston Harbor storm surge working group. The group’s premise is straightforward: the best defense against the sea is a layered defense that combines a re-thought harbor barrier (to fend off the storms) and relatively modest local measures such as berms (to handle sea level rise).

Among points by Golden and his allies:

  1. There are many alternative barrier routes and designs, some sketched out above by Duncan Mellor of Tighe & Bond. These might mostly follow shallow water, use dual gates for the shipping channels rather than the never-built-anywhere single gate structure examined by UMass researchers, and be considerably less massive. That might make them dramatically less expensive than the $7-12 billion pricetag UMass experts suggested.
  2. Depending on your assumptions about how long construction takes and what you pay for money (discount rates), costs again might drop significantly. And unlike smaller projects, federal funding just might be available.
  3. A barrier that guards the entire harbor, not just Boston, could provide benefits that no one has counted yet. Most dramatically, the savings in regional flood insurance payments might be many times the investment.
  4. The default alternative of building high local berms/seawalls everywhere brings up seriously worrying questions. For one, what about the places that can’t afford them? For another, how will all these patchwork walls connect? And do we really know how to efficiently build a watertight 20-foot seawall all along, say, the North End waterfront, with its crazy web of buried infrastructure and weak geological underpinnings?

Our safeguards against the sea will have domino effects far beyond Boston. “This is going to affect the economy of the whole region,” Golden said. “It’s an existential threat.”

Pre-filled Boston, courtesy Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library

High water marks

What does the Venice Architecture Biennale say about resilience to climate change? Not so much yet.

Now is the start of acqua alta season in Venice, when high tides occasionally flood low-lying areas like Saint Mark’s Square and sometimes sweep across neighborhoods around the city.* As we jumped on a vaporetto waterbus one warm sunny day, platforms of temporary pedestrian walkways were stacked nearby.

We were off to the Venice Architecture Biennale, the remarkable collection of exhibits from many countries. I was particularly curious about how the huge show would reflect the call for resilience to rising sea levels, scarier storms, droughts, heat waves and the other deadly baggage now arriving courtesy climate change.

Venice has been sinking into its lagoon by about a millimeter a year for hundreds of years. Three decades ago Italy launched the MOSE megaproject, building gates to close three entries to the lagoon against high tides. When and how well the gates will operate still seems uncertain. Perhaps it was unsurprising that Venice’s own pavilion said little about climate change, although it did emphasize advances in predicting tides.

Among the national pavilions, mentions of climate change were rare. This didn’t reflect any lack of brilliant conceptions and designs. Strikingly, many of the most intriguing pavilions didn’t focus on new construction. The French exhibit presents 10 abandoned buildings adopted for cultural use or aiding the homeless, for example. The Egyptian pavilion dives into how street vendors capitalize on public spaces in Cairo.  Other exhibits, such as the Argentinian, do highlight natural landscapes and what’s left of them.

You could profitably spend hours in many of these intriguing spaces. I didn’t, and I probably missed a lot of serious thinking about climate resilience. I definitely although accidentally skipped the Antigua and Barbuda pavilion, which was not at the main Biennale sites but in a monastery near the center of Venice. Last year, Hurricane Irma hit Barbuda with winds over 150 miles per hour and destroyed most of the island’s buildings. All 1,800 residents were evacuated. Unsurprisingly, the pavilion’s theme centers on climate change: Environmental Justice as a Civil Right.

Giant dikes and other grand engineering projects will help us deal with climate change, but most of the heavy lifting will come from rethinking local architecture and design. The Biennale was awash in young architects from around the world, our hope for resilience.

*  Two days after I wrote this, Venice was hit by a storm bringing the worst acqua alta event in years, flooding most of the city.

In good weather, Venice is all about eye candy, not just in architecture and art.