Following on the heels of New York, London, and many other urban centers, Boston is the latest city to envision how best to manage the certainty of rising water levels due to global warming. Last month, Living with Water, a design competition sponsored by a coalition of groups including the City of Boston, The Boston Harbor Association, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the Boston Society of Architects, announced 9 finalists from 50 submissions.
New Yorkers may be familiar with former Mayor Bloomberg’s plan “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” a $19.5 billion proposal developed post–Hurricane Sandy to remedy existing devastation and to prevent future massive infrastructure failure due to climate change. And the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 architects-in-residence program and resulting exhibition, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, sought to innovate with the city’s relationship to water in much the same way Boston’s Living with Water hopes to.
Applicants to Living with Water competed in three distinct categories: building, neighborhood, and infrastructure, set as the Prince Building, the Fort Point neighborhood, and Morrissey Boulevard in the Dorchester area, respectively. Three finalists “that best accounted for [a site’s] unique climate conditions, minimized flood damage, and provided a resilient, sustainable solution” were chosen per category; the winning team will receive a $20,000 prize.
All the plans are essentially optimistic, refusing to cede city territory. Instead, they imagine a future in which rising water levels are incorporated into urban life. For example, in the Water FUN(d) by ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge, marshlands provide a buffer against flooding while streets are turned into canals that offer boat rides and reroute water. Total Resilient Approach, by Thetis S.p.A., reconstructs the area around Morissey Boulevard using sand dunes, wetlands, salt marshes, oyster reefs, and a number of other bio-tools, in the hopes that bioengineering will create an area able to continuously absorb and adapt to influxes of water.
In a similarly rosy tone, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh commented: “It’s difficult to imagine what the world will look like in the year 2100, but we know for certain that now is the time to prepare for sea level rise. The proposals that came in from around the world demonstrate that a more resilient, sustainable, and beautiful future is within our reach if we work together.”
This positivity is admirable, but the problem is that it paints severe climate change as a design problem of the future, rather than a current threat to life on the planet as we know it. Extreme weather, food shortages, and increasing pandemics are all likely byproducts of a world in which global warming proceeds at its current rate. To imagine a future in which we row around in gondola-filled canals is pleasant, but also naïve (it’s not like Venice is faring well with rising sea levels), and at worst it detracts from the urgency of implementing measures to try and halt climate change as much and as quickly as possible.