In the face of climate change, Bostonians need to call a retreat

Let’s do an organized withdrawal, not disaster-induced flight

2018 WILL APPEAR in retrospect as the year when climate change became a daily reality and not some debatable future possibility.  Jurisdictions across the globe are now struggling with planning for extreme weather, greater human health hazards, uncertain economic consequences, and potential social instability. Coastal regions are anticipating costs of property and business losses due to sea-level rise and more frequent storm surges. Increasing drought and wildfires are the norm in drier areas, becoming more severe and consequential with each year. And in other areas of the globe increased precipitation is contributing to urban flooding and altered ecosystems. Indications are that we have reached a tipping point at which critical decisions must be made in order to avoid being drawn into a vortex of calamity.

Metropolitan Boston is no exception. This is hard to digest and many are in denial. We humans are a conservative species who have taken our entitlement and environmental benefits for granted for thousands of years. But climate change falls under the jurisdiction of chaos theory. The consequences of changes to our climate are likely to be sudden and violent, affecting us all. We need to keep a clear and rational perspective to figure out what the best strategies are to avoid the worst. Unfortunately, we have only started to seriously address the dangers, and accomplished little so far. An increasing number of thoughtful persons are thinking that it may already be too late.

It is time to recognize that our region will be profoundly altered by rising sea levels and climate change, not only physically and geographically, but also socially and politically. The piecemeal solutions currently under discussion are unlikely to play any part in delaying this inevitability.  Boston, as the hub of the metro Boston economic engine as we know it today, will disappear. The commuters who come to Boston to work or to sell their skills and products from New Hampshire in the north, Worcester and beyond to the west, and Rhode Island to the south will be forced to generate new economic activity in the uplands near and far from today’s seashore.

Under the circumstances, what are our options?

We propose adopting two guiding principles: Engage disaster wisely and do it right this time.

Engaging means learning to understand the disaster, which is the combination of sea level rise and storm surges as well as increased annual precipitation induced by climate change and global warming. Wisely means clear-eyed and with compassion.

Retreating is the most plausible option over the intermediate and long-term future. Retreat means planning for an organized withdrawal rather than disaster-induced flight.

We need to learn to think like modern pioneers, but in our migrations we will benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the issues facing us.

Moving from one’s environment—whether social, economic, institutional, or governmental – is highly uncomfortable, disruptive, and very unsettling because it means both a cutting of ties and roots as well as adopting new paradigms of thinking. Understanding this human experience must form the core of any well-planned migration. There will be enough challenges for every person who contemplates retreating from sea level rise and storm surge without dealing with their resistance regarding severing roots and cutting ties.

However, facing the reality of sea level rise and storm surge soberly can become for each person and every organization the firm underpinning for becoming energized to start a new chapter. We who engage in modern-day pioneering will need to become problem-solvers on multiple scales and directions.

Map depicts the likely future of metro Boston and its dramatic land fragmentation. The map comes from Climate Central as amended by Peter Papesch. The inset shows the metro Boston region severely affects/largely eliminated as a result of a 5-foot sea level rise.

Our retreat into the uplands will not only affect residential areas, but also forests and wetlands. Wildlands and Woodlands are crucial in the lowering of pollution, like carbon dioxide. In the United States, over 11 percent of carbon dioxide is currently absorbed by forests. Forests and wildlands also have a large role in storing storm waters, filtering water, lowering the temperature, and providing habitat for species that are important for our survival. A reasonable balance with agriculture will need to be struck in order to approach bioregional self-sufficiency as more distant food sources become severely affected by climate change. Finally, storm water storage will play an increasingly important role as rising sea levels will make current groundwaters near the shorelines increasingly brackish.

In other words, the scale of eventual displacement and the creation of well-adapted new communities is huge.

Some of the problems and obstacles facing us modern-day pioneers or migrants are:

  • Finding upland locations which in most instances are already (partially) occupied, and soberly facing a not altogether welcome reception. The uplands have not only residents with competing residents but ecologies that need to be carefully studied and preserved because they play an important role for the entire region.
  • Establishing new networks of many different types: personal, business, institutional, and governmental in the socio-cultural sector of life; physical/geographic/regional in the form of infrastructure (transportation, energy, and food supplies); and building density in the functional sector of new or altered communities small and large. Even laws and regulations will need rethinking.

Our second guiding principle will be the commitment to do it right this time. Addressing the list of obstacles described above will benefit from an enlarged vision of how humanity fits into the natural world. Nature has evolved a hugely successful infrastructure system of roots which disseminate nutrients and information above and below ground. Modern pioneers can learn a lot from observing non-anthropogenic ecological systems, and then planning how, most effectively and not disruptively, to weave or interlace our human functional systems in new locations. Often there will be a need to repair some of the anthropogenic harm caused to nature’s various systems, but just as often there will be opportunities for regeneration and flourishing of new networks and new communities if a regional view is adopted by our new pioneers. Micro-grid systems for energy, eco-communities, and regional self-sufficiency are but three systems which lend themselves to interweaving, interlacing, and integration.

There is need for a regional agency that will coordinate plans for dealing with storm water management. What happens in Newton affects communities down river. What happens in the low-lying communities of the Metro Boston estuary between Lynn and Hingham affects not only Boston but other cities all the way up the rivers that drain into the Boston estuary.

 Unless we plan, we will be a bankrupt nation because of our shortsightedness now. This issue cannot be resolved without major investments from all the regional areas. If we are not prepared, the cost to us for repairs will be many multiples of the cost of resiliency preparedness, not to speak of the human and environmental costs. The most affected neighborhoods are not the wealthy ones.

By employing the most sophisticated Geographic Information System and planning tools available right now we can create an environment that preserves and enhances the economy of New England while building habitation for a sustainable future.  Spending capital on a lost cause cannot get us there.

Entire realms of insight and practice beckon. The fields of biomimicry (Janine Benyus, JohnTodd), bioregional urbanism (Earthos Institute), co-housing (Franziska Amacher), eco-villages (earth.com) and permaculture (permacultureprinciples.com) invite our creativity and imagination.

Meet the Author

Peter Papesch

Architect/developer, Retired
Meet the Author

Franziska Amacher

Architect, Focus on sustainable communities
Meet the Author

A. Vernon Woodworth

Architect and code consultant, AKF Group
We may have a bit of time to undertake such integrative planning, but not much. Every one of us can start formulating imaginative plans for a modern-era migration as we engage disaster wisely under the banner of do it right this time. It is up to us to determine how we and future generations can learn to live in safe, new communities that are frugal, equitable, and will reinforce our pioneering cultural heritage.

Peter Papesch is a retired architect-developer and educator. Franziska Amacher is an architect with over 25 years of promoting and designing sustainable communities. A. Vernon Woodworth is an architect and code consultant with AKF Group, and a faculty member at the Boston Architectural College. All three are members of the Boston Society of Architects, which is a chapter of the American Institute of Architects.