I am frequently reminded of the difference between skepticism and cynicism. A certain amount of skepticism is necessary to form an honest critical evaluation. Be skeptical when you must. But avoid cynicism. It erodes objectivity.

I recently attended a public forum on the likely effects of climate change on my home town, Boston, Massachusetts. The first panelist was a historian. She had archival maps showing how Boston’s waterfront had been modified over the centuries. Next up was the natural resource policy advocate. She had impact analyses showing how flood-stage storm surge augmented by sea level rise and high tide could reintroduce Boston to its mid-18th century coastline.

Wrapping up was an architect. She brought images from design competitions on how our built environment could be redesigned to allow us to live in a dynamic, new relationship with water. Barrier reefs. Aquaculture shellfish farms. Canals. Raised sidewalks. New ground planes. Infrastructure improvements.

Then – like fingernails on a chalkboard – came the moderator’s inevitable question: Sure. But how are we gonna pay for all that stuff?

Was that question skeptical or cynical? Or just provocative? Whatever. It pissed me off enough to speak up. We can’t talk about know how to pay for something until we know what that thing is. What we need is a vision. An actual resilience plan. Then we can talk about how much it will cost. And for that, we need a real client.

Which, admitted our Boston panel, doesn’t exist yet.

Political leadership changes. Mayors change. Governors change. We have new folks in both offices in Boston and Massachusetts. Boston has a 2014 Climate Action Plan. We have greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2025 and 2050. Our new governor has not been shy about his top priorities, either: the budget, drug addiction, educational reform, health care costs. All very necessary.

But who will write the request for proposals for a comprehensive climate change adaptation and preparedness plan? Architects know that we can improve the energy efficiency of our buildings and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we work to meet the AIA 2030 Commitment. But we do this work for clients. We’ve all seen the climate change impact analyses by now. The design work that can prepare our coastal communities for those likely impacts needs a client, too.

And look, seriously. The cost to create an actual, build-able, fund-able regional resilience plan is a drop in the proverbial leaky bucket compared to the eventual construction and implementation costs. Say nothing about the catastrophic costs of continuing to do nothing. As we say to our building clients: it’s short dollars.

So what’s happening in the meantime? More design competitions. It’s hard for me to admit this, but I’m growing skeptical of design competitions. The Big Dig and the Boston Harbor cleanup were not theoretical projects. They were real commissions with real consultant teams with budgets and schedules.

So who will be our #ClimateChangeClient?

This post originally appeared on the blog of Principal Mike Davis, FAIA

Published Jan 20, 2015