Greetings from Herring Cove Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The only place in the Northeast USA where you can watch the sun set in the west over the ocean. Or something like that.

Vacation can be a great way to get a new perspective. But all the time you’re on the Cape, you can’t help but think about climate change and sea level rise. The Ocean, the ecosystem, the climate: it’s why we come here. But a one meter rise in sea level and most of the Cape Cod National Seashore is gone. Throw a 100-year storm at high tide on top of that and Provincetown becomes an island. Meanwhile, up in that bright azure sky, atmospheric CO2 is at 400 ppm and buildings continue to produce 44.6% of the US’s annual CO2 emissions.

Surely, there can be no more important issue for architects in Massachusetts (or in the world!) than driving radical reduction in building energy use as a way to mitigate climate change and sea level rise and protect our beloved natural environment.

Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Flashback to a few months ago. I had the honor of being asked to participate in the first daylong work session of the City of Boston with the 100 Resilient Cities initiative. If you don’t know about the “100RC”, you should. This program – formed and financed by the Rockefeller Foundation – works to “help cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century”. Boston’s selection to be part of 100 RC was headline news. The award comes with grant funding to hire a Chief Resilience Officer and access to a global networks of member cities, NGOs, and other strategic public and private resources.

I found myself in this daylong work session at Boston’s Fanieul Hall with a couple hundred people from the City’s many charitable, cultural, civic, advocacy, and educational organizations. I was one of only two architects there. And when we got to the first breakout group, I astutely observed that I was the only white guy over age 50 at my table.

Then came the assignment. The table facilitator had two stacks of cards, labelled STRESSES and SHOCKS, each describing about 20 different chronic problems or acute threats that could potentially jeopardize the survival of urban systems. We were asked to work together to rank these stresses and shocks on an X-Y scale of increasing likelihood and greater severity.

When the card for SEA LEVEL RISE turned up I was all over it. This was shock number one. Boston is a low lying coastal city. Flooding and storm surges will disrupt transportation, businesses, housing, public safety. Imagine one to two feet of sea level rise by 2050 and hurricane Sandy and nobody has a plan to get us ready for it.

Silence. Looks were being exchanged around the table. One brave soul offered: “But in the near term? How is this more important to us than addressing income inequality or lack of social cohesion?”

I was schooled. In the future, urban resilience will depend fundamentally on social cohesion. Climate change impacts are inequitable. No defensive or resilient infrastructure planning can happen unless all the city’s residents are working cooperatively to achieve shared well-being. Boston certainly needs some work here. While some residents see growth and opportunity, others see gentrification and disenfranchisement. Some people demand better public schools and transportation while some get bent out of shape about curb cuts that don’t look historic enough for their neighborhood. Sure, these debates aren’t unique to Boston or the 21st century, but the point was that basic human needs have to be addressed before we can talk about turning parking lots into storm water retention basins.

I had to agree. People come first. We do what we do to enable productive human uses and enhance lives. That is why the built environment exists.

We architects spend a lot of time talking to each other. We know the architecture and climate change script so well by now we can recite it in our sleep. So I left the 100RC workshop with another insight: It’s important for us to listen to the new voices and get a new perspective once in a while. I haven’t changed my mind about the AIA 2030 Commitment one iota, but I can see it as one part of a larger sustainability mission.

That’s it for now. Time for more sunscreen.

This post is part of an ongoing series from Principal Mike Davis, FAIA on our progress toward the AIA 2030 Commitment.

Published Aug 06, 2015