It might actually happen this time. Katrina wasn’t enough. Even Sandy wasn’t enough. Maybe it’s the times we’re living in today or the pervasive 24/7 “news” cycle, but after the unimaginable devastation of Hurricane Harvey, we may have reached a tipping point. State and municipal governments (at least) in these United States of America may finally be ready to make climate change and resilience planning part of our ongoing and necessary conversation about public safety and how we spend taxpayers’ dollars.

For example. Yesterday, Marty Walsh, our esteemed Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, was quoted as saying we could be “wiped out as a city” if hit by a climate-chance fueled category 3 or 4 hurricane plus storm surge. And then – mentioning an academic study currently underway for a $10 billion dam to protect Boston Harbor – Mayor Walsh said:

“If we got hit with Harvey we are talking $50 or $60 billion in damage,” the mayor said. “Does that $10 billion look crazy anymore?”

Stop the presses.

This is exactly what activists and advocates and architects like us (and those are only the groups that start with the letter “A”) have been saying for more than a decade. Check out this report from A Better City, a Boston-based group of business leaders. Check out these winning entries from the Boston Society of Architects’ sponsored Living with Water design competition. Or this impact analysis from The Boston Harbor Association and our very own municipal advisory panel, the Boston Green Ribbon Commission.

And then there’s this idea for a barrier dam connecting several of Boston’s Harbor Islands. This no-longer far-fetched idea was proposed by a local architect – Antoinio DiMambro about – oh – 30 years ago.

Sure, $10B is a lot of money. Who remembers the Big Dig, that 15-year, $15B megaproject to bury Boston’s central artery in a tunnel? Those of us who lived through it would rather forget the construction impacts and cost overruns. But my point is: It got done, and it worked. And the City is inestimably better for it.

So I ask you: What’s the key difference between the Big Dig and whatever massive hard and soft (green) infrastructure projects the communities adjoining Boston Harbor should undertake to protect ourselves from the inevitable effects of climate change?

The Big Dig had a client. We don’t.

There is no shortage of genius designers in our region. I refer you again to the Living with Water competition. And we have widespread local consensus on the resilience imperative. The social justice advocates, environmentalists, architects and planners, businesses, transportation and tourism folks, affordable housing and neighborhood development folks will all show up for a rally or a lecture. We get it.

But how would this work actually get done? Design competitions cannot produce constructed wetlands. Rallies will not produce tidal basins and land wharves. Lectures will not lead to barrier reefs.

Architects, we already know how this process works. You can’t ask “how are we gonna pay for all this?” until we know what “all this” is. We need a real client. We need a climate change client. We need someone to pony up the very small percent of that $10B construction cost to begin the actual design process. We need someone to write the Request For Proposals (RFP) for the multi-disciplinary team to weigh all the impact analyses and cost-benefit studies and hydrology and geology reports and produce an actual feasibility study.

Not an academic study, not more free ideas, not a best-practices survey. Real build-able, fund-able design solutions.

Who will step up? Who will be our #ClimateChangeClient? Time’s a-wastin’.


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

Published Aug 31, 2017