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Robin Seidel, an architect working to save Boston from rising seawater, survived her first flood as a child. “I was nine years old when the police knocked on our door, telling us to evacuate because the Susquehanna River was breaching its banks,” she recalls. “I was scared. We had to quickly pack up and stay with my grandmother.”
"It engrained in me how weather impacts people. Now I'm motivated to design buildings that will stand the test of time." — Robin Seidel, AIA, Climate resiliency architect at Kleinfelder
Seidel, 33, was unharmed when the levees flooded in Kingston, Pennsylvania, in 1996. But the emergency—caused by blizzards and extreme rain—motivated her to pursue a lifelong passion: resilient design. “My interest in resilience began in childhood,” says Seidel, a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and climate resiliency architect at Kleinfelder, a multidisciplinary firm focused on fighting climate change. “It ingrained in me how weather impacts people. Now I’m motivated to design buildings that will stand the test of time.”
In her new hometown of Boston, Seidel has plenty to keep her busy. The city is situated along the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99 percent of the ocean due, in part, to changing sea patterns from melting ice in Greenland and the Arctic Ocean. Coupled with increased heat and precipitation, the rising sea level is threatening the low-lying city, much of which was built on landfill over the past 300 years along a 50-square-mile harbor. In 2012, Boston narrowly avoided Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled neighboring New York City, killing 44 residents there and causing $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity. Then, in 2018, two nor’easters hit Boston at high tide, causing record-breaking flooding. “It was a wake-up call,” says Nasser Brahim, a senior planner at Kleinfelder. “Fifty years from now, Boston is on track to have significant flooding events once a month, costing $1.4 billion annually. So, Sandy missed us, but we’ve been acting like it hit.”
To save the 685,000-person city, the local government is calling on architects to help implement one of the most ambitious municipal resiliency plans in the United States: Climate Ready Boston. Launched in 2016 by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Climate Ready Boston is an initiative to prepare the city for the long-term impacts of climate change. It aims to do so by implementing measures that include increasing access to the city’s 47-mile waterfront and simultaneously protecting it from major floods. First, officials commissioned local scientists to continuously research how climate change will impact the area in the next 50 years. Then they collaborated with architects, engineers, and landscape architects to design resilient solutions—ones that will withstand the natural elements—for the city’s five most at-risk coastal communities (Downtown and North End, East Boston, Charlestown, South Boston, and Dorchester). “Architects are at the forefront of climate adaptation,” says Chris Cook, the chief of environment, energy, and open space in Boston. “They’re designing public realms that not only protect communities but also give them great recreational benefit. Without their help, none of this stuff gets built.”
"It's not just about keeping out water. They also look at how to keep the city alive, addressing issues of equity by finding a range of solutions that everyone can afford to ensure that neighborhoods retain their vitality" — Jay Wickersham, AIA, lawyer in Boston
In East Boston, Clippership Wharf is a new mixed-use project on 12 waterfront acres that are vulnerable to flooding. To protect the site, architects raised the foundation 10 feet, making it 13 feet above the current high-tide mark. They installed a movable slab beneath the underground garage that can seep water and tied it to a drainage system, sump pumps, and an emergency generator. They also added an elevated deck that can be both a community spot and a safe haven during floods. “Resilient design is about inclusion,” says Andrew Stebbins, AIA, a senior project manager for the Architectural Team. “At Clippership, we created a high point for safety but also made it accessible for people from the neighborhood to enter and enjoy views of the water. It was a great opportunity to create a space that brings the community together.”
"Designing a resilient city means you're also creating a better and more functional place for communities." — Robin Seidel, AIA, climate resiliency architect at Kleinfelder
The Blueprint for Better campaign is a call to action. AIA is asking architects, design professionals, civic leaders, and the public in every community to join our efforts. Help us transform the day-to-day practice of architecture to achieve a zero-carbon, resilient, healthy, just, and equitable built environment.
This story was produced by the WIRED Brand Lab for The American Institute of Architects.