‘Adapt, We May’ – The Chelsea Way: Regional Resilience and America’s Coastal Cities

Summer is the season for symposia, conferences, workshops, and the like.

The mind and body rebel a bit at being kept indoors, especially on fine days, and especially at those events ostensibly about the environment, but held largely apart from, or in spite of it. Attendees fight to stay awake, praying for that next coffee break near overlooked, empty bathrooms, huddled in highly air-conditioned rooms, optimally suited for viewing digital projections, eating lunches out of boxes which might or might not be recycled, depending upon how lucky one might be.

But, occasionally, these brief periods of sensory deprivation are worth it.

Even more rarely, they might very well be essential.

MIT Sea Grant’s Climate Change Symposium: Sustaining Coastal Cities, held June 16-18, 2014 in Cambridge, MA, was just one of these occasions.

I’ve attended many a conference about the environment, especially in the 2000’s in Chicago, and many tended to blend together: a smattering of solar power advocacy here, mass-transitheads there, linked by exhortations to use more insulation, push for more LEED buildings, and, for Heaven’s sake… to be sure to recycle and ride your bike!

However, this symposium demonstrated that with Hurricane Sandy just recently behind us, the “what if” scenario-izing is no longer necessary. Not only is the subject timelier than ever, but it appears that oft-used terms such as sustainability, climate change, development, disaster mitigation, adaptation, and resilience might actually be becoming inextricable facets of the same drive:

to persist, and to persevere.

And that to do so, we must act locally while thinking regionally.

The first morning’s session was “Projections and Scenarios, Hurricanes, Nor’easters and Inundation”, followed by a special session on models and tools. After such an auspicious beginning, anyone who didn’t see climate change as being at the very least a quite possible reality, and that hedging bets in favor of mitigation and adaptation is well-advised, must have been, (literally?) out to lunch.

The remainder of the conference included excellent sessions that further rounded out the picture: “Economic Implications of Climate Change,” “Planning and Implementation,” “Looking Forward to the Next Century: Adaptation and Mitigation,” and “Policies and Politics” anchored by Senator Marc Pacheco (D-Massachusetts). The latter of these was a bit of a pat on the back for Massachusetts, while serving as a clarion call to the rest of the nation to do better.

One Community’s Concerns = Many Communities’ Concerns

Fig. 1: The Honorable Councillor Leo Robinson, City of Chelsea, MA.

Fig. 1: The Honorable Councillor Leo Robinson, City of Chelsea, MA. Link to video.

 

Conferences are largely about the choir preaching to itself. Attendees from other disciplines or sectors are all too rare, and the messages tend to blur together.

Kudos, then, to MIT Sea Grant for making videos of presentations publicly available, with transcripts and presentations to come.

Symposium organizers selected uniformly excellent speakers who spanned the range from scientists (again, for those doubting whether we are ‘wingin’ it’ on climate change) to practitioners and legislators. Nearly all presenters were also great communicators.

However, if I had one message in a bottle to send out from that chilly auditorium, it would have been “One Community’s Concerns: Sea Level Rise and Chelsea” presented by the Honorable Leo Robinson, Councillor and lifelong resident of the economically and, apparently, sea-level rise beleaguered northeast Greater Boston community of Chelsea (Fig. 1). To close out the  “Social Vulnerability, Responsibility and Justice” session, Councillor Robinson took to the podium. Without the use of sea level and storm surge maps,  sophisticated storm models which symposium audiences had grown accustomed to seeing, and, in fact, without any slides whatsoever, the unassuming Councillor, in a calm voice, managed to evoke the city by the sea that many Americans – and world citizens – know too well:

“I grew up in a waterfront community, but I didn’t know so.

I didn’t know so because of the heavy industrial and bulk storage of goods dominating Chelsea’s waterfront. The irony is that the very waterfront that was stolen from me during my youth could be become totally engulfed in water should the sea level rise as some of the models indicate.

Chelsea’s vitality – in fact, its very existence – was based upon a connection to the water.”

We all know other American cities – large and small – like these.

From New Orleans, where the Mississippi River sluggishly twists and turns behind floodwalls, levees, and shipping terminals, to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the hard-edged Pequonnock River empties into Long Island Sound with little fanfare under an elevated highway and railway bridges, past a power plant and a careworn park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. America’s development was driven by water, and our relationship to it is fraught with complexity, even more so now under the widespread effects of climate change.

Fig. 2: 7.5 feet of flooding (furthest extent of yellow color) leaves much of western Chelsea underwater. Source: ‘Preparing for the Rising Tide’, The Boston Harbor Association.

Fig. 2: 7.5 feet of flooding (furthest extent of yellow color) leaves much of western Chelsea underwater. Source: ‘Preparing for the Rising Tide’, The Boston Harbor Association.

Councillor Robinson went on to detail Chelsea’s history and challenges. Originally a link for fur-traders to Boston, Chelsea offered residents good jobs in industries like shipbuilding, acting as a “gateway city” to the American Dream for immigrants (nearly half its population being foreign-born). Home to as much as 75% of the region’s fuel storage, with some aging tanks out of the way, Chelsea is evaluating options for its waterfront, and must take into account hazard mitigation from brownfield contamination and the environmental effects of rising seas and increased precipitation, which will put the majority of Robinson’s city in a floodzone (Fig. 2).

“I hesitate when I use the word adapt.

…the very people in Chelsea and other places most impacted by sea level rise may be the ones least able to afford any contribution towards the cost of adaption.”

“Chelsea’s ability to coexist with its waterfront is being severely tested by projected sea level rise.”

Packing 35,000 residents in 1.8 square miles, “…the redevelopment patterns that mature[d] in the cities like Chelsea… have resulted in almost every square foot of property being developed and previous water and wetland resources being filled to create more land for development.”

Though Councilor Robinson listed some steps the city has undertaken to mitigate this trend:

  • Won $2 mil EPA Clean Air Grant to convert diesel storage units at N.E. Produce Center to cleaner and more energy-efficient systems
  • Pledged city-wide energy use reduction of 20% by 2020
  • Developed an environmental agenda which includes new park construction (Fig. 3)
  • Supported wind and 2 major commercial solar PV installations
  • Partnered with State of Massachusetts to plant 12,000 trees: 2 per lot

He also noted:

“As proud as I am of our record, it’s not enough.

We need a regional, statewide, national, and global plan, and along with a fact-based assessment, that plan has to call for action steps, and how to pay for those steps.”

Fig. 3: Chelsea’s Salt Dock, an example of a Publicly Organized/Privately Owned, Recreation Territory (P.O.R.T.) which leverages the seasonality of dock usage. Source: Landing Studio / Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report. Cambridge, MA

Fig. 3: Chelsea’s Salt Dock, an example of a Publicly Organized/Privately Owned, Recreation Territory (P.O.R.T.) which leverages the seasonality of dock usage. Source: Landing Studio / Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report. Cambridge, MA

It is exemplary that an elected official grasps both the values of a community and the challenges it may face due to climate change, while being able to link the two in recognizing the potential opportunities of adaptation. The fact that most references to Chelsea were followed by reference to other places (“…a regional, statewide, national, and global plan…,” “…the Chelseas of the world…”) makes the Councillor’s remarks even more salient.

Councillor Robinson understands full well that at the heart of the matter are actual places and the people that comprise them, and that many communities across the country are facing similar challenges of a rapidly changing climate.

‘Connect Chelsea’

Fig. 4: Engaging members of the community. Source: Erica Blonde/Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report. Cambridge, MA.

Fig. 4: Engaging members of the community. Source: Erica Blonde/Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report. Cambridge, MA.

Shortly after Councillor Robinson’s presentation, I met Erica Blonde, a student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.  Each year the Core Urban Planning Studio, led by Professor Ann Forsyth, focuses on and works with an under-resourced local community. This year’s project took on an approximately .125 square mile portion of the City of Chelsea, resulting in a report – Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City.

Fortunately, the studio participants recognized that they weren’t starting from scratch.

The report notes “In the past 10 years, there have been nine planning reports written on the city, with much of the focus on how to attract new development. In light of all this, Connect Chelsea has been structured to respect current initiatives and community process through an extensive outreach and engagement effort with the various stakeholders of Chelsea.”

Fig. 5.: Proposed infill development massing (in red) near existing industrial buildings. Source: Erica Blonde / Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report. Cambridge, MA.

Fig. 5.: Proposed infill development massing (in red) near existing industrial buildings. Source: Erica Blonde / Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report. Cambridge, MA.

After an initial literature research review, teams fanned out to engage community stakeholders (Fig. 4), interviewing people on buses and in church soup kitchens, conducting focused interviews with business leaders and government, holding group workshops, and gleaning feedback via social media. In a nutshell, people seemed to want better access to their waterfront, and to feel like a waterfront community, echoing Councillor Robinson’s plea.

From this analysis, the Harvard students identified five topic areas: Housing, Economic Development, Transportation, Open Space, and Urban Design. Topics were examined from the neighborhood, city, and regional levels, resulting in three scenarios:

  1. Leveraging Local Strengths – Focus on the existing core strengths of a diverse, socially engaged community with strategic, physical, and locational advantages that is inclusive and affordable for newcomers, and has a solid economic base supporting a diversity of skills and a range of jobs. Add 1,500 housing units (20% or greater affordable) in the next 10 years. Encourage 20 or more small-scale business interventions, including business incubator spaces, infill development (Fig. 5), and sensible form-based code recommendations.
  1. A Network Of Neighborhoods – Establish three new neighborhood centers connected by open spaces and enhanced streets to increase stormwater and flooding risk prevention capacity. Add 3,700 housing units over the next 20 years.
  1. Building for the Workforce – Transform western Chelsea into a dense, mixed-use neighborhood. Add 8,000 housing units over 25 years, 3.5 miles of greened streets, 28 acres of additional green space, new employment and training space, and strengthen connections to the proposed MBTA Silver Line stop.

 

Scenarios were crafted to “offer a wide range of possible interventions, ranging from low-cost, immediate recommendations to ambitious, large-scale development plans.”

Fig. 6: Scenario 3’s Green Hook. Source: Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report.

Fig. 6: Scenario 3’s Green Hook. Source: Connect Chelsea: Three Visions for a Gateway City. Draft Report.

 

Ms. Blonde notes that Dan d’ Oca – one of the core Harvard faculty for the studio and a member of Interboro, one of the teams selected for HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition – brought some of the integrated ecological sensibilities of their winning Nassau County South Shore proposal to bear in Chelsea “to integrate the community’s desire with what was needed in terms of future flooding, surge, and storm water.” Scenario 3’s Green Hook (Fig. 6) not-so-curiously echoes Rebuild by Design’s Big U scheme around Manhattan. It serves as an example which could capitalize on existing state and federal funds (Massachusetts Land and Water Conservation Fund, FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program) to link Chelsea’s Mary O’Malley waterfront park at the west with a new bikepath to the east and invest in larger city infrastructure projects, such as the separation of currently combined stormwater and sewer.

Even after the completion of the project, Ms. Blonde’s enthusiasm for the community is still evident: “Any additional attention that could be given to Chelsea, I’m all for it.” She notes that discussions are being held with the city as they move forward, and hopes they will continue to use Harvard’s ‘Connect Chelsea’ study as a resource.

To close with the words of Councillor Robinson:

“Once, I couldn’t see the waterfront.

Now, I hope all of us will help the Chelseas of the world to not be engulfed by it.”

In order to achieve climate resilience, it may well be that Robinson’s hope is a ‘must,’ and that to do so, we must act locally while thinking regionally.

“Adapt, we may – that’s the Chelsea way.”

We may find that Chelsea’s way needs to be everyone else’s way as well.

Profile photo of Dave Hampton About Dave Hampton
Dave Hampton is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
 
Trained as an architect, his experience includes the design, planning, and implementation of building, infrastructure, and environmental projects in urban, post-disaster, and developing nation contexts.
 
In Chicago 2001-2010, he worked for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, STL Architects, and established Echo Studio to focus on local projects involving living systems such as green roofs and vertical gardens, energy-efficiency, and resource conservation. His work with Urban Habitat Chicago and the Delta Institute Rebuilding Exchange helped to curb demolitions, bring the deconstruction industry to Chicago, and encourage materials reuse and repurposing at a municipal scale.
 
From 2010-2013, he worked in Haiti with Architecture for Humanity, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, UN-Habitat, and Internews to help manage the transition from emergency response to neighborhood redevelopment. In 2014, as part of the post-Hurricane Sandy recovery initiative ‘Rebuild by Design’, he participated on Resilient Bridgeport, Connecticut with the WB unabridged w/ Yale ARCADIS team.
 
Dave is Principal of re:ground llc, a consultancy providing expertise for the integration of natural systems and built environments to clients in international development, urban, and post-disaster markets. Dave is also a LEED AP, a certified consultant for Passive House ™, the creator of messysystems.com, and is a 2016 Master in Design Studies Risk and Resilience candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.