Boston’s Living with Water competition provides planners, designers, and thinkers of all kinds with an opportunity to imagine “a future Boston that is more resilient, more sustainable, and more beautiful.” Of the nine semifinalist teams, three included students and alumni of Harvard. Jahred Liddie, College ’16, interviewed team members who designed "No Building is an Island," a submission that stressed the public’s role in guiding and incentivizing resilience. Graduate School of Design graduate students Lindsay Woodson (MDes and MUP 2015) functioned as architect and resilience consultant for the project and Jon Springfield (MUP 2015) worked on policy. The interdisciplinary team also included Kira Sargent (MLA 2017) and Thad Pawlowski (Loeb Fellow 2015). Harvard alumni are also members of the semifinalist teams "The Prince Building Piers" and "Resilient Linkages."

Lindsay and Jon detail their inspiration, opinions, and challenges to their project below.

Jahred: What inspired your team to enter this project into the competition?

Lindsay Woodson: As design thinkers and design practitioners, it is incredibly important that our voices remain relevant in conversations of climate change vulnerability. We have a duty to create livable, vibrant communities, in which society can thrive.

Vulnerability is the nexus of the natural world and built environment. The tenuous relationship that has been exposed in the wake of extreme weather related events and manifestation climate change, is a guiding example of how important it is for communities to enter a new dialogue with their environment.

As a design community, and residents, we saw this competition as a catalyst for a unique opportunity to re-envision Boston.

Jon Springfield: I was very interested in the chance to work with students from different disciplines within the GSD, and receive guidance and feedback from a visiting urban design professional with extensive experience with Hurricane Sandy recovery in New York City.

Jahred: Why do you feel a system in which the public “can guide and incentivize” is preferable to one in which “each property [finds] its own resilience path?”

JS: Our project attempts to mitigate some of the risk borne by individual property owners by encouraging “vertical retreat,” with density incentives available for buildings to wet flood-proof first floors that will eventually flooded.  These incentives, combined with increasing flood insurance premiums, will encourage adaptation to occur on a neighborhood scale.  Some property owners will be better equipped to make necessary adaptations than others, but we think that a strong public role—providing expertise, funding, and eventually regulation—can catalyze change more quickly and comprehensively than insurance premiums or other market mechanisms alone.

Jahred: Your project involves various co-benefits, notably, increased resilience, a resurgence of street life, and a greater incorporation of nature into the city. Could you speak a little more to that?

JS: A number of resiliency efforts attempt to adapt to rising sea levels by creating a physical barrier between people and water, which makes sense in some situations, but we think that the North End has an opportunity to pursue a more nuanced approach and embrace its connection with the coast rather than building walls. We were inspired by a Jane Jacobs quote documenting the North End’s vibrant street life, and are interested in thinking about how good urban design can encourage activity and vibrancy even as water becomes a part of daily life.

As a design community, and residents, we saw this competition as a catalyst for a unique opportunity to re-envision Boston.

Jahred: Are there any barriers to action that you think could pose problems to an implementation of your design in the real world?

LW: Our proposal is three-fold: we hope to increase climate vulnerability awareness through the development of a Resilience Scorecard, we aim to incentivize building and property owners to safeguard their investment through Resilience Loans for retrofitting, and lastly, we propose that transferring and mitigating risk through a First-Floor Buyout program, aimed at long term vertical retreat, will provide new found street life and allow residents to stay in their homes longer.

Fundamentally, much of the proposal requires sincere collaboration with stakeholders and community members. When dealing with property rights, the conversation becomes quite personal, and reasonably so.

JS: Our goal is to think carefully about implementation by detailing the financial benefits of proactive action on different scales—things as simple as moving mechanical equipment above a certain elevation to more complicated efforts around elevating first floor uses—and then structure financing that translates anticipated savings into upfront capital. Unfortunately, the trend has been to wait until a disaster hits and only then rebuild in a more thoughtful way. We hope that our entry, along with others in the competition, can help create a conversation that encourages neighborhood-scale climate change resiliency as a project to be started now, before the flood.

We hope that our entry, along with others in the competition, can help create a conversation that encourages neighborhood-scale climate change resiliency as a project to be started now, before the flood.