Forum Sparks Conversation About City Resilience Planning

As a coastal city, Boston is particularly susceptible to the potentially devastating impacts of extreme precipitation. City planners have been devising strategies to cope with these challenges for years, but the public has not always had the opportunity to actively participate.

On Feb. 1, the Museum of Science hosted “Weathering the Storm: Building Resilience to Extreme Precipitation,” an interactive event aimed at informing the public of the resilience planning strategies that are being developed across the United States.

The materials used were part of a national project funded by a National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration environmental literacy grant. The grant supports building community resilience to environmental hazards.

According to David Sittenfeld, forum program manager at the Museum of Science, four modules were created for the project: extreme precipitation, sea level rise, heat waves, and drought. These modules are being used at eight science centers across the country.

“The goal of the project really is to just get people understanding that these resilience planning conversations are happening around the U.S., and they’re hard,” Sittenfeld said.

The science centers send data based on participants’ responses to resilience planners around the country in an effort to inform them of public opinion. By participating in the modules, the public also gains a better understanding of the role resilience planners have in preparing communities for the impacts of climate change.

By carrying out the project in a diverse range of cities, resilience planners are able to see how priorities and social implications differ across regions.

“It’s important to do a multi-site project, which this is a part of, because we know that resilience planning in Boston looks very different from resilience planning in Honolulu or Mobile, Ala.,” Sittenfeld said.

The evening began with a speech by Nathalie Beauvais, a project manager, architect, and climate change planner at Kleinfelder, an architecture, engineering, and science consulting firm. Beauvais introduced the topic of extreme precipitation, emphasizing that a mere evaluation of the risk is not sufficient to safeguard communities against the potentially devastating impacts of extreme weather.

Beauvais’ speech sought to spark a conversation regarding the question of how to make decisions that will be effective and meet the needs of the diverse stakeholders involved.

“How do you translate climate risk into planning and design? There’s the science of it, but then what do you do with it?” Beauvais said.

Throughout her speech, Beauvais used the resilience strategy of Cambridge, Mass. as an example of the various techniques that can be used to mitigate the impacts of extreme precipitation. Kleinfelder worked on a climate change vulnerability assessment for the city, some areas of which are particularly vulnerable to flooding due to their prior conversion from marshland to developed land.  

“We harnessed water and we thought we would control it, but it was controlled with certain design standards that are not valid anymore,” Beauvais said. “So I think water is back with revenge in some ways.”

Beauvais also drew upon current extreme precipitation events, such as Hurricane Harvey, to illustrate the cost of doing nothing and its social implications.

“Some neighborhoods are devastated and they can barely recover, while the rest of the city is doing just fine,” Beauvais said. “And that’s starting to create inequalities within the city.”

Rather than focusing solely on the risk associated with extreme precipitation, Beauvais also emphasized those aspects of resilience planning that are promising.

“One of the dangers of working in climate change is you are just talking about risk, about fear and there’s not a positive outcome in the near future,” she said.

The first step of resilience planning is performing a vulnerability assessment, which determines the climate risks that leave the community most vulnerable. These risks could include flooding, drought, or extreme heat.

The assessment also evaluates the impact an extreme weather event will have on people, such as the economic impact of businesses shutting down due to property damage.

The next step is the development of resilience strategies. The four main areas are prepared community, resilient infrastructure, resilient ecosystems, and adapted building. Plans are devised for all areas of the city, including public health, telecommunication, utilities, and energy.

After Beauvais’ speech, participants worked in small groups to design a resilience plan for the fictional city of Rivertown. During the simulation, participants read the concerns of various community stakeholders, such as a city planner, floodplain resident, public health official, farmer, and historian.

Upon assessment of the needs and concerns of these stakeholders, participants decided which of the three plans they believed Rivertown should choose to implement. The first plan, “keep it out,” used funds to build a new wastewater treatment plant. The second plan, “soak it up,” focused on building green infrastructure to absorb floodwater. The third plan, “inform the public,” installed microgrids for hospitals and invested in emergency services.

Participants discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each plan, and chose a combination of the three plans to implement. After the selection, participants watched a simulated video that showed the community impacts of their decisions.

One of the main goals of the project is to demonstrate to the public the wide range of factors that go into resilience planning, and the challenges that can arise while attempting to devise solutions.

“Rather than just having people learn about it, we want to have the idea that these people are active learners and decision makers,” Sittenfeld said.

Featured Image by Chloe McAllaster / Heights Editor

About Chloe McAllaster 8 Articles
Chloe McAllaster is the associate metro editor for The Heights. She is from Phoenix, AZ, and loves assuring her Uber drivers that yes, she does realize it gets cold in Boston.