HOW CAN WE PLAN, DESIGN AND BUILD GREENER CITIES TO ADDRESS THE CHALLENGES OF GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE AND RESOURCE DEPLETION?
What kinds of opportunities are offered by new technologies, new methods of design and construction, new government programs and new incentives for private investment? And what are the biggest impediments to a greener future? In June, the Boston Society of Architects, or BSA, which is the Boston-area chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based American Institute of Architects, and the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., brought together nearly 500 leading urbanists, architects, engineers, government officials, businesspeople and environmental advocates from the U.S. and other nations for the second Mass Impact Symposium: Energy and Mobility in the Green City. The goal was to examine best practices that could establish a design and policy agenda for Boston and New England, as well as set new standards for ensuring the environmental, economic and social sustainability of green cities within a global economy.
The symposium concluded with a panel that discussed strategies for implementing these ideas in Boston and New England. The panel comprised Kristina Egan, project manager for the South Coast Rail Project in the Boston-based Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation; James Gordon, founder and president of Boston-based Cape Wind Associates, the developer of the Nantucket Sound Wind Farm; James Hunt, chief of environmental services for the city of Boston; and Dan Valianti, manager of the Northeast Climate and Energy Program for Boston-based Ceres, a leading environmental nonprofit that works closely with businesses. Additional perspectives were offered by the day’s keynote speaker, Nicky Gavron, former deputy mayor of London, and Philip Jessup, director of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund.
REDUCE, RENEW AND RETROFIT
PlaNYC, New York’s plan for combating climate change, estimates that 85 percent of all the buildings that will exist in 2050 already have been built today. Demolishing existing buildings because they are inefficient would waste enormous amounts of embodied energy. The challenge is retrofitting these structures to make them more energy efficient. Reducing energy demand is only part of the solution to slowing global climate change. The other part of the solution is shifting energy generation from fossil fuel to renewable sources. To date, the developers of utility-scale renewable-energy facilities have had limited success in permitting and building projects in Massachusetts. For example, the Cape Wind Project, a 420-megawatt offshore wind-power facility proposed to be constructed in Nantucket Sound, already has undergone eight years of environmental reviews with still more permits and approvals yet to be granted. This is particularly frustrating, because renewable sources, like wind farms and solarenergy facilities, can be built incrementally, as opposed to a fossil-fuel or nuclear power plant, which must be built all at once. This can make renewable sources easier to finance. Also, once a wind or solar plant is built, there is no uncertainty about the future cost of fuel supplies. For these reasons, in areas of the country where project permitting has been more permissive, wind power has been the fastest-growing energy source during the last several years. In addition, commercial and residential developments can install on-site distributed generation facilities—such as solar, wind and cogeneration, also known as combined heat and power, or CHP—that supply their own power. This cuts out the cost of transmission and can allow propertyowners to sell excess power back into the grid. States need to undertake proactive planning to identify appropriate locations and conditions for building renewable energy, and they need to modify their regulatory systems so development can proceed in a prompt and predictable manner. Feed-in tariffs that encourage the sale of excess power from distributed-generation facilities back into the grid are needed to provide further incentive for those sources. Otherwise, investors may be discouraged and New England may be unable to create the renewable-energy sources it needs.
The transportation of people and freight accounts for approximately 25 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. In the U.S., that proportion increases to 32 percent, and in Massachusetts it further rises to 36 percent. Despite the growing awareness of the challenges of climate change, recent trends have increased the creation of GHG from the transportation sector. Automobile registrations have increased in Massachusetts 40 percent in the past 15 years while mass-transit ridership has increased by only 10 percent. Those trends can be offset in part by improvements in clean-vehicle technologies and systems, like “smart highways” that improve traffic flow through regionally synchronized signalization. In the long run, however, reducing the demand for energy-consuming transportation will require the reconfiguration of cities, towns and regions in smart-growth patterns of development that encourage far greater reliance on public transit, walking and bicycling. The state’s regional land-use planning program in southeastern Massachusetts within the corridor of the proposed South Coast rail project is working to coordinate compact new development around the station locations for a new commuter rail line while preventing sprawl development on valuable open space in the corridor. The state’s Zoning Reform Task Force is considering statewide incentives for communities to zone for denser new housing and mixed-use development in downtowns, town centers and other smart-growth locations. These are the kinds of reforms that will need to be implemented on a statewide basis for such a transformation to occur.
ADAPTING FOR CLIMATE CHANGE
Adaptation to potential future conditions increasingly is acknowledged as a necessary component of climate-change planning. Cities are resilient but also have sunk a great deal of money into existing physical improvements, so adaptation will be costly. To date, there has been less attention paid to the challenge of adapting to the negative impacts of global climate change. Many environmental advocates have feared that accepting the idea of change would undermine efforts to reverse the forces that are causing global warming. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that coastal regions, like Boston and New England, face potentially catastrophic risks from rises in sea level, which may occur even if measures to reverse climate change go into effect. Governments, industries, property owners and insurers will need to start planning to adapt to sea-level rises and other risks of climate change in their short- and long-term planning and investments. At the same time, adaptation raises questions of equity. How can we ensure that low-income residents and workers along the coast don’t bear an undue share of the cost of change? Political will for systemic changes to address global warming is growing, but it’s not where it should be yet. We are in a period of experimentation to see what works technologically, economically and politically. There is no single strategy or magic combination of measures to address the issue. This highlights the importance of goal-setting, measurement and transparency—a challenge for public officials who may not want to publicize failures. Government regulation will be of key importance. Otherwise, investors may be hesitant because they would bear all the cost with little or no assured benefit. Regulation provides clarity and predictability to the marketplace and removes uncertainty, but it should be accompanied with incentives—tax credits, low-interest loans and technical assistance—at least until behavior changes and markets adapt. In building public support for implementation, it’s important for climate-change activists to resist saying “we told you so.” Too often, the virtues of every new strategy are oversold by their proponents to gain support. Finally, the social-equity dimension of climate change has not been sufficiently emphasized. The poor and powerless are the least able to adapt. We need to save the planet for everyone.
HUBERT MURRAY is an architect and newly appointed manager of sustainable initiatives for Partners Healthcare, Boston. MATTHEW KIEFER is a principal in the Boston-based law fi rm Goulston & Storrs and teaches in the Urban Planning Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. ANDREW SCOTT regularly teaches graduate architectural design studios and design research workshops within the Cambridgebased Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Master of Architecture program and is principal of Andrew Scott Architecture, Cambridge. JAY WICKERSHAM practices environmental and construction law with Noble & Wickersham, Cambridge, and serves as the Boston Society of Architects’ representative on the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. The authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.