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All climate politics is local, so that's where the action is

Posted by Anthony Flint  December 13, 2010 01:30 PM

Action on climate change at the federal level seems increasingly unlikely in the months ahead. Republicans vow to block cap and trade and challenge the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of carbon emissions. The U.S. economy missed the window to put the needed price on carbon. Meanwhile, negotiators in Cancun, pretty much as anticipated, failed to put together a major international accord on global warming.

In spite of all this -- and this is truly incredible to see happening -- cities and regions are plodding ahead on climate change, continuing the work and the awareness and the reality-confronting from the Bush years. This local and regional effort not only has to do with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but adapting to the inevitable impacts of global warming, beginning, for coastal cities, with flooding and sea level rise. And therein lies the ramifications for city-building and placemaking in and around Boston. We're going to be building for a wetter, warmer world.

Case in point: Seaport Square, the 6.3-acre L-shaped South Boston waterfront parcel from the Barking Crab and the Moakley courthouse to the big parking lots near the Fidelity developments at the World Trade Center. Long on the drawing boards, going back to when Frank McCourt owned the land, Seaport Square will be the mother of all infill redevelopments; where there are now surface parking lots, we'll have urbanism from Fan Pier to Fort Point and over towards the convention center.
Seaport Square.jpg

The waterfront is not only the new frontier for Boston real estate. It's ground zero for climate change. Fifty years from now, rising seas will change the dynamics of key sites significantly. Seaport Square, the largest single development approved by the City of Boston, also was the first major project where the partners (Boston Global Investors, Morgan Stanley and WS Developments) agreed to comply with the city's guidelines on climate adaptation. In the permitting process, it's not every day you see a developer agree to rules that haven't been written yet. But it's testimony to how builders are going to have to take care to put key infrastructure, for example, in places protected from flooding.

Another example of designers and builders thinking ahead is the Spaulding Rehabitation Hospital at Charlestown Navy Yard, where the ground floor was raised three feet higher than the street, mechanical and electrical systems went from the basement to the roof, and critical-care activities were moved from the first floor.

Spaulding Perkins Will.jpg

The Boston Harbor Association has been tracking this kind of adapation activity, along with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, co-chaired by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Amos Hostetter. The commission's 30 leading members are working to support Boston's Climate Action Plan.

More local initiatives on mitigation and adaptation -- including efforts in Keene, N.H. and Bridgeport, Conn. -- were detailed last Friday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston as part of the New England Smart Growth Leadership Forum, organized by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.

Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute, said that while climate change has been called “the ultimate externality,” necessitating collective action at the national and global scale, local and regional efforts can chip away at the problem – as long as they are targeted for the greatest impact.

Reid Ewing, professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, talked about shaping the future built environment for reduced emissions. Smart growth and compact development, going on in a number of places around the countrty, produces 20 to 40 percent fewer vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to conventional suburban development, he said. Places with density, a mix of uses, well-designed public spaces, street connectivity, and destination accessibility, have direct correlation to travel patterns that is unrelated to income. The bottom line is that projects like Seaport Square will have a smaller carbon footprint, but will also need to adapt -- given that no matter what we do in the next few years, we're already in store for rising temperatures.

The cultural and political backdrop for all of this made for interesting discussions. Agreement that there is solid evidence for warming global temperatures has declined from 72 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2010, and most people base their opinions about climate change on local observations, such as hurricanes in the South or forest fires in the West, according to Barry Rabe, professor of public policy and the environment at the University of Michigan, who has conducted a 1,000-person survey on the topic. Support for cap and trade or a price on carbon declines precipitously if either will end up costing families $15 or $50 a month, the survey shows. Most respondents think the federal government has the primary responsibility to attack the problem, but many support their home states taking action -- even if neighboring states do not. “Public opinion is volatile,” Rabe said, “but the bottom has not fallen out for public support to do something.”

Meanwhile, Avi Garbow, deputy general counsel at EPA, detailed the agency's continuing efforts in the broader regulation of carbon dioxide. “The agency is moving forward to implement the act with respect to stationary sources in a very … common sense way,” he said, despite the EPA delaying new rules on smog and industrial boilers. He defended the Clean Air Act, which he said sparked innovation, such as the creation of the catalytic converter, and predicted similar entrepreneurship will likely flourish as the EPA begins regulating carbon emissions from power plants and other major stationary sources in January.

Surely there's going to be more innovation in planning, urban design, and construction as well.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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