Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on November 30, 2010

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Water — the water of the Charles River and my desire to swim in it — was one of the main reasons I started the Charles River Conservancy 10 years ago. I love swimming in city rivers; for me it embodies urban livability. When I arrived here from Switzerland 30 years ago, I envisioned swimming in the Charles. To support a cleaner Charles, I started by becoming a volunteer water-tester.

Thanks to the hard work of the EPA, MWRA, municipalities, the non-profit CRWA, and more than $500 million of public funds, the water of the Charles is now fit for swimming most days. But it is not legal yet, except during sanctioned swim events such as the one-mile race sponsored by the Charles River Swimming Club.

With initial funding from the Boston Foundation, the Conservancy has been advocating for the return of public swimming and now staffs the governorappointed commission that is exploring potential swimming sites. This summer, with funding from the Cabot Family Charitable Trust, the Conservancy, with Northeastern University, is conducting daily water quality monitoring at five locations.

Under the leadership of Northeastern University professor Ferdi Hellweger, student teams designed platforms that would make access to deep water possible, while avoiding polluted sediments. In the future, we hope to design bathhouses for swimmers, similar to those in Basel, Geneva, and Zurich. SwissNex developed an exhibit on urban river bathhouses in order to inspire thinking along the Charles.

The "Water" issue [Summer 2010] addresses larger environmental issues concerning the future of Boston and its most valuable assets: the harbor, the Charles River basin, Fort Point Channel, the Fens, and the Mystic River. It is interesting to note that Boston’s proportion of water to landmass is twice that of Amsterdam, a city in which public activity thoroughly engages the water beyond pricey water taxis and outdated harbor tours and dinner cruises.

How about introducing new public activity to the Boston waterfront? Nicolas Biddle, a 2009 SHIFTboston competition finalist, devised such a solution with his entry "Concept NA: Barging through Boston." Nicolas proposed activating the Boston waterfront by reusing existing local barges for new floating activities. This simple concept already exists in other cities and could be emulated here beautifully.

Progress has been made to transform this idea into reality. Nicolas has secured access to available barges through an alliance with a barge manufacturer in Rhode Island. He has obtained full support from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and is now seeking approval and support from Massport. At the current rate of progress, we may expect to see an "occupied" public barge on the Boston Harbor by next summer.

So, what is the next step with this initiative? The next SHIFTboston competition will be to design and implement this idea. The winner of the competition will be given funding to construct his or her installation on the barge next spring.

Imagine: Next summer, you could be enjoying a floating adult playground with live music, food, and drinks. The barge may incorporate elements such as waterspraying fountains, pools, a jungle gym, hammocks, swings, or lounging spaces. Who knows? You decide!

Since I moved to Cambridge 19 years ago, water has been an ongoing priority in my circles (environmental science) and it amazes me that in such a long time we have made relatively little progress in creating a sustainable water region. It seems that as a species we are good at posing questions, poking at the underlying science, and creating short-term fixes, but we have difficulty coming up with sustainable long-term solutions and plans for implementation.

Yes, there has been change for the better, and kudos to the heroes who have achieved this: the Charles River is cleaner and even occasionally swimmable, the Boston beaches aren’t closed half of the season, plumbing codes are preventing us from flushing more water than necessary, and Cambridge has a brand-new state-of-theart drinking water facility. However, there are plenty of remaining problems. In the last 20 years, what have we done to truly live in sync with our water environment?

The "Water" issue of ArchitectureBoston [Summer 2010] hits the nail on the head. These articles explain the barriers to more sustainable water management, many of which are related to the built environment. There are old building codes that frustrate architects and planners with innovative ideas, and there are improper approaches to stormwater management that result in flooding in some areas and sinking groundwater levels in others. However, the most significant barrier is our culture of consumerism and our craving for luxury and status. As long as people hold to the belief that "bigger is better" and use conventional approaches, we will not achieve sustainability. This is why we need a paradigm shift and why many of us are focusing on education. Programs like the Water: Systems Science and Society Program at Tufts University change the vision of our future practitioners who will enter the workplace with a fresh mindset. We can already see the results of the last 10 years of education in the 155 architectural firms that have become members of the US Green Building Council. Education in sustainable practices needs to be a priority if we want to see real, effectual change in water management.

Thanks so much for raising the question of how we will need to adapt to climate change ["The High Tide of Opportunity," Summer 2010]. The thought leaders in urban planning really need to be focused on this question. As much as we may be doing to cut our dependence on fossil fuels, we should be doing much more. Unfortunately, while we may be able to avoid the worst imaginable consequences, it seems clear that we will not do enough to stave off substantial changes. The conversation about how to respond to those changes needs to start now.

Tom Palmer’s article on the Boston Groundwater Conservation Overlay District ["So, How’d That Work Out?" Summer 2010] outlines some of the positive effects that have flowed from the GCOD’s adoption. Because of the requirement that structures subject to Article 32 do no harm to groundwater, and because of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s requirement that groundwater impacts be assessed under Article 80 Large Project Reviews, several projects have modified proposed foundation systems. Building design professionals now recognize that groundwater is a resource that must be preserved, not an obstacle to simply be removed. The almost-100 percent compliance with GCOD requirements has been very gratifying.

The article also notes the need to repair leaking underground infrastructure. At the same time that Mayor Menino proposed the GCOD, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Commonwealth, the City of Boston, agencies that control underground infrastructure in areas with buildings supported by wood-pile foundations, and the Boston Groundwater Trust. The MOU committed the signatories to share information about possible causes of groundwater reductions and to work to remedy any potential causes. It established a City-State Groundwater Working Group that meets quarterly in remarkably useful and collegial sessions that have led to the commitment of significant resources to attack the problems.

The working group was established during the Romney administration and has continued its excellent work during the Patrick administration, an indication of the broad understanding of the need to attack this problem in order to preserve the historic neighborhoods that are such an important part of the history and economy of the city, state, and region. In fact, the recognition of the importance of addressing, rather than hiding from, groundwater issues in recent years is the most critical change that has made all other improvements possible.

Corrections: In the interview with Bob Zimmerman ["Political Science," Summer 2010, page 39], John DeVillars’ name was misspelled. Geoff Weisenberger of the American Institute of Steel Construction provided the following clarifications to the "Virtual Water" chart on page 17 of the Summer 2010 issue: Structural steel produced in the US uses a closed-loop water system that consumes only 60–70 gallons of water per ton of steel, with water reclamation rates greater than 95 percent. Also, structural steel should be compared to structural concrete rather than cement, as cement is only one component of concrete. Comparisons should consider that one ton of concrete is not functionally equivalent to one ton of structural steel in a building project; a conservative estimate is that eight tons of concrete is required to do the job of one ton of steel.

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