Dutch architect and urbanist Matthijs Bouw says the Island will need to work across boundaries and disciplines in order to adapt to the growing effects of climate change.
Bouw, founding principal of One Architecture, had to constantly consider the issue of sea level rise in his hometown of Amsterdam, and has used his advanced knowledge of adaptive architecture to help many waterside communities.
At the Oak Bluffs library, Bouw spoke of his many projects in downtown Boston, New York City, and the Netherlands. The event was organized by Elizabeth Durkee of the Oak Bluffs Conservation Commission.
With climate change creating more extreme storms and loose projections of sea level rise in the next century reaching 50 feet or more, Bouw said communities located in floodplains will deal most immediately with these issues.
One key area of Bouw’s expertise is large-scale social and technical resilience planning and infrastructure.
Instead of at-risk communities responding to flooding as it happens, Bouw said, One Architecture is all about taking proactive steps to not only protect vulnerable areas from water.
“In Amsterdam and the Netherlands, we learned ways to live with water in a way that was much more than just water management,” Bouw said. “We really tried to utilize the benefits of water in both social and technical infrastructure.” Bouw gave an example of an ocean barrier that was also a walkway and a park for people to use and enjoy. “We want these spaces to be useful for not just keeping out water. We want them to be used as much as possible by the community,” Bouw said.
He described one of his company’s largest projects, The Big U, in Lower Manhattan.
As a result of Superstorm Sandy, thousands of people in Lower Manhattan were left displaced and without electricity or running water.
The Big U project proposed 10 miles of continuous flood and stormwater protection, with individual sections catering to every neighborhood’s typology.
Bouw wanted to maximize function and form with this major project, and said that programming and infrastructure must be linked in order to achieve the most far-reaching success.
On an Island like Martha’s Vineyard, Bouw said certain problems associated with being dependent on external resources can put the community in a tough spot when it comes to emergency preparedness and adaptation.
But he also said having a small, sequestered community affords definite benefits as well.
“Your community is small, connected, and can be used to experiment with various ways of advancing adaptive infrastructure, and working across multiple disciplines,” Bouw said.
He also said the Vineyard community is generally well-resourced and well-educated.
“You have the ability to be prepared when it comes to dealing with these issues,” Bouw said.
When it comes to climate change, Bouw said, uncertainty is ever-present, as new timescale projections are released every year.
“A few years ago in the Netherlands, we were planning for sea level rise in the year 2100, but we soon realized that climate problems are much worse than we originally anticipated,” Bouw said. “You need to focus on both the long term and the short term, and allow projects to adapt as new information is released.”
Bouw discussed the Vineyard Municipal Vulnerability Program and the Island Climate Action Network. He said these types of initiatives allow ongoing conversation within the community, where multiple voices can contribute to climate solutions.
Some of the most successful and progressive projects Bouw has worked on, he said, have involved ecologists, architects, sociologists, and others all working together to reach a certain goal. “Your community is far ahead of some similar-size coastal communities,” Bouw said. “I see each town doing fantastic things to be actively engaged in issues related to climate change.” But Bouw said all towns must come together in order to protect beaches and coastlines on the Island.
He said the regulatory framework in America is more reactive instead of preventive. “Community and social resilience is really about being prepared for whatever may come ahead. If something unexpected happens, regulations should be such that we move away from avoidance and more toward preparedness,” Bouw said.
In the future, Bouw said Martha’s Vineyard faces a multitude of challenges related to climate change, and the Island needs to think about these looming issues now, instead of scrambling to regain ground after an emergency.
“The future of coastal communities, including Martha’s Vineyard, is uncertain. We don’t yet know the speed or severity that these environmental impacts will carry, but the ability for a community to bounce back after a disaster is reliant on long- and short-term planning,” Bouw said.