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Equity in Climate Resilence

Rappapport Team Helps the City of Boston Protect Vulnerable Areas From Stormwater Runoff

Five students from the Rappaport Greater Boston Field Lab at Harvard Kennedy School will likely never look at a rainstorm quite the same way again.

Tasked by the City of Boston to lend a set of fresh eyes to the growing problem of climate change, the student team was asked to explore two primary questions and share their findings with the city:

  • How might Boston best protect its most vulnerable areas, and their respective citizens, from ever-increasing stormwater runoff?
  • How might the city best fund such mitigation strategies without unfairly burdening those with the least means?

Sebastian Agignoae (Harvard Kennedy School ‘22), Brian Cain (Harvard Kennedy School ‘22), Sasha LeFlore (Harvard Kennedy School/Stanford Graduate School of Business ‘22), Kyle Miller (Harvard Graduate School of Design/Harvard School of Public Health ‘21), Shruti Nagarajan (Harvard Kennedy School ‘22) sought solutions that would promote both environmental and financial equity, especially in neighborhoods with the greatest disparity.

“You walk around a place like Cambridge, and you see stormwater management tools implemented everywhere, but then you go to a place like East Boston, and those tools aren’t there,” said LeFlore. “So the question becomes, how do you develop the infrastructure to minimize the impact of stormwater management in those communities?”

On a fundamental level, the problem with stormwater runoff – whether that be rain or melting snow following a storm – is the longer it stays on an impermeable surface like pavement, the more damage it does.

“Stormwater degrades the property and the infrastructure,” said Agignoae. “But it also degrades the health of the residents in these communities.”

The solution?

“You want to retain stormwater where it falls,” said Cain, who is a CPA and led the team’s financial model development. “You want to catch it and hold it there and very slowly let it go back into the ecosystem instead of letting it flood down the street.”

The students’ first task was to find the most vulnerable areas in Boston – identifying where strong impact could be made while also potentially serving as a pilot program for other areas in the city. They identified East Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester and Hyde Park as environmental justice communities where not only was drainage a concern but where residents experiences other challenges: lower household incomes, limited English proficiency, and ethnic and racial discrimination.

“It was somewhat reassuring that there wasn’t a gap in our knowledge – that the places we assumed would be the places we’d want to focus, which made our job a little easier,” Miller said. On the other hand, Miller noted that the students were sensitive to the fact that these were also the very communities that would likely be most distrustful of the city and skeptical of any potential change that could be perceived as a step toward gentrification and/or displacement.

To evaluate environmental impacts, the team first used GIS mapping to get a sense of where water flows in Boston and how one might create upstream or downstream systems to handle the runoff either through detention (short-term storage), retention (indefinite storage) or infiltration, whereby water enters the soil.

The students also explored mitigation strategies being utilized in other cities, such as Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington, DC, and compared those to what is being done in and around Boston. With this information, the team developed their findings with a focus on East Boston, as this community faces   many of the challenges they identified.

While certain mitigation strategies – such as rain gardens, sand filters, rain barrels, and retention and detention basins – have been on Boston’s radar, the greatest value of this research was to highlight the most cost-effective solutions, identify which models could be used widely throughout the city, and raise ideas on how best to fund interventions in an equitable way.

Encouraged by the Rappaport Foundation and their city partner, the students were inspired to look to bold solutions and think outside the box.

“If you just brought in another subject matter expert to talk about it (stormwater mitigation), it’s more likely to be dismissed,” said Nagarajan. “But as a student group, we could put bold ideas in front of people who may not be listening to bold ideas in other contexts.”

From their research into other cities’ efforts, the team found that there are mechanisms for funding water mitigation that are less cumbersome for those living in more environmentally and financially at-risk communities.

Whereas Boston has a traditional model by which residents are charged a flat rate by their water usage, other cities collect fees more aligned with the impact that a commercial or residential property has on stormwater management while also providing credits for users who utilize intervention strategies.

“In Brooklyn, if you have a roof garden where the rain falls and doesn’t actually hit the pavement but is absorbed by the garden, for that you’d get a credit,” LeFlore said. “So there’s a fee collection piece, and a credit piece, and the two go hand in hand.”

The group also considered the possibility that certain tax-exempt institutions – universities, for example – could significantly lessen the burden on taxpayers in environmental justice communities if they were required to contribute financially.

“While they may be exempt from paying taxes, it’s still possible to levy a fee so as to ensure they are contributing,” Miller said.

“The Rappaports are hoping that we, as Harvard students, are able to think of creative solutions to ultimately ensure that Boston remains a place where everyone has the opportunity to live and thrive.”

Kyle Miller, 2021 Rappaport Greater Boston Applied Field Lab Student

Sanjay Seth, who manages the Climate Ready Boston program and served as the city’s liaison to the project, is himself a former student of Professor Linda Bilmes and the Rappaport Greater Boston Applied Field Lab. He said the city set a high bar for the team.

“We didn’t give them easy problems to solve,” he said. “In fact, we gave them incredibly challenging problems to solve, and they exceeded our expectations.”

The result?

“What I took from it is that these problems are solvable,” said Seth. “We can’t say that a single thing from this project is now city policy – that’s not the purpose of student work – but the outcome of this is to create spaces for dialogue. The work that these students did was really valuable in sharing more perspectives.”

The team was encouraged by the city’s response to the final presentation and agreed with Seth that the report will serve to help decision-makers reimagine the funding and infrastructure of stormwater management. “Other cities have done it, but it’s even more complex in Boston,” Cain said. “Hopefully, our work sparked something.”

The students were also humbled by the involvement of the Rappaport Foundation, with Jerry and Phyllis both weighing in during the final presentation.

“Stormwater runoff, it’s not sexy, but it means a lot to a lot of people and has real-world implications,” Kyle Miller said. “The Rappaports are hoping that we, as Harvard students, are able to think of creative solutions to ultimately ensure that Boston remains a place where everyone has the opportunity to live and thrive.”