By October 21, 2019 No Comments

Elected and appointed officials of the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts along with members of the business, academic, and philanthropic communities traveled to Northern Europe recently on a Green Ribbon Commission-sponsored Climate Innovations Study Tour last week. Boston Environment Commissioner Carl Spector, who participated in the study tour along with Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space Austin Blackmon, reports back on what they learned.

The City of Boston issued its first climate action plan in 2007 to start reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for the effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, more intense precipitation, and more frequent heat waves. We have been sharing information with other American cities for a long time, and, in recent years, we have become more involved in the international exchange of ideas on energy and climate. Climate change is a global phenomenon, and every city is dealing with its own set of challenges. The study tour was an opportunity to visit some of the leading cities in Northern Europe, see the innovations that they have developed, and learn from our colleagues the best practices that they are using and the questions and problems they are still facing.

Climate preparedness in the Netherlands

Like many Americans, I’ve heard, first, folk tales and, later, the actual history of the interaction between the Dutch and the seas, including their famous dikes and canals. More than a quarter of the population in the Netherlands lives below sea level.

The City of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port by cargo tonnage, sits on the banks of the Nieuwe Maas River about 15 miles inland from the North Sea, and is home to just over 600,000 people, roughly the same population as Boston.  About a 45-minute drive from the city is the world’s largest moveable storm surge barrier, the Maeslant Barrier,  which is one component of a coastal protection system that was developed after the Netherlands experienced catastrophic floods in 1953. Each arm of the barrier is about the size of the Eiffel Tower, and it takes two hours to close. It is wonderful engineering achievement. Fortunately, the operators have only had to close it once since its construction to protect against storm surge, though their annual test closing in September (after summer maintenance) is something of a festive event. Our site visit engendered discussion of whether such a barrier might, at some point, be appropriate for Boston. Later this year, the Climate Ready Boston initiative will provide more information that will contribute to the long-term consideration we will need to give to that question.

Notwithstanding the concerns about the sea, officials in the Netherlands are now focused on flooding from rain and overflowing rivers. They pointed to the floods in Copenhagen a few years ago from six inches of rain in two hours as well as the floods in Paris this past spring. We saw green roofs (including a rooftop farm and restaurant) and walls and active trolley tracks planted with grass. There is a concerted efforted to create adaptation infrastructure with multiple uses. In Amsterdam, we visited a plaza where rain collection basins double as play areas and performance venues (pictured below). When it’s dry, they’re great spaces for recreation. When it rains, water collects there and then seeps slowly back into the earth.

Bikes everywhere

We were told (by our bicycle guide in Copenhagen) that Copenhagen and Amsterdam have a friendly competition over which city is best for bikers (though our guide was also clear about who came in first.) We saw, on some busy streets, bike lanes that were wider than the vehicle lanes. I particularly liked the left-hand turn lanes on the bicycle pathways. I rapidly realized that the number of bicycles required a change in my behavior as a pedestrian. I had to become more alert to the presence of the bike lanes and to check twice before crossing a street: once for cars, once for bikes.

Left: Members of the Climate Innovations Study Tour learning about sustainable mobility and urban livability in Copenhagen while touring the city on bike. Center: Differentiated bike turning lanes. Right: A packed bike storage area outside the central train station in Amsterdam.

Energy innovation in Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a leader in renewable and district energy. We got a close look at the Middelgrunden Offshore Wind Farm, a short boat ride from the harbor. Evidently, this is an older facility, and the newer offshore turbines, which we could make out in the distance, are twice as large. Back onshore, with a good view back at Middelgrunden, we visited the Amergervaerket combined heat-and-power plant that is being converted to run entirely on biomass. Later that day, we toured a district cooling plant that relies on cold seawater.

Left: The Middelgrunden Offshore Wind Farm. Center: Study Tour participants observing the offshore wind farm from a boat in the Øresund, a body of water between Denmark and Sweden. Right: The GRC learned about energy efficient sea-water cooling systems at the District Cooling Facility in Tietgensgade.

A morning in Malmö, Sweden

Malmö boasts of having the first carbon-neutral district in Europe, Vastra Hamnen: energy-efficient construction, solar thermal panels, calm streets that favor pedestrians and bicycles over cars. Although it was not directly related to the theme of the trip, another highlight of the trip  was the chance to see, right next to the carbon-neutral district, the tallest building in Sweden, known as the Twisting Torso. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the recently opened World Trade Center Transportation in New York.

Left: The Turning Torso is just one example of the creative architecture we saw in Malmö, Sweden. Right: A neighborhood in the carbon-neutral district of Vastra Hamnen.

The Climate Innovations Study Tour allowed us to better understand how these leading European cities are dealing with some of the same climate challenges we face at home in Boston.