Providential hand on sea rise

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A ferry tilts in its slip (now Peck Street) downtown after the ’38 hurricane. (Digital Commonwealth)

The Jewelry District Association invited Barnaby Evans to speak about the future of WaterFire. That sent a shiver up my spine. Was the end nigh?

No, Evans did not say WaterFire was doomed. He did suggest that sea-level rise might inundate the world’s greatest art installation, along with the city of Providence, if we let it. To be sure, the sea isn’t rising fast enough to help us dodge the dire need to dredge our rivers. Nevertheless, he did say that compared to almost every other city on the eastern seaboard, Providence is far better able to cope with the danger of sea rise over the next few decades. If true, that is good news indeed.

It seems that history has dealt this state’s capital a lucky hand, at least compared with Boston, New York, Miami, Charleston and the other cities facing the upstart Atlantic Ocean. First, the hills dug out eons ago by a glacier act as a natural barrier to the inundation of our downtown. Second, we have the Hurricane Barrier, erected the decade following Carol. Third, we have a history of bold steps to leverage a safe future through infrastructure. That history stretches way back to include not only the Hurricane Barrier but the river relocation project of the ’90s, the highway relocation project of the ’00s, the combined sewer overflow tunnels dug beneath the city in the last decade, and many others, all the way back to the Blackstone Canal of 1828.

In spite of all this, Rhode Islanders believe we’ve been down so long it looks like up to us! But in fact, according to Evans, we are in the catbird seat.

He had a lot of maps and charts to explain how almost every other city along the Atlantic seems doomed to drown, but not us. Some of this arouses a natural skepticism. The point, however, is that if Evans is correct, Providence can not only manage sea-level rise at a far smaller cost than most other cities, but can use its inside straight to sell itself as an impregnable location. In this age of environmentia nervosa, that could be key to winning the economic sweepstakes with rival cities and states, possibly enabling authorities to jettison some of the development subsidies they now feel obliged to offer.

If only civic leaders could manage to solve the easiest of problems! How can we use civic development to strengthen rather than weaken the brand of the city and the state?


Speaking of which, after Barnaby Evans was done, Olin Thompson of the JDA gave a rundown of where things stand with the I-195 Commission’s plan to make the Jewelry District as ugly as it can be. Major hurdles impend for two projects, the 46-story Fane tower and the clunky hotel proposed for Parcel 1A on the east bank of the Providence River. I will try to post the news on that tomorrow.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Providential hand on sea rise

  1. petervanerp says:

    That ferry is in its slip, not a flooded street. Today it’s the (closed) extension of Peck Street, next to the electric substation in the buildings to the right. The substation still exists, but the section with the arched windows and exhaust flues has been torn down.
    All the angled streets off Weybosset started as the slips between wharves, and as the slips silted in, the wharves were extended into the cove, then the streets followed. A fine example of how to change public property (the cove below the high tide line) into private (the wharves).
    As for the protection afforded by the hurricane barrier, at least for our lifetimes, things should be OK. The lift motors have all been rebuilt in the past two years, and the gates are being repainted. I urge my children to move up river, though.


  2. Some good news for Providence? Let’s shout that out – listening CommerceRI? CoolerAndWarmer folks? “Providence! The city that won’t let you drown…”


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