A Conversation With Yael Nidam (DUSP, G)

by Devon Capizzi

For many, climate change can feel as unstoppable as it is inaccessible. A field of study so reliant on data, and scientific projections, and research often feels beyond immediate reach. We may be able to educate ourselves—staying up to date on news outlets, watching documentaries, or even taking on these issues in our coursework—but too often strictly scientific information feels unpalatable and obscure.

By filtering data through a storyteller’s point of view, Yael Nidam, an MIT graduate student in DUSP and former PKG Fellow, hopes to amend accessibility issues in this field. During the summer of 2018, Nidam worked with the Environment Department of the City of Boston, specifically with the Climate Ready Boston group, which focuses on climate change preparation by engineering resilience structures to combat projected climate-related disasters in the city.

While partnered with Climate Ready Boston, Nidam had the freedom to curate a project of her own: to create an interactive map of the city’s ongoing coastal resilience projects, not only in terms of facts and figures and data collection, but also through storytelling. “What was really nice about this team… was that they were super open minded,” Nidam says of her experience. “They saw this project as a true collaboration.”

Three years ago, Climate Ready Boston completed a long-term risk assessment called the Climate Adaptation Project. Their findings found, among other things, where flood levels will likely be in ten or twenty or thirty years’ time, given current climate trends. While seeking to plan for the future, respond to climate projections with designs specifically resilient to mass flooding and sea level rises, a big part of this project also has to do with community. The Climate Adaptation Project may be a collection of data, a scientific projection, but its work, in the end, is aimed at protecting those who will be impacted by climate change and natural disasters. In the end, it’s about the people. And so, Nidam sought to address those people more directly, to open up a conversation and to frame the conversation in terms that anyone could understand.

“[The project is] an opportunity to speak with people about what adaptation can look like in their neighborhoods,” Nidam says. The project uses climate change projection to instigate community engagement and see “which strategies would best suit what people want to see,” Nidam explains. It is one thing to collect information. It is another thing to use what you collect appropriately, responsibly and ethically. Nidam’s project seeks to make good use of the information available to us. How can we use this data, how can we translate all this knowledge into urban planning that works against climate-change projections? And how can we use it in a way that works to protect a host of unique communities?

“I read through all the research and I collected all this information and made a new data set,” Nidam says of her early-on process, and she made sure “all this information was stored project-by-project.” In reorganizing the data, Nidam was able to break down the information in new ways to create a comprehensive interactive tool that enables the public to virtually explore projections in their neighborhood. By organizing facts and figures through a storytelling lens, Nidam saw a way for the public to gain access to a host of resources, the ability to track the progress of ongoing resiliency projects, and the freedom to explore city plans.

“I thought that it would be interesting,” Nidam says, “for it to be a storytelling tool as well as an educational tool, where people can get the complete story and understand why this is needed, find out who is involved and not just get some information on a map.” And so, The Coastal Resilience Project Tracker was born, a tool that not only presents data, but does so in a way that allows the communities in Boston to understand the overarching climate change narrative.

“You live in this city and you’ve heard about the risks to where you live,” Nidam explains. “Now you have access to how the city intends to protect you from those risks,” and what that protection will look like long-term. Depending on locality, protections include, but are not limited to: elevated waterfront parks and plazas; fortifying infrastructure like flood walls; as well as park and greenery installations to provide coverage for lands that are subject to erosion and need protection. Nidam says it is just as important to protect the open spaces we have, as it is to protect against future flooding; the project is about resilience, but it is also about proactively protecting vulnerable spaces. “We need to protect open spaces as well, not just prepare for flooding.”

On her experience and partnership, Nidam says she was grateful for the freedom as well as the support she received from Climate Ready Boston. “My background is in architecture,” she says. “I came here to kind of expand my thinking to more urban infrastructure projects.” And for her, it was important to be in a space where skills and expertise were varied and valued. “There are scientists that don’t really have the design background,” she explains, “and I have the design background, but I don’t have the science. So, it was a really nice collaboration.”

Working with Climate Ready Boston, Nidam had the opportunity not only to view public service through an environmental and scientific lens, but also then take this scientific knowledge and transform it in a way that was specific to her background, interests and expertise. In the end, she was able to create a tool for the public, to learn about their community, to learn about the risks they face and the protections engineered by their city, and to connect with this information through a mixed-media narrative. To check out her incredible report, go to www.climatereadyboston.org .

There are many ways to use your skills and expertise for public service. Regardless of your areas of focus, the PKG Center is here to connect you to a host of opportunities that not only match your area of study, but also push you to expand your understanding and application in that field.

To learn more about internship, fellowship and work-study opportunities visit https://studentlife.mit.edu/pkgcenter or follow PKG on Facebook.




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