The James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment

Group of attendees and speakers at the 2022 James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment Image by Edward Hajduk

The James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment takes place each fall at the University. Invited speakers are leading scholars, practitioners, or advocates that have made significant contributions to issues related to the built environment (that is, the impact of man-made structures or activities on the natural environment).

The lecture series is named for James B. Francis, a 19th-century engineer who had an instrumental role in shaping the city of Lowell. His numerous inventions and his contributions to landscape and city planning exemplify the layered connections between human interventions and the environment this series hopes to underscore.

This annual event is sponsored by the the UMass Lowell Architectural Studies Program, the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department to foster inter-disciplinary connections for students, faculty and the public.

For more information, contact Marie Frank by email:

  • James B. Francis headshot Image by University of Massachusetts Lowell, University Library, Center for Lowell History Photograph Collection: LF8475_UML_Francis, James B.

    James B. Francis (1815-1892) spent the majority of his career in Lowell, Massachusetts, “the first successful planned industrial city in America” (NPS). As the Chief Engineer of Locks and Canals, Francis had a pivotal role shaping the city—not just through the construction of a canal system that determined its urban plan, but also through locomotive transportation lines, flood protection systems, fire suppression systems, and gas lighting. His numerous inventions for efficient operation of the mills gained him an international reputation—the Francis Turbine he invented c.1850 is still in use today, most notably in the Three Rivers Gorge Dam in China.

    Born in Oxfordshire, England, Francis immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. Formally unschooled but with a natural propensity for mathematics and mechanics, Francis found work in Connecticut designing railroads under the engineer George Washington Whistler (father of the artist James Abbot McNeill Whistler). Whistler brought the young Francis with him to Lowell in 1834 to work for the owners of the canal system in the city. Whistler himself soon left for an opportunity to build railways in Russia in 1837, and appointed Francis, just 22 years old, as his successor as the Chief Engineer of Locks and Canals. Francis held that position until he retired in 1884.

    Francis’s curiosity and creative energy led him to investigate and find solutions for a wide variety of needs in the built environment. His work in hydraulics is perhaps best known—his formula to calculate the flow of water remain the industry standard and his enormous timber flood gate at Guard Locks off the Merrimack River, known locally as Francis’s Folly, has a storied history of saving the city of Lowell on numerous occasions. Beyond hydraulics, Francis conducted tests to better design cast iron girders; he investigated ways to preserve timber, to install sprinkler systems to control fires, and to install gas lines to light cities. He wrote over 200 technical papers and was a founding member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (and its president in 1880). He was also elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1865. Without doubt, Francis is regarded as one of the most influential civil engineers of the 19th century.


  • 2023

    Red Hot Cities: The Environmental and Community Impact of Urban Heat Islands

    September 27, 2023

    Extreme heat has become increasingly frequent and devastating. The construction of our cities critically contributes to increased temperatures and CO2 emissions. Because of their dense concentrations of buildings, pavements, and other surfaces that absorb and radiate heat, cities have higher temperatures than outlying areas with trees and vegetation. These “Urban Heat Islands” require more energy to cool, have increased air pollution and impact the health and well-being of the community.

    Lucy Hutyra, Katherine Moses, Marie Frank, Jess Wilson and Sophie Mortimer pose for a photo in front of a collage of images and a QR code. Image by Allison Widdop

    Left to right: Lucy Hutyra, Katherine Moses, Marie Frank, Jess Wilson, Sophie Mortimer.

    Learn more about the issues involved and the City of Lowell’s initiatives.

    • Lucy R. Hutyra, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, provided an overview of the issues involved: “Heat in the city - Understanding the What, Where, and How to Advance Climate Solutions”.
    • Katherine Moses, (MSE, ’12), City of Lowell Department of Public Works Energy Manager, with Sophie Mortimer and Jess Wilson, provided a case study of Lowell’s efforts to lower city temperatures: “Beating the Heat: How the City of Lowell is Working with the Community to Address Urban Heat Islands”.

    Professor Lucy Hutyra’s areas of specialization include urban climate and biogeochemistry, remote sensing, and vegetation ecology. Trained as a physical scientist, over the years Professor Hutyra’s research has become ever more focused on the climate and ecology of cities, working at the science-policy interface. Prof. Hutyra is a 2023 recipient of the MacArthur Fellow genius award.

    Katherine Moses developed her love for Lowell and passion for creating sustainable solutions that improve the quality of life in the community while pursuing her MSE in Energy Engineering (solar option) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (‘12). Her work with the city focuses on implementation and tracking of solutions for climate change, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, strategic electrification, climate resilience, and environmental justice.

    Sophie Mortimer serves as the city’s Neighborhood Planner. She graduated from Concordia University, Montreal, with a degree in human environment which drives her work on community engagement and local built environment projects that aim to enhance Lowellians’ quality of life.

    Jess Wilson, serves as a design planner for the city. She received her Landscape Architecture degree from RISD and is an AICP-certified planner. She focuses on addressing environmental justice and equity through the implementation of the City’s Open Space and Recreation Plan.


    Keeping Boston Above Water: Engineering Solutions Then and Now to Make and Protect Boston's Waterfront

    Lori Weeden, Nancy Seasholes, Marie Frank, Julie Eaton Ernst at the 2022 James B. Francis Lecture on the Built Environment Image by Ed Brennen

    Left to right: Lori Weeden, Nancy Seasholes, Marie Frank, Julie Eaton Ernst

    September 28, 2022

    Like many coastal cities, Boston faces imminent challenges as sea levels rise. Boston’s situation has the added complexity, however, that so much of it consists of man-made land: the waterfront, the Back Bay, and Logan Airport, for example, are all the result of construction efforts to enlarge the habitable land of the original small peninsula. What are the implications of rising sea levels for this made land?

    Nancy S. Seasholes, historian and archaeologist, is the acclaimed authority on Boston’s made land. Her groundbreaking books, Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (MIT Press, 2003) and The Atlas of Boston History (University of Chicago Press, 2019), exhaustively detail the efforts of Bostonians from the Colonial period to the present to create more land. Her talk will highlight the extent of made land, the reasons it is so vulnerable to sea level rise and the different ways the land was made.

    Julie Eaton Ernst, PE (UMass Lowell Civil Engineering, B.S. Eng ’14, M.S. Eng ’17) is a resilience team leader at Weston & Sampson. Julie will speak about integrating climate resilience into the redesign of Moakley Park in South Boston, and the technical challenges given the subsurface of the site and history of land-making. Her talk will address climate change projections for complex urban waterfronts and strategies for implementing resilience on filled tidal lands, including settlement, drainage, underground utilities and contamination.

    Read more about the lecture.