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Boston’s vulnerable waterfront system: reactivating the city’s 47 miles of coastline to increase access and resiliency in the face of rising tides and temperatures

Planning for a more resilient Boston Harbor

Back in 2016, the City of Boston released an action plan to combat climate change as part of Imagine Boston 2030, a document outlining the government’s plan for the future of Boston. Known as Climate Ready Boston, this initiative includes updated climate projections, vulnerability assessments and climate resilience strategies, as well as establishes eight focus areas for investment where risks, particularly coastal and riverine flooding, are spatially concentrated. The report highlighted three major threats to the city in the coming decades: sea level rise, extreme heat and extreme precipitation.

Aerial View of Boston (Source Wikimedia/Greenway Conservancy)
Aerial View of Boston (Source Wikimedia/Greenway Conservancy)

Boston is most threatened by its greatest asset, the waterfront, due to the effects of climate change. Projections from the Climate Ready Boston report indicate that sea levels may be as much as 3 feet higher in 2070, causing severe implications on financial resources, stormwater management, and built infrastructure. In 2018, Mayor Walsh published Resilient Boston Harbor, which is the City’s plan to reactivate the waterfront as a public space and agent of coastal resilience to combat these climate projections. SCAPE, a landscape architecture firm based out of New York, developed the vision behind the plan, completing renderings of a revitalized Boston Harbor that features a complex intermingling of parks, boulevards and recreational spaces to reconnect Boston to its waterfront and serve as a solution to the impacts of climate change.

2020: Turning plans into action

Last summer, Martin’s Park opened in honor of the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombings, Martin W. Richard. It is an inclusive play space that is disability-accessible, while also serving as a vegetative buffer for the Seaport, as it sits directly on the Harborwalk on the South Boston waterfront. The park included protective measures against future flooding, including raising parts of the park to prevent flood pathways and adding mini piles and planting beds reinforced with stone to mitigate slope erosion during higher tides.

Last October, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), in consultation with a team of engineering, site planning, stormwater management professionals, as well as the nonprofit groups A Better City and Boston Harbor Now, transformed many flood resilience strategies into best practices in a report of design guidelines to serve as a reference for residents, business owners and developers. These guidelines correspond with a recommended zoning overlay of at-risk areas in Boston neighborhoods, which would require that any new development in the designated zone be subject to a resilience review.

Balancing resilience building and socio-economic needs

Despite seeking to prepare Boston for the future, guidelines like these and other resilience-building initiatives can further propagate socioeconomic divides within the city. According to a Conservation Law Foundation poll conducted last July, there is a great racial disparity on how welcoming the waterfront is, with 24 percent of black respondents and 20 percent of Hispanic ones indicating feeling unwelcome, which is deeply in contrast with 13 percent of respondents overall. Many respondents stressed the recent expansion of the Seaport as a “ridiculous lost opportunity” to offer accessible, inclusive waterfront spaces for all. WBUR published a study that revealed a correlation between added green spaces and neighborhoods becoming “wealthier, more educated, and whiter”. Climate gentrification is already occurring, particularly through private development, and can lead to the large-scale displacement of poorer neighborhoods. This couples with the city’s development needs to increase affordability to ensure the sustainable residence of Boston’s current, multicultural population and curb growing inequalities.

Looking ahead

Boston Harborwalk along Fort Point Channel (Source Wikimedia/NewtonCourt)
Boston Harborwalk along Fort Point Channel (Source Wikimedia/NewtonCourt)

The City of Boston has stressed engaging with the community throughout this revitalization process and prioritizing public access. A local wetlands ordinance was signed into law last December, creating a Waterfront zone to act as a buffer between the harbor and any development, as well as expanding protections to include isolated vegetated wetlands, vernal pools and vernal pool habitat. On top of that, this ordinance supports the recent flood guidelines from the BPDA by establishing Flood Resilience Zones that will protect residents who are disproportionately impacted by climate change. This ordinance limits private development and is a leap towards achieving genuinely public spaces on the City’s waterfront.

Boston is only accelerating its pace of development. Some inspiring plans to watch out for this year include a redesign of the Harborwalk in front of the Boston Children’s Museum, a long-overdue revitalization of Moakley Park in Dorchester, Boston’s largest waterfront park, and a reintroduction of the Northern Ave Bridge over Fort Point Channel as a car-free crossing with a waterfront park below.

Climate vulnerability is a multifaceted issue that has the potential to foster critical change in many pressing issues across cities. Preparing for the impacts of climate change requires more than combating rising tides and temperatures: rather, building resilience throughout the intricate matrix of communities so that no one group is displaced in the process.

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