In dense harbor cities like Boston, planners are only now coming to grips with the scale of the changes that will be required to cope with rising sea levels. As “100-year” storms become far more frequent and surges top 15 feet, the journal Environment@Harvard has predicted that the changing climate will likely “make most of Boston briefly part of the Atlantic Ocean” at least once by 2050 and suggested the damage would cost more than $400 billion in today’s dollars.
Plans to protect big cities from the sea usually focus on offshore infrastructure like the floodgates that protect London and Rotterdam, which cost billions of dollars. But a truly smart agenda would direct that investment into the city itself, inaugurating a new era of urban
resilience that protects Boston while also making it more livable and competitive.
Along the roughly five miles of shoreline from Moon Island to Pleasure Bay, we could build a “Blue Necklace” of wetlands, expanded beaches, biking trails, and boardwalks—some extending hundreds of feet into the sea. A 21st-century partner to the Emerald Necklace, this natural levee would diminish the force of onrushing waves, while also strengthening our connection to the sea as a place for learning and recreation.
Rounding Castle Island we find a landscape with very different demands. The Boston Marine Industrial Park will need a new generation of cruise ship terminals, dry-docks, cargo bays, and other facilities to withstand rising seas and better serve the port. Further west, we could build a denser, more amenity-rich Seaport. Innovative buildings and public spaces on piers could form sea walls that would protect this growing neighborhood from flooding.
Boston is not an island; opportunities like these extend to the North and South shores. We have a relatively short window of time in which to act. Yet we also have the chance, through a new plan that advances our city toward urban resilience, to create a legacy worthy of any mayor and of this generation of Bostonians.
David Dixon, FAIA, leads Goody Clancy’s planning and urban design practice and is the coauthor of “Urban Design for an Urban Century: Shaping More Livable, Equitable, and Resilient Cities” (Wiley, March 2014).