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When it comes to battling climate change and sea rise, what does it mean to be ‘resilient’?

Resiliency is the hot buzzword in developing Boston’s waterfront. But what is it? And might it be better to just not build there at all?

One of the new waterfront developments in East Boston, Clippership Wharf, was built several feet above grade and has a deployable flood barrier to protect areas from flooding.Jonathan Wiggs

The shoreline of East Boston tells a story of vulnerability and risk. New residential buildings crowd the waterfront for a share of city views as more and more people move to the water’s edge. The area’s lone major grocery store, a Shaw’s Market, stands just beyond the lapping tide, its parking lot frequently flooded during storms. The East Boston Greenway, a low-lying bike path, also floods, and becomes a conduit for rushing water. Maps that model the effects of sea level rise by century’s end depict floods that could return East Boston to what it was two centuries ago: a series of islands.

Steps are now being taken to make East Boston more “resilient” to climate change. The city invested $100,000 for a portable flood wall that can be deployed along the Greenway. One of the new waterfront developments, Clippership Wharf, is raised several feet above grade and has a deployable flood barrier to protect areas from flooding. And Climate Ready Boston, the city’s climate adaptation initiative, has produced ideas for parks and other features that could help stop floodwaters from reaching neighborhoods.


But what does it mean to be truly resilient to climate change? Resilience sounds like an appealing goal, but it’s a difficult characteristic to pin down. Whereas cities set specific targets for mitigating climate change — like Boston’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 — measuring how well the city can weather the impacts of climate change is much harder. How can taking resiliency measures be reconciled with allowing more people to move to the waterfront? As the stakes rise for protecting the city from flooding, the city’s leaders and residents will increasingly need to ask: What does climate resilience really look like?

“RESILIENCE” IS A familiar word with a seemingly intuitive meaning, but it is has different definitions in different disciplines. For example, in urban planning and policy, resilience isn’t a specific thing but rather a pastiche of ideas drawn from ecology, disaster management, engineering, and psychology, says Sara Meerow, a researcher at Arizona State University.


Derived from the Latin word for springing back, “resilience” became prominent in the middle of the 20th century, when psychologists began applying the term to people who remained well-adjusted after traumatic experiences Engineers used resilience to describe how much pressure a material or structure could withstand before failing, a concept that has also been applied to engineered systems like utility grids. By the end of the century, resilience also had become a popular idea in disaster management and international development; the idea was to help communities resist and recover from natural disasters that were becoming more and more common with the dual pressures of population growth and climate change.

Meanwhile, a more dynamic view of resilience emerged in ecology. Coined in the 1970s by ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling, “ecological resilience” emphasizes how systems adapt, transform, and self-organize in response to both short-term disruptions and long-term stress. It inspired a wave of multidisciplinary research into how humans interact with their environment as so-called “social-ecological systems.” The nonprofit research group Resilience Alliance has promoted “resilience thinking” as a new way of making societal transformations in response to environmental crises like climate change.

One of the key tensions in these various understandings of resilience is how they contextualize change. Meerow says that ecological ideas about resilience have helped to push urban leaders to think harder about cities as complex, dynamic systems. “It’s about expecting the unexpected and really trying to make sure that your system is flexible, as opposed to planning for very specific risks,” she says.


But Jesse Keenan, a social scientist at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has found that people working in planning in the United States tend to fall back on more static ideas about resilience. He says that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, resilience became “a way that people in sort of lay terms express the stability and the relative persistence of the American psyche after 9/11.”

That kind of sentiment resonates well with efforts like the Boston Resiliency Fund, launched by Mayor Martin J. Walsh to give financial support to first responders, health workers, families, and other vulnerable residents during the current coronavirus pandemic. It’s about helping people bounce back from a temporary upheaval. But Keenan questions whether resilience should be the primary goal for addressing climate change, which will bring both temporary and long-term disruptions. Resilience is “a pretty conservative concept because it’s about a reversion to the status quo.” He sees the popularity of resilience in climate change discussions in the United States as shaped by conservative politics. “We moved our general thinking in public policy away from ‘adaptation’ because Republicans in Congress didn’t like the idea of transformative adaptation,” he says. Resilience can be appealing to governments and business leaders because it works to preserve what’s already in place, rather than challenging existing power structures.


Social scientists have pointed out that the tendency to see resilience as a win-win makes it hard to see potential inequalities in climate investments. “If we’re going to say that it’s always positive to be resilient, that we want to be resilient, then this makes the term more political and more fraught,” says Meerow, “because then who gets to decide what that normative vision looks like?” In reality, resilience involves tradeoffs: building resilience for one community, institution, or piece of infrastructure could be harmful to another.

DEBATES ABOUT THE meaning of resilience can seem academic, but they reflect tensions that may impact Boston’s residents in the future. Just as the coronavirus outbreak seems to be disproportionately affecting minority neighborhoods and other vulnerable residents in the city, research suggests that the impacts of climate change will be uneven. After hiring a Chief Resilience Officer with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Boston adopted a uniquely social perspective, issuing a report in 2014 that underscored longstanding racial and economic inequities as threats to the city’s resilience. Chris Cook, the city’s chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, says that the city’s definition of climate resilience means “addressing racial equity along with the physical, environmental, and economic threats facing our city.”

As he puts it, “Who you’re protecting is far more important than what you’re protecting.”

Cook says that equity has helped drive the city’s priorities, putting projects like the East Boston flood wall and a redesign of Moakley Park in Dorchester at the forefront. Still, it can be hard to see difficult questions of racial and socioeconomic justice being addressed on the waterfront. The mayor’s Resilient Boston Harbor vision focuses on flood-protective infrastructure and parks, and the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s resilience planning has focused on flood-proofing measures in new buildings. Some community activists have voiced concerns that investments in new waterfront infrastructure, resilient housing, and parks may hasten the waterfront gentrification that’s already squeezing communities with high rents, a phenomenon that social scientists call “green gentrification.”


And the irony of taking resiliency measures in East Boston while at the same time creating more places to live on the waterfront isn’t lost on East Boston’s residents, many of whom are low-income, Latino, and recent immigrants. Magdalena Ayed, the executive director of Harborkeepers, a grassroots environmental organization in East Boston, lives in a subsidized apartment just behind one of the new waterfront developments. She’s been involved in the city’s planning for East Boston but has grown frustrated by how little has actually been done. “Resilience,” she says, “can be interpreted in so many different ways, and at the end of the day, there isn’t a systems change.” Increasingly, communities are beginning to ask for more scrutiny and community input into the impacts of so-called resilient waterfront developments, like a planned project in the Port Norfolk area of Dorchester and the massive Suffolk Downs redevelopment currently in planning.

Another tension often glossed over in discussions of resilience is the scale at which it’s being pursued. A recent study led by Linda Shi at Cornell University found that the largest recent and proposed developments in the Boston Metro area were at risk of flooding with six feet of sea level rise, a scenario that could drain up to 10 to 25 percent of current municipal revenues. By continuing to develop flood-prone areas — including investing $18 billion in public money into the Seaport and planning one of the largest new developments in the city’s history at the former Suffolk Downs — Boston risks losing an opportunity to promote a longer-term resilience to keep the city thriving in the face of sea level rise.

To think long-term, the city must reckon with its past: more than 5,000 acres of watery marshes and mudflats that were transformed into low-lying land with fill over centuries. Much of this land will be vulnerable to tidal or storm-related flooding under sea level rise, in addition to flooding from increased precipitation. “The changes we’ve made to the built environment have worked,” says Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, “but what we have now is not going to continue working in the future.” As city leaders have been debating plans for developing Widett Circle, a 300-acre industrial parcel of filled land between South Boston and the South End, Norton’s organization helped champion an alternative unheard of in Boston planning discussions: Don’t develop the land at all, and instead restore it to its previous role as a wetland, where it could protect nearby areas from flooding by absorbing runoff from storms.

But in a city that gets much of its tax revenue from new development, such proposals are unlikely to gain headway without a shift in priorities and funding. Ayed of Harborkeepers says that while her organization supports the climate resilient measures being added to new developments, “it seems almost like the elephant in the room: How are you going to build this waterfront development when we are also acknowledging as a city, as a country, that building on the water’s edge is really risky?”

Courtney Humphries is a freelance journalist and a PhD candidate in environmental sciences at UMass Boston.