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A Boston Harbor coastal resiliency system? ‘Layered defense’

The New Bedford model of coastal resiliency works. Boston should follow suit.

Nasser Brahim, senior planner in climate risk and resiliency at Kleinfelder, displays a flood map of greater Boston in December 2019.Adam Glanzman/The Washington Post

Devastated by multiple nor’easters that have shut down Logan Airport, flooded Boston’s downtown and Seaport District, and inundated Boston Harbor neighborhoods from Hull to Winthrop, it’s clear the entire Boston Harbor coastal region is dangerously vulnerable to increasingly frequent and more destructive extreme storm events due to the climate crisis.

To preserve the Boston Metropolitan region as New England’s economic engine and hub of cultural and social diversity, we must act now to protect the 15 cities and towns that are linked to Boston Harbor from future storm-surge flooding. The flood protection choices of two cities, New Bedford and New York, represent divergent public policy decisions that can inform and guide coastal resiliency options for the Boston Harbor metro region.


Eight years after Hurricane Sandy caused 44 deaths and $19 billion in damages in New York, the city has chosen to reject a regional sea gate system and to rely solely on a 15-to-20-foot-high land-based combined sea-level-rise and storm-surge barrier. As a result, New York has not built a single linear foot of storm-surge land-based protection, leaving its business districts and residential neighborhoods as vulnerable now as they were when Sandy devastated the city. In fact, the only city-developed project that has completed design and is scheduled for construction is a 2.4-mile park on the East River of the city’s more that 500 miles of coastline.

New Bedford, on the other hand, has been protected continuously and reliably for over 50 years from storm-surge devastation with its regional sea gate system. In developing our Boston Harbor coastal resiliency system, the 15 cities and towns that flood through the Massachusetts Bay opening to Boston Harbor have the opportunity to benefit directly from developing a regional Boston Harbor coastal resiliency system based on New Bedford’s successful sea gate system.


While the City of Boston has taken the lead with its nationally acclaimed Climate Ready Boston initiative and the City of Quincy has spearheaded a regional response by bringing together public and private sector leaders from the 15 communities, there is still no regional coastal resiliency plan for all Boston Harbor communities. As a result, each municipality is now faced with an “every city and town for itself” competition for design and construction funds with no common design standards or systems integration between communities.

Instead of the current go-it-alone approach, all municipalities could be included in the fully integrated “layered defense” regional plan advocated by the City of Quincy. By implementing on a regional basis the land-based coastal resiliency innovations of Climate Ready Boston, combined with the regional system success of New Bedford, the Boston Harbor metro region can develop and construct an integrated regional layered defense system. As proposed by Quincy, layered defense would consist of an outer harbor regional sea gate system from Hull to Winthrop that would protect all 15 municipalities from the more urgent threat of storm-surge devastation, as well as an integrated local land-based municipal system of green and gray infrastructure designed to protect low-lying communities from gradual sea-level rise as developed by Climate Ready Boston.

Such a layered defense would extend and optimize the success of the Climate Ready Boston program and the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, by integrating the local land-based coastal resiliency plans with the regional benefits of a Boston Harbor regional sea gate system that would protect the entire Boston Harbor metro area for a hundred years or more.


In considering the advantages of a regional layered defense system over a land-based seawall-only system, it is important to consider that without a sea gate system, all marine operations, including all ferry services, commercial marine docks and piers, marinas, terminals, condo wharves, and other structures too expensive to be encircled with seawalls, as well as the rapidly eroding Harbor Islands, would be on the wrong side of the land-based coastal perimeter seawall and would be repeatedly devastated by storm-surge flooding.

A regional seagate system would universally protect all neighborhoods in a manner consistent with our highest social and environmental justice values, ensuring that it was not just the wealthy neighborhoods or individual office buildings with flood resistance designs that were protected from the devastation of coastal flooding.

We must act now to develop a Boston Harbor Regional Layered Defense Plan that keeps our citizens safe, meets our social and environmental justice goals, preserves our natural environment, and protects our regional economy for the next 100 years or more.

Bill Golden is a former Massachusetts state senator who helped to shape the Environmental Protection Agency.