Boston has a long history of using parks to improve the everyday lives of its residents.
The Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was imagined as a “green ribbon” sprawl of open space providing an escape from what was then an increasingly industrial, polluted city. It was this idea of using parks as a means for public good and well-being that led to the founding of the Trustees of Reservations in 1891 by Olmsted protégé Charles Eliot.
Today, Boston’s need for open space is even greater due to the impacts of climate change compounded by continued waterfront development. Open spaces are becoming more and more rare along the waterfront, which is why we support a network of waterfront parks and look forward to working with Boston’s mayor on plans like the city’s draft plan for greater open space along the Fort Point Channel. If more open spaces are not conceived and built now, the opportunity for future generations will be lost.
Boasting more than 2,300 acres of parkland, Boston faces a turning point as a waterfront city. The effects of climate change already threaten our neighborhoods, businesses, and places of historic and cultural value and are expected to accelerate in as little as 30 years — one need look no further than winter 2018, when Long Wharf stood under several feet of water. Projected flood pathways stretch ever inland, with sea levels forecast to rise nearly two feet by 2050.
Six years ago, my colleagues and I began questioning how we could continue to be a leader in land conservation if we were not also working to improve Boston’s waterfront. It was, for a 125-year-old land conservation organization, a bold thought. With the support of our members, funders, and partner organizations, this idea became our Boston Waterfront Initiative, and at the end of 2020, with site developer designation from Massport, we announced our first park location: Piers Park III in East Boston.
According to the city’s Climate Ready analysis, one of the neighborhoods most at risk from sea level rise and storm surge is East Boston. Its Marginal Street waterfront is the most likely location for coastal flooding. With a 1 percent annual chance of flooding, waters could reach the MBTA Blue Line tunnel near Bremen Street Park, and possibly the Sumner and Callahan tunnels, according to the analysis. East Boston boasts a rich, culturally diverse population and is, historically, a community with less access to open space than other Boston neighborhoods.
Today Piers Park III is a dilapidated pier on Marginal Street, set squarely between Piers Park I and the Boston skyline. Our first design, created by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., using input from community meetings (in English and Spanish) and online feedback, shows the potential of what this site can be: a world-class park, free and open to the public, a place for respite, inclusive programming, and for celebrating life’s moments — weddings, birthdays — built using resilient infrastructure that helps absorb floodwaters and buffer storm surge. A special place that serves the community while also protecting it.
Green space on our waterfront is a critical adaptation measure and one of the strategies featured in the city’s Resilient Boston Harbor plan. A raised, grassy park with native plantings and salt marsh can help act as a natural, resilient sponge that “bounces back” after a significant disruption. It’s a strategy being used to protect at-risk neighborhoods in cities around the globe — like Crissy Field in San Francisco and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York — absorbing rainwater, greening neighborhoods, and mitigating climate change-driven storms and sea level rise.
One waterfront park in one neighborhood is a good beginning. With ongoing pressures of development along and near the waterfront, the city must prioritize redevelopment opportunities for creating these kinds of resilient, green public spaces before the chance to adapt our shores is lost. A recent Superior Court ruling reaffirms that the public’s right to access the waterfront must remain protected. And we must do so in a way that prioritizes vulnerable communities, making the waterfront a more welcoming place not just for some but for all. For us, this initiative speaks to the heart of our mission and must be followed by other projects of similar scope and magnitude.
The real strength in this work will be partnerships and increased collaborative efforts. Organizations, businesses, and residents must act: Voice support for a greener waterfront. Together, let us adapt our shores today for a more resilient tomorrow.
Jocelyn Forbush is acting CEO and president of the Trustees of Reservations.