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The Boston waterfront is exclusive and expensive, and a new coalition wants to change that

Poll finds Black and Latino residents are more likely to want the waterfront to include events that reflect the city’s diversity, affordable food options and good jobs for local residents

A coalition of waterfront and neighborhood groups is pushing to increase public access and opportunity along Boston's 47 miles of shoreline.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

We’ve long talked about Boston’s waterfront growing less accessible and less affordable. Now a poll confirms those concerns break strikingly along income levels and racial lines with Black, Latino, and Asian American residents most worried about being cut off.

The poll, commissioned by a new group called the Coalition for a Resilient and Inclusive Waterfront, indicates that just over half of Boston residents visit the waterfront frequently or sometimes in a normal year, and they strongly support new open space and public parks along the water’s edge.

Younger people, ages 18 to 44, tend to visit the waterfront more often, as do those with household incomes of $75,000 or more, according to the poll, which was conducted in June by MassINC Polling Group and is based on a survey of 635 likely voters in Boston.


Only 38 percent agree that the diversity of a city, where people of color make up the majority of the population, is reflected on the waterfront.

But perhaps most illuminating were responses about what should be a “major priority” for the next mayor of Boston as it relates to the city’s 47 miles of shoreline.

While there was substantial support for keeping the waterfront accessible to everyone, there were big differences between white and nonwhite residents on what’s important:

  • 82 percent of Black and Latino respondents and 67 percent of Asian American respondents want events and programs that reflect the city’s diversity, compared to 58 percent of whites surveyed.
  • 82 percent of Latino residents, 78 percent of Black residents, and 68 percent of Asian American residents want affordable food options for families, compared to 57 percent of white residents.
  • 90 percent of Black respondents, 89 percent of Latino respondents, and 80 percent of Asian-American respondents want jobs created for local residents, compared to 71 percent for white respondents.

The poll marks the beginning of how the coalition for a Resilient and Inclusive Waterfront is working to educate and influence candidates and voters on issues affecting Boston’s waterfront in the 2021 municipal elections.

While the group does not plan to endorse anyone, it will host a mayoral forum on July 29 at the New England Aquarium and launch waterfront-related programming to engage the community.

Meanwhile, another group, the Civic Action Project (CAP), also wants mayoral candidates to focus on equity in waterfront development and is engaging the community to craft policy recommendations for the Seaport District and other neighborhoods. The Globe and WBUR are cosponsoring a virtual panel at noon on Tuesday to kick off CAP’s effort. Registration is free.


Harborwalk at Fort Point in the Seaport District. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

The Coalition for a Resilient and Inclusive Waterfront brings together 40 organizations representing a broad range of interests, including A Better City, Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Boston Shipping Association, NAACP Boston Branch, Chinatown Main Streets, Greenroots, and YMCA of Greater Boston.

The effort is funded with a $575,000 grant from the Barr Foundation’s Boston Waterfront Initiative. In recent years, the foundation, set up by former cable media magnate Amos Hostetter and wife Barbara, has emerged as a powerful counterweight to downtown waterfront development by providing financial support to waterfront advocacy groups.

James Morton, chief executive of the YMCA of Greater Boston, said the Y’s involvement grew out of its interest in teaching adults and children how to swim but also believing the waterfront should be something all families can enjoy.

“There are many young people and families who don’t experience the waterfront. They don’t know it’s available to them,” Morton said. “We want to change that.”

At the core of the coalition are three foundational members who have been active on waterfront issues for years: The aquarium, Boston Harbor Now, and the Trustees of Reservations.

Notably, the aquarium has been locked in a high-profile fight over the redevelopment of the Harbor Garage next door. Instead of a 600-foot-tower, the aquarium is pushing the city to go back to the drawing board and approve a project that is more accessible and resilient to climate change. Boston Harbor Now, meanwhile, has long advocated for public access to the water via the Harborwalk, and the Trustees have in recent years grown more involved in trying to create waterfront parks.


The Harbor Garage in Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The poll captures broad support, about 76 percent, for waterfront access, even if it means less land for developers to build on. Protecting the waterfront from rising sea levels was also top of mind for residents, and 83 percent of those surveyed said they would support additional city government funding to protect specific neighborhoods of Boston from climate change.

Vikki Spruill, chief executive of the New England Aquarium, tells me creating the coalition reflects how the future of waterfront development goes beyond the impact on her institution.

“This is bigger than the aquarium,” she said. “Boston has the potential to think big . . . harbor cleanup, the Greenway. Now it’s time to take another big leap in how we are viewing our city as an inclusive, equitable, resilient waterfront.”

Jocelyn Forbush, chief executive of the Trustees of Reservations, which is building Piers Park 3 on land in East Boston owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority, echoed how the time to act is now — with people coming out of a pandemic with a new appreciation for open space, as climate change poses a bigger threat to the waterfront, and a racial reckoning forces a new commitment to equity.


All of this, of course, is taking place during a historic mayoral election.

“This is a moment in time not to be lost,” Forbush said. “There is a shared understanding what is at stake.”

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at