East Boston is one of the neighborhoods in Boston most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise. It is also home to a thriving and diverse community of residents, many of whom have been historically excluded from the political process. A wide variety of factors contributes to this disconnection, such as systemic racism, immigration status, language barriers, fear of government, and inability to join community meetings because of the demands of working multiple jobs or caring for family.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sea level rise projection report released in February made clear that we have no time to waste in implementing climate resilience plans for Boston neighborhoods. Planning, financing and building infrastructure to prevent destruction from projected sea level rise is complex and will take time. The urgency, however, should not get in the way of a truly inclusive process.
Mayor Michelle Wu ran on a platform of making a green future work for all Bostonians and has articulated a commitment to community engagement and government accountability. The decision to focus on an East Boston Municipal Harbor Plan, while pausing the plans for downtown, is an exciting signal that the administration is working to make good on Wu’s promises. As the city begins this next phase of resilience planning in East Boston, our recent research, Opportunity in the Complexity: Recommendations for Equitable Climate Resilience in East Boston, shows there are a few key places to focus on to make sure this work will result in more equitable adaptation efforts.
▪ Ensure that the process is truly accessible. Language and cultural barriers have plagued planning efforts in East Boston, where the majority of residents’ first language is not English. The initial step is to ensure it is just as easy to participate in planning efforts in Spanish as it is in English. In addition, working with a wide range of local organizations and with neutral mediators or facilitators will allow residents to feel more comfortable being honest about their hopes and concerns than they would working exclusively with professionals hired from outside the community who have little grasp of local dynamics. Going to places people are already congregating and doing so in a way that is accessible to everyone will also foster more open and democratic processes. Employing these strategies will unearth a deeper understanding of the assets and strengths of East Boston and the opportunities for community resilience that can be leveraged in the planning efforts.
▪ Focus on social resilience, not just physical resilience. While it is essential to craft and implement plans focused on safeguarding homes and infrastructure, true climate resilience goes beyond the built environment. By creating space for historically disenfranchised communities to express and plan around their primary needs and concerns, the city of Boston can cultivate social resilience, which is also essential for confronting climate impacts. Challenges like the housing crisis — which severs neighborhood connections when people are forced to move frequently — or the ability to access jobs and get paid during and after a storm are also climate resilience challenges. By expanding focus beyond the built environment, we can connect technical solutions for adaptation to community ideas and priorities and develop more holistic and just strategies for adaptation.
▪ Increase frequency and transparency in monitoring success. Through an open democratic planning process, community members can define for themselves what a climate-resilient East Boston looks like. Developing metrics based on this definition and monitoring frequently will ensure that, as measures are implemented, East Boston remains on the path toward resilience as defined by the community. If key indicators like evictions or unemployment start to spike, residents, local organizations, and the city can partner to evaluate if implementation of climate resilience efforts contributed to the spikes, address them quickly, and work together to ensure that further implementation does not result in troubling changes in the neighborhood.
Our research shows East Boston residents care about their neighborhood and value their waterfront, are worried about sea level rise and climate change, and want to make sure that flood prevention strategies don’t result in accelerated displacement and gentrification. Given how diverse East Boston is, it’s no surprise that there is a wide variety of opinion about how to best make it resilient to the impacts of climate change. With a focus on inclusion, a broad definition of resilience, and transparent monitoring, the Wu administration has an exciting opportunity to move toward just and equitable adaptation in East Boston.
Patricio Belloy is a PhD candidate at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston; Rebecca Herst is director of the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston; and Antonio Raciti is an assistant professor in the department of urban planning and community development in the School for the Environment at UMass Boston.