scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Boston’s sea-level rise will require a ‘Big Dig level’ solution, city leaders say

A Thursday hearing focused on how to defend Boston’s coastline against rising seas, but practical solutions remain unclear.

A woman watches as waves crash into Fan Pier along the Seaport district in Boston, MA, Mar. 3, 2018.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff File

Boston officials on Thursday stressed the urgent need to prepare the city’s waterfront for the reality of climate change, urging for a broad, holistic approach to defenses from rising sea levels, rather than a parcel-by-parcel strategy that relies on individual development projects.

As part of that effort, the Wu administration intends to hire an infrastructure planner who can target available federal funding, the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s chief of environment, energy, and open spaces, said at a Thursday hearing of the Boston City Council.

“For all of the planning we’ve done, the real focus now is on implementation,” White-Hammond said. “We don’t have a lot of time.”


A recent federal report forecast that, by 2050, sea levels in Boston will be 16 inches higher than they were at the start of the century.

Preparing for this will cost billions, new Chief Planner Arthur Jemison said. The city has historically relied on real estate developers and individual property owners to implement flood-protection and resiliency measures within their own property lines, he said, but has thus far been missing a comprehensive, coordinated climate change effort.

“Some of us are focused on programming waterfronts. Others of us are focused on sea walls and infrastructure,” he said. “The most imminent threat to all of us is the absence of the dollars ... (and) coordination required to actually implement the changes.”

Jemison touted Boston’s strong revenue base and AAA credit rating and “unprecedented state and federal dollars available to attack these efforts.” In his former role as a top official at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Jemison’s team allocated $80 billion to communities recovering from disasters — almost all of which had a direct relationship to climate change.

Jemison, who is also director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said the BPDA would be developing more climate resilience plans across the city. He highlighted recommendations in the Resilient Boston Harbor report, issued in 2019, as an example of the type of infrastructure work that could be done to both protect the city from a coastal storm and increase public space along the waterfront.


But not every waterfront property owner is capable of taking on flood-mitigation projects to protect their portion of land from being inundated by rising seas — nor do they all see the threat the same way. A warehouse owner may feel less urgency or risk about owning property in a flood plain than a homeowner in the same area, White-Hammond noted.

“If we’re going to raise resources, we have to look at solutions that address multiple challenges,” White-Hammond said.

Newly elected District 1 City Councilor Gabriela Coletta called for the hearing on comprehensive waterfront planning in her first act as a councilor after winning a special election in May. Coletta whose district includes East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, spoke of her visceral reaction to viewing flood maps showing anticipated sea-level rise by 2030 and beyond.

“I look at these maps, and homes of my family and friends are in them,” said Coletta, who grew up in East Boston. “That is why I’m bringing this urgency to this space. ... I think that this is Big Dig level.”

The hearing included testimony from a number of community and waterfront advocates, including the Trustees of Reservations, East Boston housing group Neighborhood of Affordable Housing Inc., and the Stone Living Lab.


“We’ve seen numerous parks and private developments reshape the Boston waterfront over the past several decades. In the meantime, the planning strategies across multiple levels of government have not changed to meet new challenges,” said Kelly Sherman, manager of waterfront design for Boston Harbor Now. “A ‘build it and they will come’ mentality is no longer sufficient to address pressing crises.”

Rick Musiol, vice president of external affairs for the New England Aquarium, likened a holistic approach to harborwide planning to Boston’s past citywide infrastructure efforts, including the Big Dig and the cleanup of the Boston Harbor.

“Harborwide resiliency is Boston’s next big project,” he said.

Catherine Carlock can be reached at Follow her @bycathcarlock.