The water is relentless, as anybody from Beachmont or Orient Heights can testify. During some storms it comes in from Belle Isle Marsh and washes across Bennington Street and finds its way to the Blue Line tracks. It courses into culverts so fast, plumes of water start shooting up out of stormwater drains, like menacing geysers.
In the years ahead, climate change is expected to make everything much worse. The stretch of East Boston and Revere, dotted by marshland, inlets, and creeks, will get blasted with a projected 40 inches of sea level rise. An existing floodgate and pump station won’t stand a chance. As California deals with increasingly intense wildfires, and heat wave records are shattered in Europe, the Boston region’s most vulnerable areas wait their turn to confront disaster.
But here’s some good news amid the doom and gloom: Help is on the way. There are smart people on the case — small armies of designers, engineers, philanthropists, private developers, and municipal leaders, working quietly to plan and implement innovative approaches to both keep the water out and let it in to be absorbed by natural systems.
And though a challenge of this magnitude has warranted a national response in the past, what’s remarkable is that this climate militia — here and around the country — is mobilizing exclusively at the local level. They’re like NASA scientists 50 years ago, but without a moonshot speech or moonshot funding.
“We recognize that we can’t wait,” said Carl Spector, Boston’s environmental commissioner.
Even if all carbon emissions were stopped tomorrow, the planet will still be dealing with life-changing disruptions. Cities everywhere are facing up to the inevitable impacts of climate change — as a matter akin to police and fire protection. For such places as East Boston and other vulnerable spots along the city’s 47 miles of shoreline, an intentional, integrated effort, with several different players pitching in, promises to build resilience similar to the way the Dutch have successfully managed the encroachment of the sea.
Here and elsewhere, the local government is taking the lead. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced a resilience game plan for Boston Harbor in the fall of last year, to rousing applause at a Chamber of Commerce event. Building on the previously established program Climate Ready Boston, planners are thinking about today and five and 50 years from now, framing the scope of the threat, and factoring in how different engineering solutions might apply to a range of danger zones. If there was a situation room, Fort Point Channel and the Seaport, Sullivan Square in Charlestown, and East Boston would all be blinking red.
Private landowners and developers are arguably the next most essential players. In East Boston, the redevelopment of the Suffolk Downs horse racing track will include a massive resculpting of the landscape, to redirect, absorb, and store floodwaters, using open space and other techniques. The developer, HYM Investment Group, plans to spend $300 million on infrastructure, and will help design a system of berms well outside the property to help protect Beachmont and Orient Heights. The team shrugs at the notion of anticipating climate impacts, as if nothing could be more obvious for anyone in the real estate business right now. “The water’s coming one way or the other,” said HYM’s Doug Manz.
Then there are the nonprofit sector, civic groups, and academia, doing research on what approaches work best, and encouraging innovative thinking. The Sustainable Solutions Lab at the University of Massachusetts Boston, with funding from the Barr Foundation, cautioned against building a nearly 4-mile outer sea barrier from Winthrop to Hull and also recommended big changes that need to happen in governance and finance. Two major design competitions — the Boston Society of Architects Living with Water and Urban Land Institute Developing Resilience initiatives — raised public awareness about the need to dream big, including putting canals through Back Bay.
That kind of call for ideas, in turn, stirs the blood of the landscape architects, urban planners, and engineers who are coming up with customized solutions in the burgeoning field of green and blue infrastructure — the approach of “designing with nature” rather than focusing on barriers and floodgates made of concrete and steel. Signature projects already underway range from creating floodable parks to using oyster beds as a kind of natural breakwater. The work is lending celebrity to modern-day versions of Frederick Law Olmsted, such as James Corner, designer of the High Line in New York City, who steered the climate-ready redevelopment of Freshkills on Staten Island, where a garbage dump is now a natural oasis.
So the grass-roots mobilization really is good news, right? Yes, for now. But in some ways it’s like counting on rugby players to tackle hijackers on a plane.
“We’ve reached the limit of what design firms and cities can do,” said Billy Fleming, director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at PennDesign, who cautioned against wishful thinking in a provocative essay in Places Journal in the spring. Glossy renderings of one-off projects, he said, simply don’t begin to match the scale of the problem — a national emergency requiring a national response. That means a new arrangement of funding streams and institutional support, a rebooted Army Corps of Engineers, and a sweeping organizational framework like the Green New Deal. “Adapting to climate change and decarbonizing the economy — these are huge structural things.”
Colleagues in the design professions can best do their part, Fleming said, by “managing up,” more like the namesake of his center, Ian McHarg, a Hemingway-esque 20th-century planner who built political coalitions, worked at a larger regional scale, and advised the Nixon White House on early environmental interventions.
Boston is typical in making do in the meantime, applying for a $10 million grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for work on Fort Point Channel, for example. On the matter of paying for climate resilience, the state is poised to help, with a proposed $1.3 billion package; the Legislature would borrow the money, while Governor Charlie Baker sought funding through a new real estate excise tax. Other financing mechanisms include value capture, which harnesses a portion of increased real estate values that result from government actions, like infrastructure investments or rezoning for development on higher ground.
State government can also help with logistical items, including revising Chapter 91, the tough laws regulating what can be done at the shoreline. “That was put in place before we knew as much about climate change,” said Goulston & Storrs attorney Matthew Kiefer. Some earth is going to need to be moved that is technically afoul of rules meant to guard against improper filling of wetlands.
But there are some things only a national approach can achieve, said Susannah Drake, principal at DLANDstudio in Brooklyn, who urges the creation of something similar to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration to organize collective action. A national database showing updated information on floodplains, ecosystems, and topography would be a huge help. “We don’t have all the right tools to make change,” she said. “We need more people to engage in a meaningful way, not an eye-candy kind of way.”
Sharing research-supported best practices nationwide also would help local communities walk and chew gum at the same time — that is, implement resilience measures that not only fend off disaster but reduce carbon emissions in the process. Berms that are constructed could support bike paths on top, in one small example. Combining adaptation and mitigation, in climate parlance, serves to prepare for the worst while making future conditions less drastic over the long term.
Even then, will it be enough? The people living around Belle Isle Marsh — and in Hoboken or Miami Beach — are watching and waiting.