The City of Boston has embarked on a new citywide planning initiative — Imagine Boston 2030. Its aim is to integrate land use planning with many other policy initiatives, such as the mayor’s housing policy and a new arts and culture plan, in time for Boston’s 400th anniversary in 2030.
One big piece of the city should not get left out of the planning — Boston Harbor.
The harbor is enjoying new life. Columbus Park and Liberty Wharf are bustling with people and energy. Marinas are being renovated. The Harbor Island ferries are jammed. The South Boston Innovation District is nearing completion. Developer attention is turning to East Boston and a handful of precious sites downtown: Hook Lobster, Long Wharf, Lewis Wharf, and the Harbor Garage.
We now have 40 wonderful miles of HarborWalk. But one can still walk down the Greenway or Seaport Boulevard without even seeing the harbor. That’s because planning has been fragmented — property-by-property, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and never focused on the harbor as a whole. The Commonwealth’s “Chapter 91” process strives to ensure public access to the water but has only limited tools to achieve its worthy aims. That process brought us the HarborWalk, but it has also left many areas of the city walled off from the harbor, with little pedestrian or visual connection.
What we need is an expansive new vision for the harbor, one that treats the harbor as a whole and includes larger and more creative parcels of open space along the waterfront. It should use land swaps, transfer development rights, zoning overlays, and public-private partnerships to bundle undeveloped parcels together, creating more parkland, better pedestrian connections, and sweeping views of the water.
The plan also needs to address the impending threat of sea level rise caused by climate change. In the best case, there could be a one to two foot rise by the end of the century. In the worst case, it could be four to six feet, which could turn the “Innovation District” into the “Inundation District” and put many other neighborhoods at risk.
The city has already begun to focus on climate resiliency, with its updated Climate Action Plan, the recent convening of a metro mayors summit, and other activities aimed at preparing Boston for a very different future. The mayor has pledged to roll the Climate Action Plan into Imagine Boston 2030 as well. But it is time to get more specific.
We need to define more clearly what we should plan for and when, drawing upon the abundant climate expertise at our local universities. We need to zero in on the most vulnerable neighborhoods and infrastructure by integrating all of the risk assessments now under way at Massport, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, and other agencies. We need to develop an arsenal of practical design solutions and line up new funding mechanisms, such as green bonding, to implement them. Sensible guidelines for protecting people, property, and the city’s tax base should be built into the BRA’s permitting process. Increasing the resilience of the waterfront should be our goal, drawing upon or mimicking nature’s protective attributes where possible, adding protective structures where not. New open space along the waterfront could help defend the city too, providing even further justification for creating more of it.
Imagine Boston 2030 provides a great opportunity to reimagine our city’s relationship to Boston Harbor. Let’s make sure we don’t miss that opportunity.
Bud Ris is a member of the Green Ribbon Commission, a senior adviser on climate change to the Barr Foundation, and former CEO of the New England Aquarium.