TWO RECENTLY RELEASED City of Boston planning reports are on a direct collision course.
The first one, “Climate Ready Boston,” forecasts an alarming future. The coastlines of mid-19th-century and mid-21st-century Boston will be eerily similar delineations, making Back Bay, South Bay, the Seaport, and other areas that were filled during an era of intensive land-making once again the subjects of major urban reimagination. The second report, “Imagine Boston 2030,” identifies five priority growth areas: Suffolk Downs, Sullivan Square, Beacon Yards, 100 Acres/South Boston Waterfront, and Widett Circle. Astonishingly, four of the five growth areas in “Imagine Boston 2030” are shown to be extremely vulnerable to flooding by “Climate Ready Boston.” How and where we decide to grow will have immeasurable economic and social consequences, so why would we intentionally grow in parts of the city that we know to be extremely vulnerable to flooding?
The “Imagine Boston 2030” draft describes a climate-ready city as one that “protects our existing housing and job centers and enables future resilient growth.” Enabling future resilient growth is as much about knowing where and how to grow as it is about knowing where and how not to grow, but “Imagine Boston 2030” seems to suggest otherwise: “Many of the areas where Boston will grow are exposed to flooding risk as sea levels rise. By growing in these areas, Boston is committing to protecting them. Although we do not know all the mechanisms for protection yet, Boston is investing in developing local climate plans for vulnerable areas.” In other words, despite known flood vulnerabilities, and in the absence of well-formed strategies to achieve safe and cost-effective development, we are nonetheless intentionally committing to grow in flood-prone areas. This line of reasoning, if not reckless, is certainly not a shift far enough away from business-as-usual in places like the Seaport, where construction permits continue to be approved so long as buildings have floodable first floors and utilities on the roof. By this measure, the city maintains that floodable buildings are a viable solution, even if the streets around them could eventually be ankle deep in mud and water depending on the tide.
At the same time that we anticipate a future with monthly high tide inundation and a 5 percent reduction of dry land area, Boston is also growing, from roughly 670,000 to 724,000 by 2030, and 801,000 by 2050. In order to accommodate growth projections, Mayor Walsh has committed to constructing 53,000 new residential units by 2030 — the majority of which will serve Boston’s workforce and seniors. From a financial standpoint, the added expense necessary to build any housing in flood-vulnerable areas seems to be in conflict with the city’s own affordability goals, but even more alarming are the environmental justice implications of intentionally constructing affordable workforce and senior housing in known hazard zones.
Although these parts of the draft “Imagine Boston 2030” plan bring up serious economic and ethical concerns, there is still a chance to get this right. But it will take an entirely different approach to urban planning and development — one that works with nature, not against it. Tough decisions will soon need to be made about centuries-old physical, cultural, and economic infrastructure in already built-up parts of Boston. Our future growth strategy should at least avoid compounding these problems and prioritize the sustainable long view over the near-term benefits of politically expedient economic growth. Balancing physical and economic growth with environmental preparedness and considerations for social and racial equity will require more intentional coordination among ongoing planning efforts — Imagine Boston 2030, Climate Ready Boston, and Boston’s Resilience Strategy — so that they can dynamically influence and shape one another in consequential ways. Otherwise we remain dangerously disingenuous about our urban resilience objectives and risk catastrophic social and economic consequences for Boston, both now and for centuries to come.
Stephen Gray is assistant professor of urban design at Harvard Graduate School of Design, serves as a cochairman for Boston’s 100 Resilient Cities Resilience Collaborative, and is associate director on the board of the Boston Society of Architects.