Until recently, Boston was ahead of other cities in planning for sea-level rise and the effects of climate change before a catastrophic storm like Sandy or Harvey hit. Sure, king tides occasionally overtopped downtown wharves, and South Shore waterfront homes were repeatedly battered by winter storms. But now flooding in downtown Boston, the Seaport, and other neighborhoods is becoming a more regular and recurring phenomenon and is increasingly causing property damage, inconvenience, and, potentially, injury or worse.
Boston has been leading regional climate preparedness planning efforts with its Climate Ready Boston report; portions of Imagine Boston 2030 that prioritize climate readiness; neighborhood resiliency plans; and initiatives by private developers on properties along the waterfront subject to inundation. Uniquely, the Climate Ready Boston report prioritized equity and issues of fair access for disadvantaged communities in concert with environmental resiliency. In fact, the best recommendations integrate strategies for flood control, open space, public access, education, feasibility, and economic development. Wouldn’t you rather invest in an open space that protects against rising seas, provides public access to the waterfront, improves habitat, educates kids about the environment, and offers enhanced land values — as opposed to a concrete seawall that blocks access and views and benefits only those who already live, or will live, on the waterfront?
Recent storms, though, point toward the need to quickly enhance these efforts.
ª Think bigger: We need to imagine a 21st-century, climate-ready version of the Emerald Necklace park system for the waterfront— a Sapphire Ring, with floodable coastal parks, hard and soft infrastructures, living shorelines and breakwaters, and active waterfront trails and destinations all around Boston Harbor that mitigate the effects of storms, protect against rising seas, provide enhanced public access, and reestablish Boston as a city built on and around its natural resources and open spaces.
This ring can be made up of coastal-
defense and open space systems being planned in East Boston, Charlestown, South Boston, and the Seaport, and on private development properties like Suffolk Downs, as well as islands and other places that have yet to be planned. This kind of bigger imagining is important. Yes, it should be based on community-driven initiatives that give voice to residents and tailor solutions to individual neighborhoods. But these planning efforts should add up to a bigger whole, a new chain of resilient harborfront parks and open spaces that reposition Boston for the 21st century and inspire the public imagination.
ª Act now: At the same time, we need to act quickly to test integrated resilience and open space solutions on the ground. The neighborhood-based Climate Ready planning initiatives offer great suggestions and starting points — let’s build a piece of one of these now. Think of it as a demonstration project, a small part of already-proposed projects that can be designed, engineered, and constructed quickly on readily available land, with willing partners.
Ryan Playground in Charlestown is one possibility for this, as are parts of Moakley Park in South Boston, or sites along the waterfront in East Boston or Fort Point Channel. Each has been identified in recent plans with significant community input. This kind of integrated resiliency demonstration project should be led by the city, in partnership with many organizations, and fueled in part by philanthropy. The regulatory review process should be accelerated, which is critical in light of the immediacy of flooding and recent storms.
ª Leverage partnerships: This work cannot be done alone — it is far too complex. Inventive, integrated solutions that hit all goals of access, equity, and environmental, social, and economic benefits require extensive coordination and complex funding, management, and legal strategies to move them forward.
We should not look to the private sector to lead the way — water does not adhere to private property boundaries when it floods a coastline. This is a collective issue that must be met collectively, with multiple levels of coordination between many public and private entities and interests. Therefore, we should leverage the partnerships that are already in place for the Climate Ready neighborhood planning initiatives, build on the good work led by the City’s Office of Environment, Energy and Open Space, and expedite design, engineering, and regulatory approval processes to get something in the ground, to test these solutions, and to build momentum for taking on these challenges all around the harbor.
Planning is critical, but it needs to add up to something bigger — to inspire people, to drive public and political support, and to catalyze funding for implementation that can come from a wide variety of public, private, and philanthropic sources.
Boston is poised to tap the amazing minds and resources that are already at work on these issues today, to move forward even more ambitiously and more quickly in ways that allow us to start toward a future of living safely and productively with our ever-changing environment.
Chris Reed is founding director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism and professor in the practice of landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.