Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

Better than a wall: flood control that’s sustainable, beautiful, and fair

A firefighter waded through water in January on a flooded Long Wharf.
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/File
A firefighter waded through water in January on a flooded Long Wharf.

WHEN RESEARCHERS FROM UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab concluded last month that a $12 billion harbor barrier is not the preferred option for protecting the region from climate change, you could practically hear the sighs of relief emanating from City Hall.

The study looked at two gated flood barriers, one running 3.8 miles from Winthrop to Hull, and one just for the inner harbor, from Logan Airport to the Seaport. At a conference sponsored by Boston Harbor Now, the study’s lead author, Paul Kirshen, said both models would be costly, inflexible, disruptive to tidal currents and possibly to fisheries, and would take decades to build. Pursuing such a plan was “not prudent,” he said. The City of Boston, which commissioned the report, could shelve the idea, at least for the time being.

But sea level rise and violent storms are not sitting on the shelf. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 170 coastal communities in the United States could face chronic inundation (flooding more than 26 times a year) by 2035. Boston is of course among them. If we aren’t going to pursue a massive engineering project like the harbor barrier, then we need to double down on a diverse set of shore-based solutions, which can provide flood management more quickly and cheaply and – not incidentally – create a public realm that is more sustainable, more beautiful, and more fair.

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“The need to adapt to climate change is allowing Boston to recover its legacy of landscape,” says Chris Reed, director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, which designs natural flood-control projects for shorelines worldwide. Reed notes that Boston’s late 19th-century placemaking projects — including the Jamaicaway, the Fens, and the Muddy River — were often designed for flood control or other kinds of environmental management. Today, uncovering hidden culverts, restoring wetlands, installing floating pathways, and softening shore edges are all part of an urban design approach that favors resilience over resistance.

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A good example is Joe Moakley Park in South Boston, adjacent to Carson Beach. The 68-acre park is on the harbor, though you’d barely know it, since views of the water are blocked by busy Day Boulevard, and the athletic fields that dominate the park don’t allow for any elevation. Reed’s firm is consulting with the city on redesigning the park, which floods regularly, to incorporate resilience strategies that also beautify the landscape. Adding marsh habitats, kayak landings, even hills for sledding in winter could also welcome a more diverse group of residents in a rapidly changing neighborhood. “We know how to create landscape solutions that offer protection, he said, “but there can also be social, cultural, and equity benefits.”

In 2014, Boston was designated one of 100 Resilient Cities by the Rockefeller Foundation, in an international effort to fund creative solutions to climate change. Boston’s pitch was “uniquely focused on social resilience,” according to the application, “in a city affected by historic and persistent divisions of race and class.” You don’t need a very long memory to know that Carson Beach was for years a symbol of racial violence and intolerance in the wake of the busing crisis. So making the area more accessible — whether through safe bike paths, activities for all ages, or a re-imagined park — is also the work of a resilient city.

It may seem a stretch to connect racial and economic justice with responses to climate change, but it is often the poorest communities that are most vulnerable to severe weather. Building social cohesion is also a climate-ready strategy, because a city where residents connect easily across boundaries will be better able to respond to a weather emergency.

Climate change is a major threat to Boston’s coastal communities, but with commitment and imagination, it can also be a chance to reknit the urban fabric into something wonderful. The pivot away from the proposed harbor barrier only adds more urgency to this task.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.