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Opinion | Kathy Abbott

Seize the moment on Boston Harborwalk 2.0

A woman ran along the Harborwalk in Dorchester earlier this year.
A woman ran along the Harborwalk in Dorchester earlier this year.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

THE SUMMER SEASON is an optimal time to sit back and celebrate the Harborwalk’s role in creating a vibrant, accessible waterfront. Unfortunately, the Harborwalk as we know it is ill-equipped to protect us from the rising seas and extreme weather that threaten multiple communities. In an era of climate change, we have two options: We can build a wall, or we can build a welcoming collection of connected public spaces that keep the people in and the water out — call it Harborwalk 2.0.

Only one of these solutions addresses another pressing problem along the waterfront. For many communities across the city, the Harborwalk is unknown, and even unwelcoming. The shiny new towers full of offices and condominiums that increasingly line the edge of this public asset signal that the waterfront is reserved for the affluent.

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Harborwalk 2.0 offers the opportunity to tackle the issues of resiliency, access, and inclusion. We can go beyond the initial public-access-centered Harborwalk and plan for sea level rise and access in ways that are comprehensive, connected, and truly creative. A waterfront revolution may well be spurred by the pressures of flooding.

Today, we can design a waterfront that welcomes everyone to Greater Boston’s front door instead of individual property owners’ backdoors. The City of Boston’s resiliency efforts, with their Climate Ready neighborhood plans and latest waterfront-wide plan, are promising but will require follow-through. The South Boston plan integrates double-duty proposals to strategically fill the harbor, creating buffers that provide more expansive public space as well as developing floating shorelines with native vegetation and integrated seawalls that create healthy habitat, increase flood protection, and provide public gathering spaces.

We can also draw inspiration from other cities. New York’s recently rebuilt boardwalk at Rockaway Beach protects from flooding and includes skate parks, performance spaces, and shade structures. The reconstructed Elliott Bay seawall in Seattle holds back tides, protects delicate salmon habitat, and created a now much-used promenade.

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From a planning perspective, Louisiana created a comprehensive Coastal Master Plan that offers a long-term view and integrated approach to resilience, economic development, public space, and environmental asset management. The plan includes 124 projects that build or maintain more than 800 square miles of land and reduce expected climate change-related damages by $8.3 billion annually by 2067.

Our regulators, public officials, and business community must lead the way to make the changes necessary to meet the demands of both climate change and public access. Innovative models such as those employed by Clippership Wharf in East Boston, a building designed to flood twice a day, experienced unnecessarily long delays and hurdles in earning approvals because of existing regulations. At both the state and local levels, we must reconsider permitting requirements for new projects and create incentives for property owners of existing buildings to more efficiently update their facilities.

As we move toward Harborwalk 2.0, the changes to improve inclusivity are not just structural. We know that programming and amenities matter. This summer, we are surveying users of the Harborwalk to determine what would make public spaces more appealing and inclusive. One recurring complaint is the lack of clarity between public and private areas along the waterfront. With support from property owners, MassDEP, and BPDA, we’ve launched a new Web tool that answers those questions and is bringing thousands of people to the waterfront to walk, shop, eat, visit our cultural institutions, and watch fireworks.

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Without the threat of sea level rise, we might never have the political will or market pressure to improve our public spaces and create a world-class waterfront. We should seize this opportunity to set a global example of how climate change can create a waterfront that’s stronger, more accessible, and more beautiful and inclusive than ever before.


Kathy Abbott is president and CEO of Boston Harbor Now.