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Back Bay canals? Parking anxieties focus minds on climate change

Canals in the Back Bay are one proposal to address rising sea levels. Michael Wang, Arlen Stawasz, Dennis Carlberg

Global warming might have seemed like no big deal when it merely threatened ecological catastrophe and the lives of millions. But when rising sea levels claim parking spots in Boston? Whoa — this just got real. A new study by the local branch of the Urban Land Institute painted an alarming picture of how coastal Boston will need to adapt to climate change, including a proposal to convert some streets in the Back Bay area into canals. As the Globe’s Casey Ross recently pointed out, that would mean losing parking — precious, precious parking.

The canal proposal itself makes a certain amount of sense — and, in any case, Boston might not have much choice. Rising sea levels are coming, and a World Bank study found that Boston is one of the world’s most at-risk cities. Much of the city, including Back Bay, is built on land reclaimed from the ocean or the Charles River. If sea levels go up by 7.5 feet by 2100, as some forecast, the Atlantic could easily claim it back. Canals could help manage rising water levels. Meanwhile, the study of climate change’s impact on four neighborhoods points out, they might serve a dual purpose of creating a new tourist amenity, giving the Back Bay a Venetian feel.


EDITORIAL: Climate fight must expand beyond usual suspects

For motorists, however, the stirring sight of boats plying a Clarendon Street canal may not make up for the loss of curbside parking. Finding street spots in many Boston neighborhoods today is legendarily difficult; the emotions that many drivers bring to the issue is evident in the bitter debates about the smartphone app Haystack and post-snowstorm space savers. But a rising tide lifts all lawn chairs, as it were, and not even the mighty Boston Redevelopment Authority can block climate change until the ocean agrees to build more garage space.

It may seem ridiculous that it would take something as inconsequential as parking to focus the mind on a serious world problem like climate change, but stranger things have happened. And that’s the reality of climate change: millions of small changes that will add up to huge, costly impacts on the environment, public health, and our way of life. Seen through that prism, fighting climate change has a conservative dimension. Just imagine if Boston residents responded to the threat of climate change with the same warrior spirit other threats to parking meet. We’d have a carbon tax tomorrow — and Back Bay residents wouldn’t have to worry about gondolas stealing their parking spots.