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Boston’s bill for climate change is coming due

A man walks through a flooded sidewalk off Congress Street, where water was flowing over from Fort Point Channel in the Seaport District on March 2.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Clearly the sight of a dumpster floating down the street in the Fort Point district last January made a lot of Bostonians all too aware that the realities of climate change have become part of their world.

The fact is climate change is already here,” Mayor Marty Walsh told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce this week where he introduced his plan for Resilient Boston Harbor to deal with the city’s 47-mile coastline and the diverse neighborhoods that line it.

“This is about prevention,” he told reporters at an earlier briefing. “We have a lot of different pieces all over the place. This brings it all together.”


So it does — and, frankly, not a minute too soon.

Boston went from being a city that only a few decades ago made scant use of the natural gift of its shoreline to one that today can’t seem to cram enough buildings and activities within sight of its now-clean harbor. Walsh was quick to acknowledge that construction projects in the Seaport District have already taken rising sea levels into account. Mechanicals are moved to upper floors, landscaping makes use of high berms, and first floors no longer include residential units.

What remains to be done will be the ultimate in public-private-philanthropic partnerships. The city, Walsh pledged, will commit 10 percent of its capital budget each year — about $16 million — to climate resiliency projects in addition to using existing parks funding for resiliency-based improvements to places like the North End’s Christopher Columbus Park, which was hit by a massive flood last March that reached all the way to the Greenway.

The city is also applying for a $10 million mitigation grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and surely should be among the first to tap into the recently passed $500 million state environmental bond bill.


But protecting the city from rising sea levels will also need buy-in and financial support from those with the most to gain — the private developers and businesses that depend on those splendid “water views” to attract buyers, renters, and visitors. That buy-in may well
have to include special taxing districts for those areas most at risk.

The mayor is proposing a scheme that would create more open space — 67 additional acres — while depending mostly on close-in sea walls, barriers, and elevated walkways. For example, the South Boston plan identifies the “near term” effort for Fort Point (defined as between now and 2025) as consisting in part of earthen berms and open park space at an estimated cost of between $3 million and $16 million. Seaport Boulevard would initially get a floodwall with “creative additions and expansions” as the years go by — and yes, it would eventually look different.

It’s easy to bemoan the fact that this kind of planning should have taken place at least a generation ago. But generational responsibility too often falls by the wayside when political officials are busy chasing the next big development. The bill for years of neglect is coming due. Walsh’s plan represents a down payment.

Boston’s future demands that all who benefit from the wonders of our shoreline also share the burden for keeping the city and its people safe for generations to come.