Boston Takes on Climate Change
This article is copublished with the American Planning Association’s Planning magazine.
After a severe winter storm in 2018, a dumpster broke free of its moorings in Boston's warehouse district, and started floating, almost serenely, down a flooded street. Someone captured the scene on video and it went viral, prompting headlines that the rapidly developing area should be renamed the "Inundation District."
For the planners, engineers, and others in eastern Massachusetts who have been working to prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change—a projected 40 inches of sea level rise, and the creeping storm surge and high-tide flooding that comes with it—there have been no shortage of such omens. The constant reminders of a wetter future suggest a race against time for a place rated the 8th most vulnerable among coastal cities worldwide, in the company of New York, New Orleans, and Miami.
While reducing carbon emissions is ongoing — Massachusetts recently passed a climate bill with firm net-zero limits for 2030 and beyond — the business of building resilience has been a priority for Boston and surrounding communities for the last several years. The looming crisis is made clear in maps projecting flooding over low-lying areas and all the extensive filling of tidal flats and marshes and other land creation that has been done over centuries. Without action, thousands of acres could be underwater, destroying homes and businesses in a terrifying transformation of the metropolitan region.
The work has been, by necessity, at the local level, without a federal organizational framework, guidance, or funding for the last four years. "With the absence of the federal government, cities like Boston have really had to step up and chart their own path in climate planning and climate resilience," says Deanna Moran, AICP, director of environmental planning at the Conservation Law Foundation. That has meant doing careful measurement of where the flood paths are and what neighborhoods are most vulnerable, which has helped establish a detailed blueprint for targeted interventions. (Indeed, Boston is hardly alone, as is noted in APA's Climate Change Policy Guide. "Planners have the expertise, perspectives, and skills to lead the local and regional responses to the climate crisis — but require federal and state action to amplify local planning efforts.")
Now, with the COVID stimulus bill and another $2 trillion infrastructure package being debated in Washington, the Boston region finds itself at a pivotal moment. Funding for large-scale measures may be on the way, but that has also ratcheted up the pressure to make the right choices for effective and long-lasting protection. Confronting sea level rise here has become an extraordinary puzzle of private development, government regulation, concerns about equity, and the prospect of some areas being restored to a natural state, ultimately requiring people and places to relocate.
Years in the making
Like many coastal communities under threat, Boston has gone through early iterations of what to do, including a giant barrier stretching from Hull in the south to Winthrop in the north, protecting Boston Harbor. A 2018 study concluded the $9 billion proposal would not be cost-effective. Design competitions run by the Boston Society of Architects and the Urban Land Institute have also produced futuristic schemes like turning Back Bay streets into canals.
The search for innovative solutions continues still in the spirit of trial and error, but much of the work has settled into more down-to-earth measures: raising streets, building berms and barriers, and putting in emergency flood gates that can be deployed before a storm, for example—all based on a more precise knowledge of where the water actually goes, when it penetrates the inlets and low-lying areas in the most flood-prone areas.
Boston has already overhauled parks in the Seaport and the North End, to protect recreational facilities by giving the water different places to go. A similar approach is envisioned at Joe Moakley Park in South Boston, set to be protected by a long berm and sand dunes along the nearby beach, as a first line of defense; beyond that, flooding will be managed through a kind of re-ordering of land forms, steadily rising in elevation like a series of terraces. The playing fields can absorb some water, but the goal is to keep them as functional open space.
In addition, zoning, building codes and guidelines, and other land-use regulations are being adjusted to encourage floodable basements and parking garages, and moving mechanicals to higher elevations. Boston published a draft of Coastal Flood Resilience Design Guidelines in 2019 to begin to tackle better building design—although in terms of strict rules, local governments can't exceed the statewide building code. Developers are also being asked to pitch in by recreating natural systems that act like a sponge, seen in the living shoreline experiment adjacent to the luxury residential development Clippership Wharf in East Boston.
Flooding knows no boundaries
Under the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has since become U.S. labor secretary in the Biden administration, the city of Boston has led the way in climate adaptation, with the initiatives Resilient Boston Harbor, concentrating on 47 miles of shoreline, and the broader program Climate Ready Boston. (The Climate Ready Boston Report received a National Planning Achievement Award for Resilience — Gold from APA in 2019.) Yet it is readily apparent to everyone working in resilience that efforts need to be coordinated across multiple municipalities and coastal jurisdictions, since flooding doesn't care where the town line is.
"The goal is to have a statewide flood risk model and everyone is planning for those same risks," says Richard McGuinness, Boston's deputy director for Climate Change and Environmental Planning. "Whether it's Dorchester down to Quincy, or the flood paths coming into East Boston from Winthrop and Revere — regionally we see the need to determine where the action should occur. The ocean is an infinite source of water."
McGuinness envisions a series of interventions similar to Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace — at its core a sanitation and flood-control public works project — extending across jurisdictional boundaries.
Although Massachusetts cities and towns are famously decentralized, especially in land use, a framework for regional collaboration is already in place: the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, representing 15 eastern Massachusetts communities and 1.4 million residents, established by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for Greater Boston.
The fiscal implications of rising seas will also get even more complicated if individual municipalities attempt to go it alone, according to Linda Shi, assistant professor at Cornell University's department of city and regional planning.
The rules on coastal development in the 21st century simply can't vary from one town to the next, and in fact, she says, larger-scale regional measures like the transfer of development rights and relocation through land assembly or land readjustment will be necessary. Individual nature-based solutions are fine, Shi says, but ultimately the coming transformation of coastal communities requires a broader consideration of land policy. The metaphor she invokes is a larger sheet cake, rather than individual cupcakes here and there.
A similar concern is threaded through the matter of equity. All along the East Boston waterfront, new high-end development can prompt the one-two punch of gentrification and potential flooding impacts that could get past the new building and swamp the working-class neighborhood two blocks inland, says Magdalena Ayed, founder and executive director of The Harborkeepers, a grassroots coastal resilience organization. A more uniform standard is needed to spell out the obligations of private developers to help protect the community at large, she says.
Planning, and more specifically scenario planning, can help clarify all the tricky elements inherent in building climate resilience, says Amy Cotter, director of climate strategies at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. "We can wait for different events to happen and react as best we can at the time, accepting the immediate loss of property and life and the cumulative effects on our communities and prosperity," she says. "Or we can think through the different ways in which climate change will be felt and prepare for them, increasing our ability to withstand them and bounce back, and guarding against the unintended consequences of snap decisions made during crisis. Scenario planning is a great way to think about what could happen and what you'll do as different things occur and indicate the way the future is unfolding."
Laying out different scenarios for the future of a given area can be a sobering exercise, but one that reveals the wisdom — and the cost — of resilience interventions. Cornell's Shi put together a case study for the town of Hull, Massachusetts, a seaside community south of Boston on the front lines of rising seas, that projects outcomes of a range of actions, from doing nothing, building a seawall, micro-protection measures like elevating homes and businesses, or pulling back to higher ground and restoring natural ecosystems. Projected costs ranged from $600 million to over $2 billion, further clarifying the stark realities of the challenges such coastal communities are facing.
Though unpleasant, facing up to the massive disruption that rising seas will bring is critical to ensure the long-term effectiveness of resilience measures — in contrast to doing just enough to buy time. In his new book, Moving to Higher Ground: Rising Sea Level and the Path Forward, oceanographer John Englander praises the Boston area's resilience planning — but argues it doesn't go far enough. (Read the Planning book review.)
"Boston really is as good as it gets in the U.S. I hold up Boston and Singapore as places that are thinking futuristically," Englander said in a recent interview. But, he adds, a truly sophisticated approach would be to plan for not three and a half feet of sea level rise, but 10 feet, over a 100-year time frame. "As good as Boston's current plan is — and it is among the best in the world at the moment — they're not thinking big enough. Nobody's thinking big enough."
As radical as some engineering solutions may sound at the moment, they could be made to be adaptable—even something as simple as the foundation of a bridge being designed to relatively easily increase its clearance as necessary. Building in that kind of flexibility in the design of infrastructure is increasingly accepted practice; what is required is a further conceptual leap, on a topic that already strains the imagination. So it is that the last few years of planning and policymaking around climate resilience, as earnestly as it has been undertaken over the last several years, is just a start.
Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and a contributing editor of Land Lines.
Photograph: A luxury residential development in East Boston sits in one of several flood paths the city has identified. Developers have raised elevations and re-created natural systems to help absorb inundation, but some wonder whether it will protect residents of the working-class neighborhood two blocks inland. Credit: Photo courtesy Anthony Flint.