Boston built itself up from the ocean, which is coming back. Here’s a scrapbook from poking around the waterfront on foot and kayak.
Going back to the islands. Four hundred years ago when Europeans began settling here, Boston was mostly islands. Most of today’s waterfront was built on mudflats around the islands. Fifty years from now, as our changing climate lifts the sea, the shoreline may be fragmenting again into islands.
Okay, we’re not good at imagining things 50 years in the future. I can remember 1972, when the U.S. was celebrating Christmas by bombing North Vietnam: No one then would have guessed that we could ever get a president who made Richard Nixon look like a model citizen. Or that most of the people on the planet someday would own a mobile phone far more capable than any 1970s supercomputer. Or even that tattoos would become respectable.
But big-ticket infrastructure such as buildings and bridges needs to last at least 50 years. That makes 2070 the key year in planning Boston coastal infrastructure. Projects must be designed to withstand the floods from storms calculated as 1-in-100-year annual risks on top of 40 inches of sea level rise (SLR).
The predicted flood zone in Boston’s updated coastal flood district plan goes surprisingly far inland—for instance, piercing deep into the heart of Roxbury—as we heard in a Boston Harbor Now (BHN) virtual session on November 30.
Moreover, the zone might well underestimate the risks. The 40-inch SLR is a reasonable prediction built on today’s best data, but all bets are off on the scale of those 1% storms in 2070.
As storms draw increasing power from the warming Atlantic, we’ll see greater numbers of extreme weather events that combine high storm surges with extraordinarily heavy rainfall. In a Nature Climate Change paper, Princeton’s Avantika Gori and colleagues predict that such events may increase in the Northeast somewhere between 30- and 195-fold by 2100. And each year as the sea rises, it lifts groundwater along the shore, further choking the routes for water to escape back into the sea.
Many stretches of the Boston shoreline already are deeply vulnerable. New buildings in the Seaport, which is at high risk in today’s flood maps, often depend on sandbags and AquaFences to keep the sea out, as Fort Point advocate Steve Hollinger noted during the BHN session.
Developers are finally getting at least some adult supervision on climate resilience from the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), especially for projects directly on the harbor. Waterfront construction that includes a protective berm or a higher Harborwalk now also must bring the buildings themselves up to the new design flood elevation. “We ask for a belt and suspenders approach,” as BPDA’s Amber Galko put it.
So far, however, each project is still an island. Boston had many chances to connect the dots between projects and guard the entire neighborhood by gathering funds from the billions of dollars of Seaport development. “But we didn’t do that,” Hollinger said.
Many European countries are ahead of the U.S. in promoting waterfront development that can protect inland areas, commented BHN chair Bud Ris. “It’s not just elevating the buildings, but making sure the spaces in between the buildings are used to provide flood protection,” Ris said. “What we don’t want is just a series of elevated buildings where the water can freely flow in and around between them, and go inland.”
“We’ve got to think broader and bigger,” said John Sullivan, Boston Water and Sewer Commission chief engineer, at a City Council hearing on November 29. The commission is working on a proposal for a storm barrier at the entrance to Fort Point Channel, like a mini-Charles River dam, that could protect against saltwater and freshwater floods. The barrier could safeguard Boston Medical Center, the Ted Williams tunnel, Amtrak lines, other critical infrastructure and endangered neighborhoods all the way into Roxbury’s Nubian Square, Sullivan said. His group expects to release a full analysis by February.
If the Army Corps of Engineers likes the concept, the Fort Point barrier might join the long list of coastal initiatives desperately seeking federal funds, headlined by the $53 billion New York/New Jersey and the $31 billion Texas megaprojects. The Corps generally gets about $2 billion annually for such construction efforts.
Of course, Boston neighborhoods will evolve dramatically and unpredictably by 2070. Will the Seaport still be Boston’s richest enclave after it’s swamped by a truly scary storm or two? Will Logan Airport enlarge itself to handle the supersonic jets that the rich plan to enjoy in a few years? Will South Boston’s Reserve Channel still unload giant containerships, or will we make everything locally through advances in 3D printing and other manufacturing technologies? Along Chelsea Creek, will the oil tankers be long gone, and maybe even their tank farms as well? Which neighborhoods will be the first to start pulling back from the sea? 12/5/22
Paddlewheelers to Paragon Park. On sunny summer days through the 1910s and 1920s, you could go aboard a sidewheel paddle steamship like the Betty Alden at Rowe’s Wharf, and enjoy a pleasant if crowded jaunt down to Nantasket Beach in Hull. You would go not just for the three-mile beach but for Paragon Park, the grand amusement extravaganza opened in 1905.
Two of Paragon Park’s almost endless attractions are going strong, a famed carousel (open today!) and a wooden roller coaster that was the world’s highest when built and still delivers thrills at a Six Flags in Maryland.
Paragon Park lasted in diminished honky-tonk form into the 1980s. But the steamships mostly vanished on Thanksgiving Day 1929, when fire broke out at a wharf on Nantasket Harbor. Six of the Nantasket Beach Steamship Company’s vessels were tied up there. Five, including the Betty Alden, burned beyond repair. The company never fully recovered. More generally, the steamships that had been ubiquitous along the New England coast since before the Civil War dwindled rapidly in the 1930s, as they competed with the rapidly growing armies of cars and trucks.
Two sidewheel paddle steamers do survive in the U.S.: the Ticonderoga at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and the Eureka at the San Francisco National Maritime Park. Perhaps surprisingly, you can cruise around Boston Harbor in a working sidewheeler, Charles Riverboat’s Lexington. And on sunny summer days, you can ride Mystic Seaport’s coal-fired wooden steamer, the Sabino (below), built in 1908 and still steaming happily ahead. 11/26/22
Dip your toes in the tide. The latest design for East Boston’s Piers Park 3 is all about engaging with the harbor. On the west side of the upcoming park, a long fishing pier crosses over a salt marsh with tidal channels. In the center, a promenade leads out to a sand beach with a tidal pool. The east shore is all walkable, with an outdoor classroom and a kayak launch. Overall, the latest concept reflects serious community reachout and careful thinking about how PP3 can complement the other two Piers Parks.
PP3’s footprint is downsized from the previous design, cutting down substantially on both cost and environmental impact, as we heard from One Waterfront’s Nick Black in a Zoom presentation last week. The park also will require much less fill and thus many fewer trucks through the neighborhood, said landscape architect Chris Donohue from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The current pier’s badly decayed southwest corner will be replaced by an “enhanced habitat”, perhaps some form of salt marsh that gives a little space to wildlife and a little protection from storms.
The design reflects strong community desire for direct access to the water, said Donohue, with “more opportunities to safely dip your toes into Boston Harbor.” PP3 joins a small number of Boston parks that let you do so, including Eastie’s Constitution Beach, the beaches in South Boston and Dorchester, and downtown’s Long Wharf on a king tide.
“On a typical day, we see the beach as an outward-facing landscape, a room that has accessible tidal pools and sweeping views of the Boston skyline beyond,” he said. “We see it as a place for families to picnic right at the water’s edge. But we also imagine it being an incredible place to host a couple of hundred people for a movie night, a performance or a community celebration.”
At low tide, the beach’s tidal pool will be a safe body of water for children and caregivers to spot marine life or just wander around. Similarly, the salt marsh and tidal channels on the west side “provide safe areas for school groups, summer camps and children in East Boston to explore the kinds of landscapes that once occupied Boston Harbor,” said Donohue. “It’s a place that’s occupiable and safe for children to be in 12 to 18 inches of water looking for crabs and mussels and shells and things like that.”
PP3 will be built with sea-level rise and storm surges in mind, partly via a berm connecting with the other Piers Parks. “But really the key component of making a resilient park is that it can withstand those occasional floods 30-50 years from now,” Donohue said. “And that when the waters recede, there’s still a park there.” That calls for “places that are comfortable to sit and look out over the harbor, but also very heavily engineered to make sure they can withstand that wave action.”
One Waterfront now expects PP3 to open in 2025. Total cost will be somewhere around $44 million, with $30 million of that amount raised to date, Black said.
Last month the city broke ground on the neighboring empty lot destined to become Piers Park 2 (below). In a year or so, this $20 million project will deliver a one-acre central play area, a children’s playground, an open-air pavilion, a new home for the Piers Park Sailing Center and resiliency enhancements for those rising waters.
Combined, the three Piers Parks will be the most spectacular open space on Boston inner harbor, at a total cost somewhere north of $80 million. That’s a huge investment in one end of Eastie, notes Magdalena Ayed of Harborkeepers. In contrast, the neighborhood’s three-mile northern shoreline, running from LoPresti Park to the McArdle drawbridge and then up Chelsea Creek to Revere, has exactly one small park (Condor Street Urban Wild).
Fortunately, Maverick Square, Eastie’s public transit hub, is a ten-minute walk from the Piers Parks. The Lewis Mall ferry landing is two blocks away. 11/8/22
Parking on the Creek. When the latest Chelsea Street drawbridge opened in 2012, it left small parcels of land on either side of its Chelsea landing. The city is now working with GreenRoots, the Mystic River Watershed Association and others to turn these vacant lots into a waterfront park, kicking off community engagement with a fall festival event on Saturday.
For convenience, let’s call this offbeat site Bridge Park. It has its quirks. For one, there’s no easy way to walk between the two pieces. The southwest piece, which is much larger, is the likely candidate for serious landscaping. Its waterfront is a jumble of stones and concrete above a grubby low-tide beach, inside a rusty bulkhead that protects the bridge.
Chelsea contemplates using both parcels for public art and seasonal events such as pop-up markets, food trucks or outdoor movies and entertainment. Notably, the city also might spiff up the waterfront with restored vegetation and boardwalks, says the Chelsea Creek 2022 Proposed Municipal Harbor Plan and DPA Master Plan. And all of this shoreline needs barriers against the Atlantic, which comes ashore during monster winter northeasters.
Bridge Park’s location is far from ideal. It’s hard to reach without a car. You can walk over from the playing fields at Highland Park in less than 10 minutes, but the final intersection can be brutal, with a stream of trucks swinging through in a big hurry.
Half a mile down Marginal Street on Chelsea Creek, PORT Park gives a lesson on the importance of easy access. On any given day, this beautifully designed and well-maintained park might be the most likely place on Boston inner harbor to find yourself alone.
Silver Line buses do pass by Bridge Park–when they’re not waiting for the drawbridge. (There was hope that the latest bridge would accommodate larger tankers and thus open up less frequently, although that seems a bit crazy given the gauntlet that tankers run on Chelsea Creek.) You’ve still got to cross that unpleasant intersection.
Unlike PORT Park, Bridge Park might let us walk right over, or actually down onto, a low-tide beach.
Okay, you really don’t want to swim in Chelsea Creek. Or to launch a kayak, given the tanker traffic a few feet away. But as the city already points out, this might be a great place to restore natural ecosystems and build a boardwalk along the shore.
Maybe Bridge Park will draw inspiration from the inter-tidal pool at Roberto Clemente Park in the Bronx (above) or East Boston’s upcoming Piers Park 3. And become a magnet for school trips and anyone who likes to walk on a waterfront. 10/26/22
The Big Apple plans for the Big Water. Ten years after Hurricane Sandy directly killed 60 people in New York and New Jersey, and four days before Hurricane Ian smashed into Florida, the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft comprehensive plan to protect New York Harbor from coastal storms.
The Corps examined five alternatives, ranging from the largest storm surge barrier ever conceived to a land-based scheme. The winner combines six storm surge barriers, three major lines of seawalls and other land structures, and an immense collection of every variety of smaller measures. Estimated cost of this New York New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries (NYNJHAT) plan: $52.6 billion. Estimated annual operating cost: $347 million, mostly for the storm surge barriers. Construction would start in 2030 and take 14 years.
This grand project reflects the enormous scale of infrastructure along the New York and New Jersey waterfronts, most “mere inches above the current sea level.” It would be the largest US climate crisis construction project, at almost double the $30-billion-plus request for the Texas coastal barrier. Also note that the NYNJHAT estimate doesn’t include related projects underway in the region, such as the $1.5-billion coastal resilience project for Manhattan’s lower east side.
We know the Corps is an order of magnitude short on actual funding for such gigantic projects. Will Boston and other coastal cities find the well dry?
Even with this investment, the NYNJHAT blueprint can’t magically waterproof the region’s entire waterfront. The Corps estimates that storms would still inflict an average of $1.7 billion in damage a year. Moreover, barriers on land and sea can’t deflect giant rainstorms like Hurricane Ida–in fact these structures intensify the torrents of rain unless they are fully equipped with massive pumps and other infrastructure to push all that water off to sea.
Getting a working consensus on such a roadmap requires herding cats on grand scale with dozens of federal/state/city/regional agencies, politicians, citizen groups, businesses, foundations and other interested parties. There’s no lack of early criticism, some entirely serious and valid while not entirely practical. Yes, surge barriers will alter marine environments and complicate navigation. Yes, 20-foot berms will block ocean views. Yes, we would rather be protected by reborn salt marshes and oyster beds, when and if those “nature-based systems” are truly practical solutions along heavily developed shores.
So what does NYNJHAT suggest for Resilient Boston Harbor?
Boston turned away from storm surge barriers in 2018 after a thumbs down from a UMass Boston study. However, such barriers are cornerstones of the New York harbor plan. The proposed Kill Van Kull storm surge barrier, which will cross the channel between Staten Island and Bayonne, will be larger than the proposed Boston inner harbor barrier between Logan Airport and the Seaport. The UMass researchers nixed that Boston barrier, which might have protected most of the population guarded by our much more publicized outer harbor barrier alternative, and done so much more quickly and cheaply.
Although the UMass report estimated that neither Boston barrier could be completed until 2050, the Corps expects to finish up the Kill Van Kull barrier and everything else in the very long NYNJHAT list by 2044. Similar construction timeframes would change the benefit/cost results in the Boston analysis, which assumed that the city would need to build an expensive set of shore defenses in the meantime. Hindsight also suggests that the 2018 report was overly optimistic about the costs and timeframes for shore defenses in general–again, making the barriers look worse in comparison.
Okay, that’s water over the (unbuilt) dam. Since 2018, Boston has done an outstanding and unusually proactive job in planning shore defenses for each waterfront neighborhood.
But it’s still early days. Planning is pennies on the dollar for the whole construction cost. Where are the big bucks to upgrade public spaces like Dorchester’s Moakley Park, whose starting bill is $250 million?
Moreover, Boston finally is requiring new waterfront development to accommodate sea-level rise and tomorrow’s nastier storms. But do we really want to keep placing so many more people and so much more infrastructure right on the shore where the sea will be coming up for centuries?
Additionally, what incentives are we giving owners of existing properties to protect their buildings and connect with their neighbors so floods don’t just wash around them?
Each hurricane budges the needle slightly toward recognizing the need to invest seriously in coastal resiliency around the nation and the globe. Most of us who aren’t directly impacted by Hurricane Ian are impressed by videos of the storm and its devastation. We briefly sympathize with those in its path. We might also think, Well, what did you expect, a few feet from the waters of a warmwater gulf plagued by a truly frightening hurricane or two or three each season? We might also get a little annoyed by people who say, Well, that was the storm of my lifetime, now I need to rebuild everything in the same place.
In the case of Ian, though, I remember my father’s home in Bonita Springs. It was three miles inland from the Gulf and adhered to the serious building code that Florida enforced after Hurricane Andrew 30 years ago. Back in the day when we visited him, we thought his house probably would shrug off any tropical storm. And perhaps it did. But he lived in Lee County, which didn’t issue evacuation orders until a few hours before Ian hit and now reports 30-some deaths.* 10/3/22
* Update: At least 55 deaths, considerably higher than Sandy’s toll in New York City.
Summer 2022. Heat, drought and endless sun were brutal on rivers and gardens, fine on the harbor. 9/23/22
Filling the Reserved Channel. Yes, the two container cranes that arrived last year from China are truly gigantic. But like the other cranes at the Conley Terminal on the Reserved Channel, they were idle yesterday. And apparently most days, although Massport and its partners just bet the better part of a billion dollars to accommodate larger containerships.
There was no lack of traffic on the other side of the Reserved Channel, a deep notch in the South Boston waterfront just north of Castle Island. Three cruise ships were tied up, all with crew busily making them shine. Decades ago we sailed our catboat under the bow of the World War Two aircraft carrier Yorktown near where Celebrity Summit was tied up yesterday. The Summit, at 965 feet, is not particularly large for a cruise ship but much bigger than the aircraft carrier. 9/22/22
Mapping out coastal resilience, round two. One of Climate Ready Boston‘s many virtues is its clear and well-designed public planning reports. Released on August 12th, the day Congress finally passed a major climate bill, Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown (Phase II) has received understandably little attention. But it takes a major step towards protecting these neighborhoods, when and if actual project funding can be secured.
In East Boston, the shorelines in greatest immediate danger face west toward downtown and Charlestown. Planning for major initiatives continues and a seven-foot deployable flood barrier was installed for the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway, which previously became a Blueway in coastal storms. In one early Charlestown project, construction will begin next spring at Ryan Park on a berm that will be located landward from the existing seawall on the Mystic River.
The second phase of planning that debuted last week covers the remaining East Boston and Charlestown shorelines, divided into six Eastie and three Charlestown stretches. The report presents nearterm options for 2030 and longer-term options for 2050 and 2070 along with rough preliminary cost estimates. (The maps on the right below predict flooding through these neighborhoods in an extreme but entirely conceivable 2070 coastal storm with 40 inches of sea-level rise.)
No surprise, resilience won’t come cheap. In fact, the required investment could be well over $600 million by 2070 for each of the neighborhoods. And there’s a long list of resilience measures that aren’t covered: building- or site-level adaptations in designated port areas like waterfront oil terminals or in certain low-lying pockets of land, major work to guard the MBTA Blue Line and Logan Airport, and the enormous upgrades to the city’s stormwater systems that are needed to swallow the torrential and lingering rainstorms on the horizon.
The preferred coastal resilience options, which would deliver wider protection and/or new parks and/or restored ecosystems, often are vastly more expensive than simpler fallback alternatives.
One example is found in Eastie’s Chelsea Creek waterfront east of the Chelsea Street bridge. In the nearterm, protective floodwalls could be built either along an abandoned railway track on the shore (which is preferred) or in the middle of Route 1A. The longterm options are a higher berm along the shore (again preferred) or raising Route 1A itself. The berm could protect everything behind it, anchor a beautiful coastal park and restore wetlands to the blighted Creek. But it would cost about three times as much as raising the highway, at $150 million or more.
Another case in point is Charlestown’s Little Mystic Channel, above, home of the boat ramp where I launch my kayak. There’s an immediate need for a floodwall to protect the Charles Newton cooperative low-income apartments on the south side of the channel. The report treats that as a no-brainer. Longterm, the Harborwalk must be raised considerably higher–maybe as part of an elevated park bringing much-appreciated amenities plus wetlands or other ecological reconstruction. But the cost to achieve this appealing vision might run up to $180 million, compared to $150 million sans park.
The $600 million question for these neighborhoods and the city in general, of course, is where climate resilience funding on this scale can be found. Clearly it will draw on some mix of federal, state, city and private sources, with the feds providing the big bucks we hope. Boston is scrambling to find the megadollars it needs, as are thousands of other U.S. cities and towns.
The report guesstimates benefit/cost ratios for each project, with widely varying results. Any ratio below 1.0 suggests you won’t recoup your investment and scares off the Army Corps of Engineers, which drives major coastal projects. One rule of thumb is that the richer the neighborhood, the higher the ratio. East Boston’s median income is about two-fifths that of Charlestown, but its coastal projects generally show high benefit/cost ratios because the flooding risks are so serious. The longterm Little Mystic Channel proposals score an abysmal 0.6 or less, but the report notes quietly that this is “an area where public realm improvements are a community priority.” 8/16/22
August on Rainsford. On a weekday, the island’s only other visitors seem to be birds. It’s easy to recognize American Oystercatchers with their trademark orange bills, and those busy white-bellied flocks probably are sanderlings, but I can’t even guess the identities of some of the others. Below, an environmental buoy off the northeast shore, gathering data for Stone Living Lab resilience studies. 8/12/22
High summer. Superyachts like the 308-foot Viva arrive. So does the similarly sized Coast Guard tall ship Eagle. Piers Park Sailing Center gets folks out on kayaks and sailboats. And this morning, patients at the Spaulding Rehab Center were enjoying rides in outrigger canoes. 8/5/22
Around the Atlantic. Here’s the Corwith Cramer arriving at Fan Pier yesterday morning. Operated by the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, the Cramer was designed by my friend Roger Long and built in Bilbao in 1987. Her brigantine rig is well adapted to bluewater voyages, with the square sails on her foremast handy for running with the wind as you try to do on those voyages. Unlike traditional squareriggers, the Cramer carries square sails that furl on the mast rather than on the yards, an efficient arrangement that minimizes the chances of SEA students falling into the drink. Below, the Cramer under full sail, by Edward Quanstrom. 7/18/22
Down the Creek. Chelsea Creek is one narrow twisty channel for a tanker. Here are Justice, Liberty and Freedom taking out East Coast from the Global terminal on a ebb tide this morning. Turns out that you can keep up with this parade in a kayak, at a safe distance, for awhile. 7/9/22
On fireboats. Like most working watercraft, fireboats generally keep working for decades. The career of New York’s 134-foot Fire Fighter (above left) began in 1939 and lasted 72 years, with starring roles trying to save the doomed ocean liner Normandie in 1942 and damping down World Trade Center wreckage in 2001. Her mission never changed: rush to the fire and shoot a ton of water at it. Actually, in her case, 27 tons a minute from her bow gun (“monitor”) alone. That’s how she cleared a path through a sea of flaming oil to rescue 31 crewman off a burning containership in 1973.
John S. Damrell, named for the fire chief during the great Boston fire of 1872, has been the city’s flagship since 2011. She ties up with a diverse crew of smaller fire rescue craft just south of the Coast Guard base. (Speaking of long working careers, Father Dan, below on the right, is named for Daniel Mahoney, who stepped down as Boston Fire Department chaplain this month after 58 years.)
Boston’s smaller fireboats are fast–but so is the Damrell, which can hit 40 knots on her jet drives. That’s no small design accomplishment since fireboats can weigh about a quarter more than most similar first-responder vessels. One remotely operated monitor on the Damrell‘s roof can shoot a stream of water up to 450 feet and do so without forcing the 70-foot boat into weird gyrations.
Damrell joined Fire Fighter in yesterday’s festive display off Fort Point Channel. 6/7/2022
Return to Rainsford. Floating in a kayak off its northeastern shore, it’s easy to grasp why Rainsford Island has become a testbed for “nature-based solutions” that guard against storms and sea-level rise. A hefty stone seawall wraps around the shore, but a long stretch of the stones is jumbled down and the cliffs above are dramatically eaten away. Look over to the east and you see why: Rainsford is open to the sea between George’s Island and Hull.
UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab (@SSL_UMB) plans to put in a combination of rocky reef and cobble berm to see if that can slow or stop erosion. As the Lab waits for permission to do so, its researchers are monitoring shores and subtidal areas around Rainsford and (as experimental controls) nearby Gallops, George’s and Peddocks Islands.
Rainsford doesn’t face the same challenges from climate change as, say, East Boston or the Seaport. But anything we can learn about directly facing the advancing seas is all to the good. And Boston’s outer harbor dramatically dampens storm waves before they hit the inner harbor.
Looping around the island yesterday, I saw other signs of Rainsford’s long struggles with erosion, including stone reinforcements along both sides of the high gravel bar that connects the two ends of the island. Half a dozen powerboats had brought folks out for a holiday picnic. Also enjoying the gorgeous day as I paddled home: the coyote I woke napping on a Long Island beach, who watched me without much interest and wandered off. 5/30/22
Tuning into the Channel. Twenty years ago, most of the Seaport was parking lots. Fort Point Channel was a mostly neglected public waterway with poor water quality and almost no public access or shore activities except around the Children’s Museum.
But urban planner David Spillane and many allies and residents pulled together a vision of the 50-acre “watersheet” as an iconic public place defined by the uses of the water itself, much as one stretch of the Charles River is defined by the Esplanade and Community Boating. (Conceptual map above.) “This could be Boston Common in the water… a place that was funky, attractive to all people, affordable and diverse,” Spillane recalled last week at a Fort Point Working Group listening session.
While that goal remains a vision, we can enjoy some clear victories today, mostly on the east side of the Channel. The Children’s Museum still is a welcoming hub, with its friendly waterfront and kayak dock. Martin’s Park (below) is an extraordinary three-year-old open space.
We small boaters are big fans of the Boston Rowing Center (tucked under the Moakley Bridge next to Martin’s Park) and the Fort Point Pier kayak launch.
And everyone likes the Channel’s signature floating art pieces. Below is Zy Baer’s Polarity, which “represents the intersection of climate change & privilege,” as she explains on Instagram. “With Fort Point & Seaport as the collective wealthiest neighborhood in Boston, as well as one that’s deeply exposed to destructive flooding caused by sea level rise from climate change, I’m depicting a classic Fort Point building as if it had sunk into the sea due to floodwaters.”
Okay, back to the listening session, which provided feedback for Related Beal’s enormous Channelside development. Now underway south of the Summer Street bridge, Channelside will create more than three acres of open space, some of it directly on the water.
Seaport developers like Related Beal have gotten the message about sea-level rise. One key protective element is a berm with an elevation of 21.5 feet that will make a chain with adjoining properties on either side. It also will double as an amphitheater, said Rob Adams of Halvorson Design. Additionally, Channelside sketches feature a specialized launch site designed to handle massive floating art installations like Polarity (and perhaps certain deserving watercraft such as dragon boats).
What else would residents and public groups like to see on the Channel?
1. No surprise, there’s always demand for pleasant and accessible open space for walking, biking, sitting, picnicking and hanging around, with a general lack of parks that are more than narrow strips along the water.
2. Fort Point is an unusually friendly nook for boating in Boston Harbor. “The issues that we face with marine traffic in the harbor are not really a problem,” said Alex DeFronzo of the Piers Park Sailing Center in East Boston. “The weather is a lot calmer inside that basin than it is out in the Inner Harbor and around the islands.” The bridges are too low for sailboats but Fort Point could do fine with everything else that floats from paddleboards and paddleboats to kayaks and canoes to dragon boats and electric launches that zip around with a dozen folks of any age.
3. Easy boating makes the Channel a great location for STEM/STEAM youth marine programs and for public kayaking events like those pioneered by The American City Coalition.
4. Many at the listening session suggested performances on the water: movie nights, concerts, parades and festivals.
5. A fishing pier would be great for the clan of urban fishing fanatics, assuming the water quality is good enough. Save the Harbor/Save the Bay plans to release a baseline study of Channel water this year.
6. If sponsors could be found (where?) the Channel even could morph into a mini-nature preserve with serious vegetation and floating wetlands, as suggested a few years back by the One Waterfront initiative.
7. How about a swimming pool barge, like the Floating Pool Lady in the Bronx? These barges are more practical and prevalent than you might expect. The closest public outdoor swimming sites seem to be the Mirabella Pool in the North End, the Cass Pool in Roxbury and the South Boston beaches. Which are not that close.
No fewer than seven environmental justice communities are within three-quarters of a mile of the Channel, noted Tom Ready of the Fort Point Neighborhood Association.
A block from the South Station T stop and crossed by multiple bus lines, Fort Point will “open up the harbor to entirely new parts of the city because it can be so easily accessed,” DeFronzo said.
Full access for everyone also requires public restrooms, shaded areas, fountains, affordable food and other amenities. Moreover, activities on the water need to be matched by facilities on shore–for instance, “if you’re going swimming or getting wet, you need a place to go inside and warm up or dry off,” said Alice Brown of Boston Harbor Now.
Biggest question, as always, for each Channel vision: Where’s the funding?
p.s. Below, Fort Point past: A tug tied up by the house of the Northern Avenue bridge operator, on one of my first visits. Also a birds-eye view of how railroads built what became the Seaport.… when ships still could travel all the way into the now-filled South Bay.
Dredging our bet. Massport and partners are spending most of a billion dollars to dredge the harbor and prep South Boston’s Conley terminal for the latest-generation Panamax ships. (Unfortunately, Conley lacks rail lines to carry away containers from these ships.) Occasionally the dredgers working off Castle Island wander into the inner harbor, for maintenance or just to stand by. Left, the clamshell dredge New York. Right, the drillboat Apache, which blows up rocky seafloors. Below, Conley cranes (two of them 205 feet tall!) arrive from China last June. 5/10/22
Raising Sea Walls. Home of quite a few striking public murals, East Boston gained 19 more in the past two years through the Sea Walls artists for oceans program. All these paintings are on the theme of protecting the ocean against pollution, over-fishing, climate change and other attacks. Matt Pollock of Harbor Arts, who spearheaded the Eastie initiative, led us on a thoughtful tour yesterday.
Given the pandemic, most of the 2020 murals were painted by prominent locally based artists including Silvia López Chavez and Josie Morway. The 2021 round also brought in many other leading artists from around the world. Several more murals will appear this summer.
The biggest cluster of murals livens up playgrounds at the Donald McKay K-8 school. Other paintings appear on private buildings and the fire department headquarters.
It took serious equipment and tricky logistics for artists to complete their paintings within a week. Lauren YS created Plastic Pandora without an outline on a three-story wall of purple. And Beau Stanton somehow produced Precipice, showing McKay the 19th-century clippership builder behind a wave, with spray paint. 4/11//22
How many tugs do you need to take out a giant auto carrier from its berth just north of the Tobin Bridge? King Quest did fine with Liberty on a day with little wind, a rising tide and no traffic in the inner harbor. Below at the Boston Towboat base, Liberty and Justice for all. 4/5/22
Embedding equity. “Every single person in the city of Boston should see the water as part of their experience as a resident,” declared Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space.
Speaking last evening at a virtual “Revolutionary Harbor: Women of the Waterfront” discussion led by Boston Harbor Now’s Kathy Abbott, White-Hammond said that city government focuses a great deal of attention on the shoreline, particularly in grappling with the storms that are intensifying with climate change.
“But also, how do we make sure that residents can enjoy and fall in love with and interact with the waterfront?” she asked. “Because it’s really a blessing.”
“We are trying to embed equity in everything we do in the way that we make decisions,” White-Hammond emphasized. “And I think as a woman, and particularly as a black woman, I know what it is to be excluded…. There are some experiences I’ve had as a woman, and particularly as a woman in leadership, that I try to bring to thinking about how we engage with community members.”
Truly open spaces. Fully engaging the community is key for equitable access to open space in redesigned parks such Dorchester’s Moakley Park (above), a favorite project. “One of my big goals is to raise the $250 million that we need to make this park work,” she said.
The city also must carefully focus on protecting the housing projects directly behind Moakley. “I spent some time in New Orleans post-Katrina and know what happens when low income folks are not protected from natural disasters,” she said. “In the case of New Orleans, many of those people never made their way back. So we’re really thinking about how we making our decisions about land and land use in ways that prioritize our most vulnerable residents.”
In addition to embattled shorelines, Boston is concentrating on the increasing dangers of heat islands across the city. Some of these are in waterfront neighborhoods such as East Boston and the Seaport where few people have backyards and open space is at a huge premium, White-Hammond pointed out. “If you don’t have a backyard, our parks are your backyard, and we need to make sure that they’re accessible.”
Standing up to climate change. Yes, each report on climate change seems scarier than its predecessors. “When you really follow the science, it can be a bit overwhelming,” White-Hammond acknowledged.
But she takes hope from the next generation of leaders. “Young people rose up, and they challenged their parents, and they talked to their grandparents, and they marched in the street, and they said, We deserve a future,” she said. “If we actually want to be successful on hard, challenging issues, we need young people at the table. We need them to keep us honest, we need them to remind us why we’re doing it, we need them to bring a level of creativity and courage.”
Swimming safely. Boston must recognize “historical racial tensions around how people have experienced the water,” White-Hammond emphasized.
“We’re looking at things like how are we making sure that every child in Boston public schools is able to swim,” she said. “There is a painful legacy of the fact that for many of us who are descendants of slaves, there were rules that you could not teach slaves how to swim… You have many populations of people who may have grown up right around the water but the legacies of racism continue to make them afraid of being there. “
White-Hammond herself is a wildly enthusiastic scuba diver. “I love being under there; it is what I do on vacation,” she said. “I try to be really public about my love of swimming and my love of the water.” She learned to dive in the Caribbean but will make her first dive in Boston Harbor this summer, when the water gets as close as possible to warm. 3/24/22
Boston rising. Even if the world somehow gets a real handle on greenhouse gas emissions, the sea will rise at least three feet here by 2070. In the Climate Ready Boston program, “we look at all of these flood pathways that enter the city of Boston over the next 50 years, and how do we close them,” said Sanjay Seth, Boston’s climate resilience program manager. “It’s not really a choice for Boston, it’s a must do.”
“We’ve already identified about 70 projects that we need to build at a total cost of around $3 billion or so, to build up some protection, raise the coastal edge and make sure we can keep the water out,” Seth remarked at last week’s virtual forum on rising seas sponsored by the Kennedy Library.
With vast areas of the city built on filled tideland, Boston hasn’t waited for a disaster like Superstorm Sandy to hit. Fully launching Climate Ready Boston in 2016, the city has plowed ahead with thoughtful planning (and serious community-engagement efforts) across its waterfront neighborhoods.
To date, Boston has taken a few small concrete steps like readying a seven-foot-high deployable flood wall to protect the East Boston greenway. The city also has launched mid-scale and surprisingly complex projects like raising and rebuilding the North End’s Langone Park and Puopolo Playground.
Even the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which has an infuriating history of favoring developers over the public interest, is slowly starting to pressure waterfront developers to do the right things.
But major public projects, such as berms or other measures to protect against flood pathways through East Boston’s Border Street or Constitution Beach, await funding.
Although Boston is very good at designing and planning resilience projects, big questions remain about who will pay for these projects, said Courtney Humphries, a journalist and doctoral candidate in environmental sciences at UMass Boston. “Who’s going to be driving the adaptation?” she asked. “Is it going to be privately owned? Is it going to be publicly owned?
Such questions have been particularly tricky in Boston since the 1600s, when the state took the unusual step of encouraging wharf construction by giving landowners ownership of tidelands below their properties, she remarked.
Today, “the strategy that Boston has really taken is to build our way out,” Humphries said. The city’s Imagine Boston 2030 blueprint doesn’t hesitate to promote growth areas located in flood zones. “We are putting more people, more infrastructure in sites of risk, without necessarily knowing how it’s all going to be protected, and how long it’s going to be protected,” she said.
Several years ago MIT’s Alan Berger and colleagues presented a proposal for rezoning for resilience that would give much of the Boston waterfront back to the sea over the years as the waters climb. This strategy never became part of the general resiliency discussion, Humphries remarked.
Seth emphasized that successful adaptation will depend on close collaborations with developers. “Adaptation is one of those things where you take your partners where you can,” he said. “Sometimes you need 50 different parcels to get on the same page when it comes to resilience. And that’s incredibly complicated.”
Increasingly, developers are being pushed into resiliency measures as much by their creditors as by government, since creditors want to be sure they’ll be paid back over 30 years, Seth said.
Another key resiliency issue is the critical need to enhance environmental justice, which is well understood here but barely starting to be addressed in actual projects. With climate change, “we know that populations that are marginalized and oppressed are going to suffer more, because they’re living in the areas that are more flood-prone,” said Paul Kirshen, professor of climate adaptation at UMass Boston.
“Parts of East Boston and Dorchester are classic examples of these environmental justice communities that are right in the present flood pathways, let alone future flood pathways,” Kirshen said. “And these communities have what we call the least adaptive capacity to adapt to the changes. Essentially, the wealthy will to be able to buy their way out of climate change. But lower income groups can’t move. They are locked in.”
A few coastal cities and towns in Virginia and Rhode Island and elsewhere plan an organized migration up from dangerously low-lying neighborhoods to higher ground nearby. This strategy, formerly known as managed retreat and now often dubbed strategic relocation, might prove useful in places like East Boston. “But it’s a tricky question,” Kirshen said. “We all have an attachment to where we live.”
Highly developed neighborhoods probably will be protected rather than relocated “because there’s already been billions poured into these areas, in transit, in education, in infrastructure,” Seth pointed out. “You go tell someone that we’re not going to protect this, and see what they say.” Many low-lying areas need to be protected in any case to maintain transportation systems and other essential infrastructure, he added.
Sea-level rise will force cities to adapt their infrastructures far more quickly than normal, and to keep adapting over the decades. Seth said. Moreover, competition for the necessary federal funds is about to soar. “There are only a few buckets that get you the size of funding that you need for major metropolitan areas,” he said, “and no federal purse that just opens up and buys out everyone’s risk.”
Choosing paths that will keep the most promising options open “is tricky, and it’s going to require a lot of sophisticated planning and thinking, but that’s so much cheaper than spending billions and billions of dollars on unnecessary adaptation,” Kirshen declared. Adaptive management also requires setting signposts–for instance, when will the MBTA need to switch from Blue Line tunnels under the harbor to a Blue Ferry Line?
“We want to remain nimble, so we adjust as we go along, because there’s just an incredible amount of uncertainty,” Kirshen emphasized. “Not only is the climate changing, but also our society’s changing. The way we work, the way we live, our values are changing.” 3/15/22
Down the ways in Weymouth. Exactly 400 years ago, Weymouth Fore River was home for the first European settlement on Boston harbor, a notable disaster. In the 20th century, the Fore River Shipyard built hundreds of warships and many other vessels (some famous, including the Thomas W. Lawson, the largest schooner ever built and another disaster). The USS Salem, a heavy cruiser launched in 1947 that never fired her guns in anger, now ties up at the shipyard site as the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum. 3/11/20
Shamrock Splashing. Save the Harbor/Save the Bay raises money for its beach programs through an annual Shamrock Splash. This year’s plunge was held on East Boston’s Constitution Beach, with Logan Airport as a backdrop. The day was warm and windy with a sprinkling of rain, the seawater was 40 degrees, about 150 people charged in, the good cheer was contagious and I got close enough to be splashed. 3/7/22
Down to the sea in steps. The latest design for Piers Park 3, the first Boston park to fully embrace the waterfront as more than scenic backdrop, was unveiled yesterday by One Waterfront. With salt marsh and tidal pool in a resilient coastal landscape, PP3 “will be just teeming with life,” said landscape architect Chris Donohue of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Opening in spring 2025, PP3 will make up the final, “immersive” component of an East Boston magnet park almost triple the size of downtown’s Christopher Columbus Park. 2/17/22
Bright lights, Bay City. You can see the proposed Dorchester Bay City/2 Morrissey project, which aims to build triple the square footage of the Empire State Building, as development done right for once in Boston. The developers are bringing a genuine focus on inclusion for jobs, more affordable housing than the city requires, fence-free access to public open space, climate resilience for the neighborhood, and extensive community engagement that has produced significant improvements in the master plan.
Or you can see Dorchester Bay City as many residents do: way too big (with high rises of up to 25 stories), a bastion for the rich built on a spectacular chunk of public waterfront land, crammed with far too much commercial space in an area with a severe lack of affordable housing, and car-centric in a neighborhood often choked with traffic. Another Seaport, in short.
The project’s 36 acres include a surprisingly small sliver of shoreline; its occupants will view the bay across the Harborwalk and other Department of Conservation & Recreation land (seen last week below).
Only a fifth of one percent of the built space will be assigned to civic and community use. There is no magnet attraction; @FortPointer proposes a cultural center as a signature gathering place for public events.
The Boston Planning and Development Agency will close the public comment period on February 25th, having held five Zoom meetings since December 10 when the 1,681-page second-round project plan was released.* BPDA and development agent Accordia Partners are listening carefully but making no concrete new commitments. Many residents support Dorchester Bay City. Others complain that this enormous project will do very little to address the desperate local need for housing and that its timeline for approval is insultingly short. 2/8/22
* Comment period has been extended to March 25th.
Salted. The first time I saw the two mountain ranges of road salt, on the Mystic River west of the car port and on Chelsea Creek just east of the McArdle drawbridge, I assumed they were built up in summer and drawn down in winter. Well, not exactly: The salt mountains are also steadily resupplied in winter. Here are three bulk carriers that tied up on Chelsea Creek in the past month with Chilean salt. 1/25/22
Floating Pool Ladies. Each summer an outdoor swimming pool opens in the South Bronx–actually off the South Bronx, in the East River. The Floating Pool Lady, a converted barge, lets thousands of people swim and enjoy themselves for free during the season.
This wonderful public facility is the brainchild of the remarkable Ann Buttenwieser, who describes her decades-long effort in The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront.
Public floating swimming pools are not a new concept, with many built in the 1800s in New York, Boston, New Orleans and other cities. Unlike the Floating Pool Lady, these pools were open to saltwater and many were funded to improve sanitation rather than offer recreation. As water pollution built up and waterfront access grew scarce, the pools disappeared.
Buttenwieser’s book describes her saga modestly but frankly and in detail. (There’s a good quick summary in this 2014 profile.) Philanthropic funding was tough but she kickstarted it with a donation of almost $2 million from a friend’s estate. Converting a barge into a beautiful recreational facility was tricky but not rocket science. The big barrier was regulatory science; she titles one chapter “The Orwellian Bureaucracy”. The toughest opponent proved to be New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
Back in 2017, floating swimming pools alongside an urban beach were part of a Boston Harbor Now proposal to enhance the Charlestown Navy Yard. Could those pools work in Charlestown or elsewhere in Boston Harbor?
There might be plenty of demand. Charlestown’s Clougherty Pool is at the other end of the neighborhood. The Mirabella Pool is right on the North End waterfront, East Boston has Constitution Beach and South Boston has three miles of beaches, but as best as I can tell that’s about it for public outdoor swimming in the city.
On a wild guess, Floating Pool Ladies might cost a bit under $10 million today and they would be considerably more expensive to operate than alternatives onshore. If those exist. I have no idea on how high floating pools might rank among community priorities. But can a city provide too many public outdoor swimming pools? 1/10/22
How pocket parks can open up the shore. Waterfront walks like Boston Harborwalk and the Manhattan Shoreline Greenway give fabulous views of the sea. Some big waterfront parks like East Boston’s upcoming Piers Park 3 and Manhattan’s Hudson River Pier 26 offer opportunities for closer engagement, like walking down to the water or going kayaking. New York makes a particular effort to deliver these connections in pocket waterfront parks, as shown in the city’s latest comprehensive waterfront plan.
One example is Hunts Point Riverside Park. “This former illegal dumping ground at Hunts Point situated at a predominantly industrial waterfront along the Bronx River, has been transformed into a waterfront oasis, featuring a fishing pier, a kayak and canoe launch and a spray park for children.”
Another is Randall’s Island Living Shoreline, “which features terraces and tide pools that create new ecological habitats and encourage biodiversity. Markers at different shoreline elevations allow the public to observe the effects of changing tides and rising sea levels.”
“Because healthy waters make it safer for people to get onto the water, the City has also expanded infrastructure that supports recreational water access, such as floating docks, get-downs, boat ramps and boat tie-ups,” says the plan. “This infrastructure, along with an increase in the number of boating clubs and youth-focused paddling initiatives, has made it easier and safer for New Yorkers to launch watercraft into NYC’s rivers and bays today than at any other point in the last century.”
For evidence, check out the “blue network” of the NYC Water Trail:
In a few locations, “boathouses serve as important hubs for boat storage, education and guided instruction that anchor community access to the waterfront. New boathouses planned at Sherman Creek in Manhattan and Bay Breeze Park in Queens demonstrate how the City can partner with local boating and paddling advocacy groups to construct new multipurpose boathouses on revitalized waterfront parkland.”
Okay, the Big Apple has major resources that Boston lacks, including 160 miles of city-owned shoreline and (sometimes) better access to serious funding. Getting into or onto salt water also might be a bit easier for anyone in New York than in Boston since the range of tide is much lower–about half the range at the tip of Manhattan as in Boston inner harbor.
Perhaps we can even get a few boathouses, maybe starting with the boat ramp at Little Mystic Channel that I use. As in New York, these could be community centers hosting group gatherings and other amenities like the restrooms that are so hard to find along the shore. Boathouses could store and safeguard not only cartop boats but open water rowboats or daysailers or dragon boats like those that live on a float in Little Mystic Channel.
This kind of community resource would be nothing new on the Boston waterfront. For instance, a boathouse was one of many amenities at Wood Island, the remarkable East Boston park opened in 1898 and illegally bulldozed by Massport in 1969. 12/31/21