Mayor Walsh proposes plan to combat rising sea levels

Avery Bleichfeld

Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced a plan at his annual speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 17 that proposes using parks and green spaces to aid flood prevention by creating spaces that drain water better and can still serve multiple purposes.

According to the Imagine Boston 2030 plan, the city has seen a 9-inch rise in sea levels over the 20th century and is expected to see another 18-inch rise by 2050. The new or renovated parks are designed to use features such as raised earth mounds called berms, wetlands, or elevated areas to help protect the city from the flooding that may occur.

“This space can be used as a recreational facility, but still also have berms and other features and stuff that will absorb water and also save areas of the city from getting flooded,” said Ryan Woods, deputy commissioner for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Walsh decided to focus on parks after a series of community events and open houses to gauge which designs interested the people living in impacted communities, including East Boston, South Boston and Charleston.

“They didn’t want to feel like they’re cut off from the water,” said Alisha Pegan, a coordinator with Climate Ready Boston, a city initiative developing solutions to the threat climate change poses to Boston.

“The waterfront is something that they wanted to feel connected to and because of the threat of sea level raise they didn’t want that fear to make them turn their backs on the water. And so, a lot of the solutions in these reports were open spaces and parks.”

The focus on parks came as a shift from the idea of a barrier wall built in the harbor, an idea to which Boston residents were attached for a long time, Pegan said.

With discussions of improving coastal resiliency, some citizens brought up the idea of the harbor barrier wall, Pegan said. The wall would have had a series of gates that opened and closed with the tides to regulate flooding caused by sea-level rise.

A study released in 2018 by University of Massachusetts Boston, and done in partnership with the City of Boston and Climate Ready Boston, looked at the feasibility of a harbor wall.

“They analyzed three different options, three different harbor barrier options, and found that it wasn’t really feasible for Boston right now,” Pegan said.

The study found while the barrier wall would have benefits and provide some protection, it would last only 50 to 60 years due to the number of times the gates would open and close and “would represent a significant alteration to a complex socio-ecological system.”

It concluded that a harbor barrier “is an unreasonable strategy for the City of Boston and probably the other municipalities in Boston Harbor to consider.”

The study instead proposed that the city of Boston focus on a shore-based approach, which includes the current plan of building and renovating a series of public parks along the waterfront to add to add protection during floods while adding to the amount of recreational opportunities that Boston residents have.

Harborkeepers, a group in East Boston, works to build a sustainable community that can withstand the effects of coastal flooding, and the group’s executive director Magdalena Ayed sees parks as a space to build community, something she sees as highly important in building climate resilience for residents.

Ayed said that building bonds within a community is important for making a group that can respond to a storm.

“When there is climate impact, especially with big storms, it’s crucial, crucial, crucial, especially if you have to work in multiple languages, with differing cultural norms,” Ayed said.

Those community bonds allow a diverse group of people to successfully face the challenges major storms or flooding pose, Ayed said.

“If you have to evacuate a community that has an elderly Chinese population or an elderly Latino population and a younger Arab population that’s very family oriented and then you’re putting them all in the shelter, that in itself is a challenge.”

The Harborkeepers also work to help families and individuals learn preparedness skills, such as CPR and first aid, as well as teach residents how to advocate for themselves. These are the sort of small-scale actions that Ayed hopes “will create some level of resiliency.”

And for her, parks fit into the picture too, as part of a way of improving community health.

“We don’t have great tree canopy, we don’t have green spaces, but it also degrades the general public health of a neighborhood,” Ayed said. “So I think that’s why the city is focusing on these waterfront parks and green spaces.”