THE LANDSCAPE of the upcoming Boston mayoral race makes it abundantly clear that the city’s biggest priorities—housing, education, economic opportunity—will be considered through a new lens, one more reflective of its diverse residents. Creating a waterfront for everyone through planning and a leading-edge approach to climate change must also land on that list of priorities.
Despite the astounding nearly $15 billion in taxpayer money spent to clean Boston Harbor, depress the Central Artery, and reconnect the city to its waterfront, efforts to maximize this resource, prioritize climate resilience, and prioritize inclusivity at the water’s edge have been fragmented and reactive. That must change.
The mayoral candidates should be guided by the following five principles and be held accountable to develop working plans in each area to assure that each priority is effectively addressed.
Boston Harbor and its benefits should extend beyond Downtown and the Seaport: Reflecting the longstanding power structures of this city, the Seaport and the Downtown waterfront have consistently received the lion’s share of the public attention. Yet from Charlestown to Dorchester and East Boston to the Boston Harbor Islands, there are countless opportunities to think creatively about the waterfront as a resource for recreation for all Bostonians, a hedge against sea level rise, and an engine for economic development to help improve the quality of life and economy of our whole city and region.
Planning should be expansive, in terms of scope and public engagement: To date, the design and implementation of waterfront infrastructure is reactive, parcel-by-parcel, and not in service to our entire city. The City’s Resilient Boston Harbor Vision and the climate action plans for individual neighborhoods require a neighborhood-wide approach to address access and resiliency that includes ensuring that voices from non-water-adjacent neighborhoods— Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roslindale, Allston/Brighton—are also included in the process.
Future investment should deploy private dollars differently and rethink funding overall: One of our predecessor organizations was an ardent advocate for private dollar investments in the Harborwalk; at the time (now more than three decades ago), this was a cutting edge strategy that resulted in 43 of the 47 miles of our waterfront being accessible to the public. But in today’s context, this approach is woefully inadequate, leading to a mix of disconnected experiences that can be hard to find and feel closed off to those not privileged to live or work on the waterfront. As we plan for a more resilient and welcoming waterfront, a different model is required.
We recommend three initial steps to improve the funding model:
- Create baseline standards for new waterfront neighborhood development that prioritize infrastructure improvements that lead with the sustainable public benefits for the entire neighborhood or district and add value that the general public has requested.
- Launch a city-wide waterfront investment fund with developer dollars (much like the current jobs and housing linkage funds) that can be applied to programming and marketing as well as the built environment.
- Pursue new government resilience funding sources for neighborhood-based climate change protections. Public sector resiliency funding is needed to match an increase in private sector investment.
We also should assure that resilience funding does triple duty consistent with the principles of resiliency, inclusivity, and accessibility. This means protecting vulnerable neighborhoods and creating protections that offer new parks, open spaces, and waterfront access for all.
Boston can be an incubator for change: Boston’s innovation economy is the perfect laboratory for startups with solutions that have the potential for significant impact on jobs and education, ocean sustainability, and global resilience. Areas of particular opportunity for entrepreneurs include offshore renewable energy, sustainable seafood, maritime decarbonization, marine pollution, blue tech, and resilient waterfronts.
Located right at the water’s edge, UMass Boston has already begun to make a name for itself promoting sustainablesolutions. The Stone Living Lab is hard at work using the Boston Harbor Islands to develop nature-based solutions to the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge. The Aquarium’s BlueSwell Incubator program, launched last summer in partnership with SeaAhead, bolsters startups focused on new ocean-related technologies and business solutions that enhance ocean health, sustainable ocean industry, and global resilience. By creating public private partnerships and offering incentives for collaborations between business, non-profits/ advocacy groups, and higher education, Boston can become a test lab for solutions that can change the world’s response to climate change.
Our waterfront should be for all: Access to the ocean, the Harbor Islands, waterfront open spaces, and opportunities for individual and community health (as recently demonstrated in the response to Covid 19) should be open to everyone. This includes identifying parts of the waterfront that are adjacent to diverse neighborhoods (like Moakley Park) and increasing our investments in those communities, furthering the transportation infrastructure that brings people from non-adjacent neighborhoods to the waterfront, and fostering more inclusive programming, recreational opportunities, and passive engagement. To open up currently unwelcoming stretches of waterfront in the Seaport and Downtown, we must ensure that there are affordable amenities, from food and cultural attractions to restrooms and places to sit.
Equitable cities go beyond the basics and think boldly about how the riches of the waterfront—from the rivers to the Harbor—can benefit everyone. We have much work to do to get there.
Kathy Abbott is president and CEO of Boston Harbor Now and Vikki N. Spruill is president and CEO of the New England Aquarium.