To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

East Boston flood scenarios / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

But perhaps the most important statement in the plan is: “more extensive measures combining green and gray infrastructure and new open space can be built and expanded over time to address risks from 1 percent annual chance floods with over 36 inches of sea level rise (by the 2070s).” In other words, landscape-based solutions are the answer for long-term protection and resilience. The plan calls for making $142-262 million of these investments over the next few decades, netting $644-751 million in benefits.

East Boston plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Charlestown plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

An inter-departmental city government team lead the effort, which was conducted by engineers at Kleinfelder, landscape architects at Stoss landscape urbanism, and architects with ONE architecture. The district-level coastal resilience plan came out of the recently-completed Climate Ready Boston process and Imagine Boston 2030, the first comprehensive planning effort in 50 years, and resulted from the efforts of Boston Harbor Now and other non-profits.

In a phone interview, Chris Reed, ASLA, founder and principal at Stoss landscape urbanism, said East Boston and Charlestown were the focus of the first plans and conceptual designs in a series that will look at all vulnerable Boston neighborhoods. “The rationale was to look at the places that will flood first and also help disadvantaged neighborhoods threatened with displacement and gentrification.” An analysis of South Boston, including Seaport, is also underway, and more neighborhood analyses will be coming over the next few years.

Reed explained that Kleinfelder, Stoss, and ONE only proposed “flood control measures that have social, environmental, and economic benefits.” Flood control infrastructure takes the form of landscape berms, wildlife habitat, waterfront promenades, play areas, and strategic walls. Using evaluation criteria established in the report, the planning and design team settled on a layered approach with back-up defenses. In most instances, walls were minimized in favor of other kinds of multi-use infrastructure that enable access to and recreation on the waterfronts.

East Boston landing: a landscape-first approach / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Ryan playground in Charlestown / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

The team also crafted a “development toolkit,” with new regulations to guide private developers and better leverage public-private infrastructure investments. For example, currently, new developments on the waterfront must have 50 percent open space. Reed explained that through new regulations, these open spaces can be better coordinated to maximize resilience. “The city can now gang up and locate protective open spaces strategically.” With the toolkit, the city can also now move beyond a “site by site approach” and scale up its resilient development efforts.

Recommendations are rooted in different flooding scenarios. Reed said the tricky part was “you can have a storm surge on top of sea level rise.” Instead of using outdated FEMA data, Boston is basing its analyses in dynamic models created by Woods Hole Group, University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Barr Foundation. Models project out to 2070, but purposefully stop there. “We just can’t project to 2100.”

Reed said funds have already been allocated to projects, including the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway and raising Border Street. But it’s not clear how Boston will pay for the billions it may actually need to spend on resilience, when all neighborhood analyses are said and done.

What is clear to Reed is that “there is an absolute need to address climate change.” And in our new age of resilience, what’s needed is a “landscape first strategy for city-making.”

In fact, Reed thinks these district-scale resilience plans return us to the era of Frederick Law Olmsted, when landscape served as a basis for urban planning. “People are re-discovering cities are part of the environment and impacted by nature and temperature change.”

Read the executive summary or full report (large PDF).

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