Boston’s Rendezvous with Climate Destiny

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

A Boston firefighter wades through flood waters from Boston Harbor on January 4, 2018.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last August, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh expressed his fear that his own city would have been “wiped out” by a comparable deluge. Scores of people would be rendered homeless, waterfront areas would be ravaged, the damage would run into the multi-billions. Several years earlier, the city dodged a bullet during Hurricane Sandy: Boston was spared the flooding that paralyzed Manhattan only because the storm hit Boston hours after high tide.

If Bostonians were apprehensive after Harvey, they are even more nervous after the first blizzard of 2018. Residents were jolted out of complacency as climate change–fueled sea-level rise, cyclonic winds, and high tides produced a storm surge that sent the Atlantic Ocean flowing into Boston’s coastal neighborhoods.



Houston, a city with no zoning laws, has long paved over bayous and other waterways that might have ameliorated Harvey’s devastating rainfall. If anything, Boston is at the other end of the zoning spectrum, with volumes of notoriously complex regulations that have spun off a cottage industry in development and building workarounds that the average person scarcely knows about.

But as with many threats, people need a real warning before they give serious attention to a problem. “What if” scenarios premised on more-frequent Atlantic storms and sea-level rise have been debated—and steamrolled over by the next news cycle in Boston—for years.

Now that the wake-up call has come, city leaders must take reams of climate change analysis and zoning reform aspirations and mold them to keep pace with rapid commercial and residential development in the urban coastal areas that are at greatest risk for flooding in the coming decades.

The threat is well-documented. The 2014 National Climate Assessment warned that the Northeast has experienced a 1-foot increase in sea level since 1900, well over the global average of roughly 8 inches. Massachusetts has some of the fastest-rising sea levels in the United States, and Boston could see as much as 8 inches of sea-level rise by 2030, according to the city’s Climate Ready Boston report.

Some developers have responded to the threat of increases in hurricanes, nor’easters, and “king tides” (the highest yearly tides), placing the most vulnerable assets like electrical and IT systems on higher floors in new buildings. Yet there are those who behave as if the Atlantic Ocean is a benign entity that will continue to gently lap at the shoreline, while developers continue to command premium prices for water views. This hubris has produced Boston’s newest neighborhood, the Seaport District, a Boston Harbor commercial and residential district that arose on what had been a blighted zone of shipping installations and warehouses. It lies mostly in a flood zone.

Areas of the Seaport District, along with a few other coastal Boston neighborhoods, flooded on Thursday, producing some of the most dramatic images of the blizzard. The storm produced the highest tide ever recorded since 1921, breaking the record set by the Blizzard of 1978.



The Seaport is one of the city’s most desirable enclaves, featuring Boston’s largest convention center, hotels, and popular contemporary art and children’s museums. Trendy restaurants and new condos and apartments have sprung up over the past decade. The hospitality and real-estate sectors are not the only industries seduced by the siren call of the Seaport. It is also the site of the new General Electric headquarters—a site affected by the same waters that carried off Dumpsters from nearby streets. (To address sea-level rise, GE plans to raise the initial levels of the building above grade. But as the flooding demonstrated, the surrounding streets and access points would be largely inaccessible during extreme weather.)

In 2016, Boston magazine reported that the GE site was “close to the highest flooding risk of any habitable city land.” Asked about the location, Western Carolina University’s Robert Young, a coastal geologist, told the magazine:

That certainly looks like a crazy place. We dumb-ass, redneck southerners always expect you Yankees to be more environmentally progressive, to integrate more science-based policy in your planning than we do down here. It’s always disappointing to me when that turns out not to really be true.

Boston has recently updated its climate change policies for large developments, requiring builders to demonstrate that they have taken steps to “determine and avoid, mitigate or eliminate any project impacts due to climate change.” But severe weather events will occur more frequently—with corresponding economic losses.

From 2030 to 2050, the city could see $135 million in annualized loses; by the end of the century such losses could top $1 billion. “If anyone wants to question global warming, just see where the flood zones are,” Mayor Walsh told the Boston Globe this week. “Some of those zones did not flood 30 years ago. I think it reminds developers as they think about development, how do they build into that development potential protections?”

Boston, like Houston, has to confront a reality that no one really wants to face: Yes, these areas can be developed, but we don’t know whether they can be hardened to withstand more frequent, severe weather.

Four days into the new year, Boston has already seen historic flooding in an area that is key to the city’s economic future. City and state officials promote areas like the Seaport as places to do business—and major companies like GE settle right in. How will mayors and business leaders balance growth against the harsh realities of a fast-changing climate? The Boston experience suggests that they still have much to learn.

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