ICYMI: Bostonians seek a more climate-resilient city

Our survey last fall confirmed Bostonians love their open spaces…and want more of them

A topic worth revisiting: Bostonians understand the need for greater environmental resilience for a city facing mounting climate threats. This was one of the findings in a study we conducted last fall of more than 450 Boston residents to gauge attitudes about the existential threat, and what steps should be taken.

The good news is we found overwhelming support for addressing the problem, particularly in building more parks and natural landscapes to strengthen our shorelines and green infrastructure. We also found that providing access to more open spaces delivers added value in the health, social, and economic well-being of Boston residents and businesses.

First, let’s look at some of the numbers: a huge majority of residents (85 percent) now believe that Boston’s waterfront is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with nearly half (42 percent) of residents saying it is “very vulnerable.” We also discovered that more than two-thirds (71 percent) of residents believe Boston needs more open and public spaces, with over one-quarter (28 percent) indicating that the city needs “a lot more.”

Open spaces provide other environmental benefits beyond waterfront protection, Bostonians believe. Well over two-thirds (69 percent) said building more parks and open spaces would be extremely or very helpful in improving water and air quality.

Economic trade-offs?
What’s more surprising is that these attitudes toward greening the city are favored even over economic development. When given a choice between development and parks, over two-thirds (70 percent) of Bostonians prefer the latter.

That’s not to say a trade-off is required. Among those surveyed, there is also strong support (52 percent) for creating parks, gardens, and open spaces to help attract more visitors and generate more economic opportunities for local businesses. In fact, many urban parks and open spaces, like the High Line in New York City, have become anchors for robust economic activity, from enhancing property values to attracting more quality employees to the area, to expanding local businesses’ customer bases. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, local park and recreation agencies generated $154 billion in economic activity in 2015, as well as adding more than 1.1 million jobs that boosted labor income by $55 billion.

In waterfront areas facing loss of potential open spaces, like Boston’s Seaport District, resilient design can also help keep the concrete sprawl in check, enhancing the urban landscape’s aesthetics and improving the quality of life for all who live, work, and visit there.

New climate realities hit home
Ever-increasing damage and economic impact from climate events are driving calls for resilient design and making open spaces a civic priority across Boston’s waterfront. Historic weather events like the bomb cyclone that accompanied Winter Storm Grayson in January 2018 are become annual regularities, for example: the highest tides on record flooded the MBTA’s Aquarium subway station, and city streets became icy rivers, stranding residents, and closing businesses. More than 84,000 Massachusetts residents are now at extreme risk of sea level rise—a number that is projected to more than double by 2050, as scientists from the University of Massachusetts Boston and other studies predict sea levels will likely increase 8 to 18 inches in that timeframe.

Boston has experienced 21 events that triggered federal or state disaster declarations in the 28 years since 1991. As these events increase, the area of Boston exposed to stormwater flooding will grow steadily as well. By the 2050s, 7 percent of the Boston’s total land area could be exposed to frequent stormwater flooding from increasing regular major rain events.

Open spaces can help mitigate the impact. Parks with natural landscapes like hills, native plant life, and salt marshes are more likely to respond to a storm surge by slowing and redirecting water away from vulnerable neighborhoods. Features such as berms, open fields, and stormwater gardens can provide much-need flood protection. Natural features like marshes, living shorelines, quick-draining sandy shores, and rocky shorelines not only provide greater biodiversity but function like storm defenses—many can restore themselves naturally.

One Boston. One Waterfront. 
What this survey ultimately revealed is Bostonians clearly understand and value our waterfront, and what can be done to enhance it. We can no longer think of storm surges and other harsh climate events as “historic” but rather as commonplace. Open spaces provide accessible places for fun, exercise, play, respite, and recreation. They connect communities and bring new economic vitality to adjoining businesses and neighborhoods. And they play an important role in the safety and vibrancy of Boston communities.