Achieving a resilient and welcoming Boston waterfront that benefits the public today and well into the future | Q&A with Barr Foundation President Jim Canales


Boston in the summer is a beautiful sight. All over the city, residents and workers venture outdoors to enjoy the long-awaited sunshine, with many flocking to the waterfront areas to enjoy the views and harbor breezes. The city’s parks are a popular gathering place for tourists and locals alike, including Boston Common, the Public Garden, Rose Kennedy Greenway, and Christopher Columbus Park.

Today, Boston is working to expand upon this existing network of parks by enhancing its waterfront, with the addition of more open, green, and climate-resilient space. The city’s transformative Resilient Boston Harbor vision prioritizes green space, to expand access to the waterfront while preparing for the effects of climate change—including increased flooding events and more severe storms.

Concurrently, the Trustees of Reservations (The Trustees) is exploring a vision to build a series of climate-resilient parks that will serve as world-class destinations while also protecting Boston’s vulnerable waterfront. Modeled on parks of high-visibility and superlative design such as Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, Millennium Park in Chicago, and Discovery Park in Houston, our city’s waterfront sites have the potential to become a major draw by providing waterfront access and open space for residents of Boston, New England and beyond.

Our partnership with the Barr Foundation is an invaluable part of this effort, as it leads the charge for positive change, with a vision to “achieve a Boston waterfront for all,” one that is welcoming, fun, productive, and resilient. To date, Barr has awarded more than $13 million to various nonprofits through its Boston Waterfront Initiative.

We greatly value the support from Barr, the City of Boston and our other partners, as this work continues to progress.

Waterfront Views Q&A with Jim Canales, Barr Foundation President

1.     We deeply appreciate the Barr Foundation’s commitment to making the Boston Waterfront more resilient and accessible for all. How are you working with the Trustees, the City of Boston and other partners to drive this priority forward?

One of the Barr Foundation’s core values is to adopt a long-term perspective, and that very much informs our commitment to ensuring that Boston’s waterfront benefits the public today and well into the future. We believe everyone deserves to enjoy a waterfront that offers great public parks, recreational and cultural activities, and economic opportunities—and at the same time adapts to a changing climate to protect Boston from threats like extreme flooding. These are big ambitions, we realize, and they require collaboration with a range of partners and allies. Barr has supported many different organizations, including the Trustees, recognizing that each partner brings different skills and perspectives—whether in urban planning, advocacy, regulatory and legal issues, community engagement, or parks and conservation—to the realization of a larger vision. You can learn more about our partners at

2.      Looking back on 2018, where do you see progress? What are the challenges?

One of the most exciting developments in 2018 was Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s unveiling of Resilient Boston Harbor at his annual speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The mayor outlined a vision for 67 acres of new open space and restoration of 122 acres along Boston’s 47-mile shoreline that would increase access to these spaces, as well as protect Boston during major flooding events. It’s a bold, aspirational, and much-needed vision for Boston’s waterfront, and the mayor deserves both our commendation and support for his leadership.

The key challenge is one that the mayor himself has expressed on numerous occasions, which is how we move from planning to execution. The City of Boston has been engaged in multiple planning efforts across various agencies (many of them supported by the Barr Foundation), and there is great appetite for those plans to move to action, which must remain a key priority in 2019 and beyond.

3.     What do you see as key priorities for 2019 in creating a more resilient Boston waterfront? How can the public get more involved?

A main priority for all of us invested in achieving a great waterfront for Boston is to help advance the realization of the City’s Resilient Boston Harbor vision. Doing so will require all sectors to come together to marshal the requisite political will and financial resources. This is where public engagement will be critical, whether as advocates, contributors, or both. We each have a role to play.

Indeed, one of the key questions related to Resilient Boston Harbor is the financing plan to achieve this vision. It clearly requires significant support from the public sector, business community, and private philanthropy. And we cannot do this on a project-by-project basis; we need a comprehensive approach to funding.

4.     You’ve recently hired Jill Valdes Horwood as director of your Boston Waterfront Initiative. What is your vision for this position in leading the initiative forward?

By the end of 2018, three years into a special initiative, Barr had committed close to $13 million to advance a more inclusive and resilient Boston waterfront. Our trustees took stock at that time and determined that investing in full-time, expert leadership for the initiative was the right next step to support the change we hope to see.

We launched a search early this year for a newly created director position and recently announced Jill’s appointment to that role. Jill comes to Barr from Boston Harbor Now, where she serves as policy director. She brings substantive policy experience and legal knowledge, strong community relationships, and a thorough understanding of the context and opportunities for the Boston waterfront in the years ahead. Our vision for her role is to build on the progress of the past several years, maximize the potential of the partnerships we have built (and those still to come), and help advance the exciting vision that the City has set forth. We are excited about the leadership Jill will provide for this next phase of Barr’s engagement when she joins Barr in July.

5.     What does a transformed Boston waterfront look like to you?

Last summer, Barr commissioned artist Leonardo March to explore the Boston waterfront through his camera lens. The result, his photo-essay titled Another Room in the House, reminds us that fundamentally—for all of the talk about policy, regulations, and plans—the focus on Boston’s waterfront is about people.

It’s about the experience we seek for all visitors to the waterfront, whether they are Boston residents, local neighbors, or tourists. The joy of connecting to a waterfront that is a key part of our city’s story. The pleasure of enjoying expansive parks along the water’s edge with our families and friends. The vitality of our regional economy, fueled by waterfront industries. And the sense of community and connection that can grow when we make the space for it. We do well to remember the human experience we aspire to, especially as we consider the uses for the precious remaining space along our waterfront.


Jim Canales

Jim Canales was appointed president and trustee of the Barr Foundation in May 2014. Prior to joining Barr, he spent two decades in a variety of roles at The James Irvine Foundation in California, including president and chief executive officer from 2003 through 2014.

Before working in philanthropy, Jim was a high school English teacher in San Francisco after earning a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in education from Stanford University. He maintains a broad range of volunteer engagements; he currently serves as a trustee of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Kaiser Family Foundation, and as a member of the Advisory Board for the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative. In 2015–2016, he co-chaired the Leadership Council of Boston Creates, the City’s cultural planning process.

Jim’s prior board involvement includes service as a Stanford University trustee from 2006 through 2015. He has served as chair of the boards of the College Futures Foundation, KQED Public Broadcasting, the Stanford Alumni Association, and Larkin Street Youth Services, and as vice chair of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He is also a co-founder and former board chair of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

Jim’s writing on a range of topics has appeared in The Boston Globe, the San Francisco ChronicleThe Chronicle of PhilanthropyStanford Social Innovation Review, and The Huffington Post, among other outlets.