Boston’s port needs attention

Update regulations, stop walling off harbor from city

IN A CITY AND REGION with a booming innovation economy, we run the risk of missing opportunities for growth and improvement that are hiding in plain sight.  For example, most people know that Massport owns and operates Boston’s Logan International Airport. What gets less public attention, but is equally deserving of recognition, is Massport’s role operating many maritime industrial areas that are the heart of the region’s working port economy.

Today, Boston’s port economy supports more than 50,000 jobs and creates $4.6 billion in economic value for the city, the state, and the region. To preserve and strengthen Boston’s working ports during a time of rapid development and climate change we urge Massport to continue its focus on the working port and take steps to further modernize Boston’s maritime economy.

Throughout 2018, Boston Harbor Now led an effort to examine what other cities around the globe have done to advance their port areas, while simultaneously meeting with stakeholders in Boston to get their insights into the future of Boston’s working waterfront. As a result of that year-long effort, a few important insights can be gleaned about how best to renew our collective focus on the working port, further modernize Boston’s maritime economy, and ensure that our land use policies accurately reflect our region’s vision and priorities. A strong collaboration among key stakeholders, including Massport, the Office of Coastal Zone Management, the city of Boston, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will be required to fulfill the objectives outlined below.

Encourage competition and growth

Boston and Cambridge have built a technology and innovation ecosystem that has attracted private sector investment and positioned us to capture the benefits of the 21st century economy. Curiously, this phenomenon has yet to be fully realized in Boston’s maritime industry. By harnessing the power of maritime technology, our melting pot of tech talent, and world-class universities, Boston’s working waterfront can create new business opportunities for the region. Establishing a locally-based maritime focused accelerator, similar to London’s Startup Wharf, would provide a platform in Boston for maritime-related pilot programs while also raising funds and awareness to help maritime related startups succeed.

Update 40-year-old regulations

Boston Harbor is home to four designated port areas (DPAs), zoned specifically to create and preserve waterfront lands for maritime uses. Since their initial establishment in 1978, DPA regulations have changed very little, meaning that Boston’s DPAs continue to be used solely for purposes established during the first Dukakis administration. Although the regulations were designed to promote water-dependent industrial uses, preserve port infrastructure, and tightly control development, they have not been refined or significantly updated in 40 years. By updating our current DPA regulations to increase opportunities for public access, create more flexibility for temporary uses, and require climate change and adaption strategies, we can bring our DPAs fully into the 21st century.

We believe that the best way to modernize and preserve our DPAs may lie in a comprehensive re-assessment of individual DPAs and modernizing portions of working port regulations, informed in part by our contemporary understanding of the impacts of climate change. There are plenty of places to build condos, restaurants, and cafes upland, but the paucity of limited coastal space for cargo vessels, fish processing, auto processing, and other unique water dependent uses pales in comparison. We need to take this very real limitation into account as we undertake the task of preserving DPA areas while also ensuring that the policies that govern these spaces are able to respond to the innovative working port uses of the 21st century.

Connect Boston’s community and knowledge economy to the waterfront

To support a thriving port economy, the local community must feel a connection to its working waterfront. Port Centers–learning environments that offer a window into maritime operations and the vital role the working waterfront plays in the regional economy–are an easy way to provide an opportunity to create strategic alliances between maritime leaders, advocates, and the general public. Boston can look to successful community port centers around the globe such as the Genoa Port Centre, Centre Mainport Rotterdam, and the Port of Melbourne: Port Education Centre for inspiration.

Boston should also capitalize on its academic strengths to establish a connection between Boston’s working waterfront and its knowledge economy. By establishing maritime vocational programs, supported by our institutions and focused on maritime jobs in the 21st century, Boston could help close the educational achievement gap. To do this, Boston can draw inspiration from other successful maritime programs such as The New York Harbor School, the Baltimore Maritime Industries Academy High School and  The Landing School in Arundel, ME.

Maritime vocational programs have the potential to strengthen Boston’s working port and revitalize our aging maritime workforce. By educating the maritime workers of the future, Boston can create a generation of workers that value, support, and grow the working waterfront of the future.

Change where the city meets the port

Some ports of the future will no longer need to be walled off from the community or separated by regulatory boundaries. If we focus on improving the port-city connection, portions of our working waterfront can become part of the next generation’s urban experience. The port can be absorbed into the story of every harbor community.

The future we envision is one where city residents visit places along the working waterfront, cool off on a hot summer day at a local floating pool, attend a sold-out concert, walk through a park, visit a floating museum featuring local artists, or pick organic vegetables grown on a barge by local middle schoolers. This optimistic future of a city-and-people-oriented working harbor is within our grasp if we take steps now to reimagine, through an updated regulatory framework and a concerted collaborative effort among public and private stakeholders, our essential relationship to the harbor.

Meet the Author

Jill Valdes Horwood

Director of policy, Boston Harbor Now
Meet the Author

Boston’s working waterfront is a core part of our history and identity. It became a gateway and economic growth center of a new nation in the early 19th century. Today’s port is substantially different from the legendary port of two centuries ago; indeed it is in many ways different from the port of the 1970s. We need to acknowledge and embrace the differences, adapting DPAs to meet current and anticipated needs and adopting new ways of thinking of the port as an integrated part of our civic experience. A port that can sustain water-dependent jobs, respond to our innovation economy and develop resilience to the inescapable impacts of climate change can be one important component of what makes Boston an attractive place for people to live in, and businesses to invest in. By developing a 21st-century approach to our working waterfront, we can ensure that our ports remain innovative, thriving, and competitive with the very best ports around the world.

Jill Valdés Horwood is director of policy for Boston Harbor Now and James Aloisi is board member of TransitMatters, the author of “Massport at 60,” and a former state secretary of transportation.