Olmsted inspiration: Use parks to address climate change

Moakley Park, at the intersection of S. Boston, Dorchester, shows what's possible

IT’S ALL TOO EASY to imagine: a Boston neighborhood keeps flooding in extreme weather. Rising waters and dirty storm runoff threaten public health and homes. A community that wants to share in the continuing growth of a thriving city instead faces what seems to be a dire choice: Withdraw from the waterfront, or die.

What may sound like a headline from tomorrow’s or even today’s news was, in fact, the very crisis facing the Back Bay and Fenway back in the late 1800s, two of the many neighborhoods in Boston developed by filling in a former tidal marsh. To mitigate and control their worsening flooding problems and protect Boston’s rapid overall growth, the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had the bold idea of building a park to promote resilience as well as public health and recreation. Deploying what today’s planners call “green infrastructure,” Olmsted—who this year would celebrate his 200th birthday—developed the Fens into a vibrant park, the first jewel in what became the 1,100-acre Emerald Necklace park system.

More than a century later, our climate crisis and the rising sea levels and the flooding it will visit on Boston’s waterfront neighborhoods are creating a new and urgent need for us to build on Olmsted’s revolutionary vision.

Across the city’s waterfront neighborhoods, from East Boston to Charlestown, the North End, downtown, South Boston, and Dorchester, the Climate Ready Boston initiative has identified more than 75 projects we will need to build in the coming decades to defend against the existential threats we face from climate change.

It’s a bold, expensive—even daunting—list. But now in 2022, we can see an unprecedented opportunity to pay for making Boston not just climate-ready, but home to a next great Sapphire necklace of waterfront parks and islands providing all kinds of human and environmental benefits.

A good place to start: The availability of tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars from the newly enacted American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was recently advanced by Gov. Charlie Baker through a new bond bill.

In developing its legislation late last year for how to distribute the Commonwealth’s ARPA funding, the Massachusetts Legislature wisely recognized that Massachusetts’ COVID recovery work needs to be closely aligned with long-term infrastructure and climate action. The bill provides for planning and development of urban open spaces that can absorb heat, reduce flooding, recreate living shorelines, and create inviting waterfront access for everyone with particular attention to the unmet needs of underserved communities.

The bill also funds specific plans and climate adaptation projects in the Wharf District, Roxbury, South Boston, Hyde Park, Lynn, New Bedford, Quincy, and other communities, including elements of the Climate Ready Boston plans, vital to municipalities throughout Boston Harbor.

Wise and effective investment of our ARPA funding in waterfront protection projects will also give us important success stories and proofs-of-concept to showcase as Massachusetts competes for federal infrastructure bill climate funding. Pairing these resources with concomitant investment from the private sector will be integral to getting projects completed.

Moakley Park, where South Boston and Dorchester meet Carson Beach, must be a top priority for these investments. The 60-acre park occupies a vulnerable position in a coastal flood zone—but for exactly that reason, it has unique potential to help protect multiple neighborhoods and the MBTA Red Line and Old Colony and Mary Ellen McCormack housing developments from coastal storm surges. A reimagined and renovated Moakley Park can be a critical asset for protection and recreation.

What might this look like? Imagine a park with a beautiful berm winding through it to provide an elevated place to walk or sit and look at the water, sloped sides for kids to sled down in winter and roll down in summer, and trees to provide shade. This new feature enhances the recreation opportunities and protects the communities behind the park. The park serves people of all abilities and can connect to Carson Beach and Dorchester Bay with an enhanced “Harborwalk 2.0” providing easy, inclusive, and fun access to the water as well as an additional layer of projection.

More than a century ago, Olmsted envisioned building, along with the Fenway and Jamaicaway, a “Dorchesterway” that would complete the Emerald Necklace and connect the communities along Columbia Road to Moakley Park, the harbor and the islands. Olmsted’s vision incorporated public health and equity in an effort to create a healthier, more joyful, connected city.

A reimagined, improved, climate-protective Moakley Park can be a blueprint for similar investments in other neighborhoods such as East Boston, Dorchester, Fort Point Channel, Downtown, and the Seaport. In all of these locations we’ll have to balance the need to build a bigger and bolder Harborwalk while protecting vital marine ecosystems.

As we respond to increased flooding risks, we can also create new opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people – particularly children – to enjoy all the documented health and social benefits of getting outdoors, being near the water, and enjoying public parks. As we design for climate risk, we can take a fresh look at our open spaces to ensure that their design and amenities benefit as many of us as possible. Creating more democratic, equitable, inclusive spaces for all our community is critical to a diverse, inclusive and equitable 21st Century Boston.

Meet the Author

Kathy Abbott

President and CEO, Boston Harbor Now
Thanks to ARPA and the infrastructure bill, today we have new sources of funding we’ve never before enjoyed to take on what we need to do to protect and transform our waterfront. With public investment, support from residents and the private sector, and political courage, the next chapter of Boston’s history can see us building and rebuilding parks that transform our waterfront, make our city climate-ready and create a waterfront park system that benefits everyone.

Kathy Abbott is the president and CEO of Boston Harbor Now.