Waterfront resilience is ground zero in climate fight

Nature-based solutions lend themselves to resiliency strategies

GOV. MAURA HEALEY’S recent appointment of the Commonwealth’s first cabinet level climate chief –Melissa Hoffer, joining from the Environmental Protection Agency – reflects the new administration’s belief that resiliency is a priority issue that spans public health, equity, the economy, and environmental sustainability.

With key federal, state, and local players committed to rapidly advancing our efforts to address climate change, Massachusetts has both the scientific prowess and innovative spirit to be a global leader in addressing this critical issue.  We also have an influx of new federal dollars, including funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act  and the Inflation Reduction Act, available to municipalities, states, and community-based organizations to fund resiliency efforts.

As an advocate for a vital and vibrant ocean, the New England Aquarium sees waterfront resilience as ground zero for addressing the consequences of our climate crisis. The problem is overwhelming and growing every day. but it is not unmanageable. In fact, thoughtful strategies can both protect our coastline and provide additional public benefits. Natural infrastructure options such as living sea walls and shorelines, managed wetlands, rain gardens, tree trenches, and strategically planned and managed open spaces can protect us from storm damage and flooding, provide new active recreation land, store carbon, remove marine debris, restore habitats, and create jobs.

Chief Hoffer and the Healey administration are poised to drive an intentional and strategic action plan for addressing urgent climate change issues. The newly-created chief role also best positions Massachusetts to gain maximum advantage from the myriad federal programs (the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s building resilient infrastructure and communities, Department of Transportation’s protect program, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  climate ready coasts program) that can protect our coastlines and other infrastructure necessary for a functioning Commonwealth.

To be successful, the administration should require an updated and forward-looking regulatory environment and the necessary staff infrastructure to facilitate this work; this model would include several interlocking concepts:

  • Science, data, and innovation should drive our planning. Thinking around resiliency has evolved from pursuing barriers that prevent flooding to identifying nature-based solutions. This model recognizes that flooding is inevitable and tries to mitigate its risks. These strategies should be monitored, studied, and updated so that future planning is informed by real-time data.
  • Tracking should incorporate metrics that consider not just successful resiliency, but also issues of equity and public health.
  • Nature-based solutions also tend to lend themselves to resiliency strategies that are multi-purpose and create public benefit. With careful planning, these spaces can be designed to improve public open space in under-resourced neighborhoods and bring people to the water’s edge, so that they can engage with waterways and the Atlantic Ocean, and so that they can see the beauty of our blue planet and the benefits of protecting it.
  • Our laws need to be updated. a state-level coastal protection effort that smooths the regulatory pathway, mandates district-wide planning (to avoid parcel-by-parcel approaches); facilitates the inter-agency, public-private partnerships needed to develop resiliency projects; and is consistent with federal requirements for funds available for the projects.
  • To maximize the federal dollars available today, we also need to prioritize state investment in these initiatives. State dollars should be allocated with an eye toward both the most pressing resiliency needs and assuring that environmental justice communities without financial resources to make the necessary upgrades (on both public and private land) are not left behind.

Many of the Commonwealth’s most impacted cities and towns have already begun to plan—and in some cases implement—multi-purpose, nature-based solutions. Given the urgency of climate change’s impacts on our coastal resources, we need to move from piecemeal local efforts to a full partnership among state, regional, and municipal stakeholders, and to create comprehensive plans and the best possible environment for federally compliant, shovel-ready projects.

Approaching coastal resiliency in this way would harness federal, state, and local resources to make our coastlines more resilient, more equitable, and welcoming, and more attractive for all our residents. That would truly be transforming one of the defining challenges of our generation to greater opportunities for all.

Vikki Spruill is president and ceo of the New England Aquarium.