When the Sea Comes Knocking: How the City of Boston is Creating a Resilient Coastal Community

By: Jaclyn McBain

The City of Boston emerged from the sea. When the Puritans first arrived in the early 17th century, the area that would become the City of Boston was only 800 acres.[1] Over the course of approximately 250 years, developers filled in over 5,000 acres of the adjacent area covered by water to create the landscape that exists today.[2] Officially, Boston has the most man-made land acreage out of any city in the United States.[3] As sea levels rise, water is not merely encroaching on the city, but it seems to be taking back the area it once covered. Flooding has become a common occurrence across the city. A major boulevard in the Dorchester neighborhood floods so frequently, even in the absence of a storm, that residents are willing to risk driving through the flooded road to get to school, work, and other destinations.[4] Flooding caused by storm surge made international news in January 2018 when it carried dumpsters down the street in the Seaport District.[5] Once or twice a year, Boston Harbor inundates the waterfront areas during King tides, which are higher than normal tides caused by the alignment of the orbits of the Earth, moon, and sun.[6] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned that the flooding during King tides provides a “preview [of] how sea level rise will affect coastal places. As time goes by, the water level reached now during a king tide will be the water level reached at high tide on an average day.”[7] Thus, these events present a dire warning to city officials that if the city does not take action now, much of Boston could be underwater in the future.

The increasing frequency and severity of flooding events are causing more headaches among city officials grappling with the consequences of sea level rise caused by climate change. Their concern is well warranted. A recent study of the impact of sea level rise on the City of Boston demonstrated that as sea level rises, the frequency and intensity of flooding in Boston also rises.[8] Minor flooding events, which occur on average about ten times per year in Boston, are characterized by minimal impact that includes little, if any, property damage and temporary road closures on the shore because of wave splashover.[9] While most flooding events are minor, the city must prepare for moderate and major flooding events. Major flooding events present the threat of significant damage and destruction of property, isolation and evacuation of coastal neighborhoods, and life-threatening conditions.[10] The study showed that if sea level rises by three feet, Boston should expect at least one occurrence of major flooding every year.[11] Floods, especially major floods, present serious threats to public health because of increased risk of exposure to infectious diseases and chemical hazards, issues with transportation and emergency evacuation, and potential issues with the City’s ability to be prepared to respond to natural disasters.[12] Therefore, it is imperative that Boston takes steps to mitigate the impact climate change and flooding will have on the city over time.

The City of Boston has been taking action to address these serious issues presented by climate change, most notably through regulation governing land use planning and development. In 2007, the city amended its zoning code to incorporate Article 37, which is titled “Green Buildings.”[13] The city provides that its purpose in enacting this provision is “to ensure that major building projects are planned, designed, constructed, and managed to minimize adverse environmental impacts; to conserve natural resources; to promote sustainable development; and to enhance the quality of life in Boston.”[14] Pursuant to Article 37, large development projects must include sustainable features to achieve a LEED certifiable standard.[15] The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system is a national green building system that promotes the construction of efficient, sustainable buildings by awarding developers with credits and certifications if the developers incorporate certain sustainable features into the buildings.[16] This requirement that developers attain a certain standard of efficiency and sustainability in the development of large projects is indeed a step towards reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the City of Boston. However, critics of the provision argue that the “LEED certifiable” standard is not high enough to have an actual impact on the building practices in the city or to encourage any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.[17] Perhaps it is time for the city to revisit this provision of the zoning code to raise the sustainability standard for large developments and mandate such a standard for smaller developments to better protect the community from the impacts of sea level rise caused by the emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases.

In September 2020, the Boston Planning and Development Agency published a draft of the city’s proposed Coastal Flood Resilience Overlay District.[18] The proposed provision, which is a response to the growing threat sea level rise poses to the city’s coastal areas, aims to protect areas vulnerable to flooding by mandating sustainable and resilient planning strategies be implemented throughout this zoning district to allow these areas to adapt to the inevitable impacts climate change will have on these areas.[19] The overlay district would apply to coastal areas, and even some inland areas prone to flooding, and it would subject those areas to stricter regulations governing how property owners use their land and how much of the land they are actually able to develop.[20] The creation of the Coastal Flood Resilience Overlay District is a significant step towards creating a resilient coastal community; however, if this provision of the zoning code is enacted into law, the city must monitor the overall impact and maintain the flexibility to revise the provision from time to time as the impacts of climate change on these coastal areas evolve.

Boston is not unique in its vulnerability towards the impact of sea level rise caused by climate change. Many coastal cities are experiencing, or will soon experience, increasingly frequent and severe flooding events. It is critical that cities take action now to protect their communities by mitigating the overall impacts of flooding and other severe natural disasters. The City of Boston provides some great examples of strategies other cities can adopt in their mitigation and resilience efforts. Permanent inundation of coastal land by the ocean is not a matter of if, but when. Cities must exercise their authority to regulate land use and development to the greatest extent possible in order to build resilient, safe communities for their citizens and to avert catastrophe when the sea tries to take over.

Image from BostonPlans

[1] Betsy Mason, How Boston Made Itself Bigger, Nat’l Geographic (June 13, 2017), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/06/Boston-landfill-maps-history/#:~:text=It%20all%20started%20in%20the,mainland%20by%20a%20narrow%20neck.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Marc Fortier, King Tide Causes Street Flooding in Boston, Surrounding Areas, NBC News (Nov. 16, 2020), https://www.nbcboston.com/news/local/king-tide-causes-street-flooding-in-boston-surrounding-areas/2233054/.

[5] Dumpsters Float Down Boston Street During Nor’easter, The Advertiser  https://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/national/dumpsters-float-down-boston-street-during-noreaster-credit-virginia-pitcher-via-storyful/video/71e4d6b581e3b9518d3338d4579c19b7 (last visited Feb. 1, 2021).

[6] Alyssa Lukpat & Jaclyn Reiss, These photos and videos show what the king tide in Boston was like today, The Boston Globe (Oct. 29, 2019), https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/10/29/these-photos-and-videos-show-what-king-tide-boston-was-like-today/GQ9li3Jk5wV5BxrCuDGVQJ/story.html; Nik DeCosta-Klipa, King tides bring flooding—and a glimpse of the future—to downtown Boston, Boston.com (Oct. 29, 2019), https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2019/10/29/king-tides-boston.

[7] King Tides and Climate Change, U.S. EPA, (Aug. 5, 2019), https://www.epa.gov/cre/king-tides-and-climate-change.

[8] Stephanie Kruel, The Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on Tidal Flooding in Boston, Massachusetts, 32 (6) J. of Coastal Rsch. 1302, 1306 (2016).

[9] Id. at 1303, 1306.

[10] Id. at 1304.

[11] Id. at 1306.

[12] Id. at 1308.

[13] Article 37 Green Building and Climate Resiliency Guidelines, Bos. Planning & Dev. Agency, http://www.bostonplans.org/planning/planning-initiatives/article-37-green-building-guidelines#:~:text=Boston%20Zoning%20Code%20Article%2037,are%20resilient%20to%20climate%20change%3B (last visited Feb. 1, 2021).

[14] Bos., Mass., Zoning Code, art. 37, § 37-1 (2021).

[15] Id. at § 37-4.

[16] What is LEED?, U.S. Green Bldg. Council, https://www.usgbc.org/help/what-leed (last visited Feb. 1, 2021).

[17] See Sandy Beauregard et al., Is Boston Building Better? An Analysis of the LEED Certifiable Standard in the Boston Zoning Code, 9 (3) J. of Green Bldg. 131 (2014).

[18] Bos. Redevelopment Auth., Draft Article 25A: Coastal Flood Resilience Overlay District (2020).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *