Defending Boston from the Sea: An Islands’ Perspective

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe about protecting Boston from rising sea levels that are projected in the coming decades. Rising ocean levels could have a particularly significant impact on Boston since much of the city was built on landfill that’s only a few feet above sea level.

One of the future-thinking solutions mentioned in the article is the construction of a massive, dock-lined barrier that would link Deer Island, Long Island, and Squantum into a bulwark across the harbor, with 15-foot gates that would rotate closed to protect the city from storm surges. There’s a map of this proposed project, dreamt up by architect Antonio Di Mambro, in the current issue of Architecture Boston.

It’s an interesting concept that would basically leave two entrances into the harbor and presumably cause a major obliteration of the existing landscapes on Deer, Long, and Moon Islands, but that wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.

I don’t know about the engineering logistics of the proposed project, but there is some irony in that the islands, which have sheltered the city from nature’s fury and created Boston’s safe and commodious harbor  for thousands of years, will be partially sacrificed for a manmade solution. As we learned from New Orleans, sometimes nature can be a better engineer than man. The Globe article mentioned an interesting proposal floated in New York City that would line lower Manhattan with wetlands to handle the storm surge. Wonder if a similar solution that builds on nature’s defenses could work here?

What’s really interesting about Di Mambro’s proposal to me, however, is something that wasn’t mentioned in the Globe article. Here’s how Architecture Boston described Di Mambro’s plan: “This multi-layered proposal combines a tidal-surge barrier, reconfigured harbor facility, transit line, highway, reclaimed land, and industrial, commercial, and residential redevelopment. It is an infrastructure that both protects the present and promotes the future.”

Wow! That’s much more than simply an environmental protection project. That’s a major destruction of a national park area for commercial and residential development. I’m having flashbacks to a plan floated in the 1960s that called for the construction of a high-rise apartment community—connected to downtown by subways, ferries, and bridges—that could house as many as 150,000 people. Thankfully, that proposal never went anywhere, and we’re still able to enjoy an incredible natural resource: undeveloped islands in the shadows of a major city skyline.

Future-thinking exercises are always useful, so I’m glad the Globe article sparked us to think about this. My real wish, however, would be that we can find the resources to reopen Gallops and Peddocks Islands to full visitation and invest relatively short money in getting people out to the islands. As more people visit, they will become stewards and be in a better position to affect the debate on what to do about future storm surges.

Nixes Mate was once a 14-acre island. Today, it’s only visible at low tide. It’s a warning that the islands could be swallowed by the sea some day (usually with manmade destruction being the real reason for their ultimate demise), so this is an important issue to think about.

If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, think about coming to my talk on the Boston Harbor Islands at the New England Aquarium tomorrow night. Hope to see you there!

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