Boston: the struggle of a city built on the surface of the water

BOSTON – On this warm fall day, the capital of Massachusetts is beautiful. The fallen leaves on the ground decorate the streets of the city with yellow. The sunbeams, making their way through the clouds, make the Chelsea River sparkle. The view of the city center, with its skyscrapers and docked sailboats, is a dream come true. This is the East Boston neighborhood.

The University of Massachusetts professor and director of the Stone Living Lab, Paul Kirshen, did not choose this meeting place at random. “It’s the worst,” says the climate change expert, that is to say the most at risk of being underwater in a few years.

Paul Kirshen, professor at the University of Massachusetts and director of the Stone Living Lab research laboratory. Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

« East Boston is like an island. To get there, you have to go through three tunnels or over a bridge. The water is rising rapidly. In a few years, if there was a storm or a hurricane, the neighborhood would be isolated. »

A quote from Paul Kirshen, professor at the University of Massachusetts and director of the Stone Living Lab research laboratory

Some places are already in a flood zone: the back of Shaw’s supermarket, located between the riverbank and Border Street, is one. The proximity between the building and the river is obvious. Only a few meters separate them.

The back of the supermarket, where the sea is only a few meters from the building.

The blackish and algae line visible on the stone wall indicates the level of high tide.Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

The blackish and algae line visible on the stone wall, which marks the level of high tide, is very close to dry land. When the rains are heavy, the water penetrates between the rows of the only grocery store in the area. Just like in the parking lot of the small mall Liberty Plazanearby.

In 2018, a winter weather bomb hit the eastern United States and Boston. The tide reached a height of 4.5 meters in Boston Harbor. The East Boston neighborhood has shown the extent of its vulnerability.

Flooded supermarket parking lot.

The 2018 floods caused extensive damage in the East Boston neighborhood.Photo: Radio-Canada / Courtesy of Kannan Thiruvengadam

Philip Giffee, the organization’s chief executive Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH), located a few steps from the supermarket, remembers it.

« All the streets were flooded, people were boating, and the subway station that connects downtown to East Boston was under water for weeks. »

A quote from Philip Giffee, Managing Director, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing

In his office, surrounded by all the flood projection maps for the years to come, he manages an organization whose mission is to develop affordable housing adapted to this reality.

Philip Giffee in front of his cards.

Philip Giffee, CEO of Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH)Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

For example, the organization recently piloted the development of a building that is not built at ground level and whose basement is not inhabited and does not house any wiring or electrical system. In fact, there is nothing that can be damaged there during a flood.

However, these dwellings take a long time to build and a large portion of the neighborhood’s population is vulnerable. You also have to be ready to act in an emergency.

Latifa Ziyad sitting at her desk smiling at the camera.

Latifa Ziyad, Director of Community Engagement and Resilience, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH)Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

“The neighborhood has the largest Hispanic population in Boston. This is more than half of the approximately 50,000 inhabitants, originating from El Salvador and Colombia. Many don’t speak English and don’t have papers,” explains Latifa Ziyad, the director of community engagement and resilience of the NOAH.

His team is made up, among others, of Spanish-speaking officers who are trying to limit the effects of poor air quality and extreme heat. But they must also plan for the worst and ensure residents can be evacuated quickly if a severe storm hits the city.

New adapted constructions

In recent years, East Boston has also been popular with professionals seduced by the possibility of living at the water’s edge. Precisely, about ten minutes walk from the supermarket, we are finishing the construction of new condos.

“Here, we built in anticipation of future floods,” explains Paul Kirshen. It’s a good model: between the river and the condos, a rock staircase has been built. It is bordered by a natural strip of grass and mud, supporting the ecosystems, and bordered by a footbridge for walking and a quay. The buildings are also built in height. There’s even a retractable wall on the outside that can be deployed to curb water in an emergency. »

“It’s a good start, says the expert, some owners have understood, now you need a natural wall all along the coast. We can make a raised park, public squares, gardens which will, at the same time, make the neighborhood more pleasant to live in for the inhabitants. »

This means that the supermarket, for example, and even the adjacent shopping center will have to be moved and rebuilt.

A gif showing the rising waters in Boston

In a few years, several areas of the city of Boston could find themselves flooded.Photo: Radio-Canada / City of Boston

What do Bostonians think?

A few subway stations further, two women are walking along the water’s edge with their little dog.

Two women with their dog.

Bostonians like to walk along the water’s edge, but many are aware of the risks associated with it.Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

“I’ve lived in Boston forever, or almost, and I’ve never seen so many storms, it’s getting worse and worse,” said one of them. There are dangerous places, said the other. The recent storms have demonstrated the urgency to act, they add.

Others don’t feel so in danger. “I’m not worried, said another woman walking with her daughter, maybe I should… Especially when I see my daughter’s face. »

A woman and her daughter walking along the water's edge.

As with many environmental issues, it is the younger generations who worry about the future.Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

“It’s a question of generation, I think. Me, I’m worried and I want us to act, ”said his daughter precisely.

Further on, a man crosses the path. He only speaks Spanish. “I’m not worried about the water, everything is fine. They changed the plumbing in my neighborhood. I fear nothing. »

And now?

A wall with ideas that reads “Now What” which means “And now?

In an architecture and design centre, a workshop brings together architects, citizens and researchersPhoto: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

The movement is on the way. In an architecture and design centre, a workshop brings together architects, citizens and researchers. They are going to redesign another place considered to be at risk: the Fort Point canal.

Completely different from the reality of East Boston, it is mainly restaurants, offices and artists’ studios that are found there. Some are already built on concrete piles, but they are not high enough.

Boston Challenges

During this workshop open to the public, the deputy director of climate change and environmental planning for the City of Boston, Richard McGinness, presented a few lines of his administration’s action plan.

The City has projects on the table [et] neighborhoods have been prioritized. Among the targeted solutions, there is the construction of parks or raised public areashe says, as the researchers propose. And we will move forward, even if the market slows down.

Richard McGinness smiling for the camera.

Richard McGinness, deputy director of climate change and environmental planning for the City of Boston.Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

The main challenge is that several projects, such as the one in the East Boston district, are still looking for funding.

” Who will pay? That is the question,” asks Paul Krishen of Stone Living Lab. “But I believe private owners will come on board because it’s beneficial for them too and it will be cheaper if everyone works together. I am an optimist. »

All necessary authorizations must be obtained from various levels of government.

“There are about 15,” says Philip Giffee of the affordable housing organization. “However, the neighborhood is active and the mayor is listening. It is good, even if it is late to act. »

In his office around him are maps where you can see projections of possible flooding. “So that people see them, he says, during my videoconferences. »

In the meantime, he affirms that the situation does not prevent him from sleeping.

« But I watch the weather more often. When there are storms in Florida, I stay alert. Because I know it can happen here. »

A quote from Philip Giffee, Managing Director, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing

Listen to Karine Mateu’s full report on the show world timeon ICI PREMIÈRE.

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