Anyone who was surprised by the flooding that took place in the Seaport District, Chelsea, Salem and other oceanside communities during the most recent winter storm has not been paying attention.  The video and photos that showed Atlantic Avenue looking like an icy tributary pouring into Boston Harbor were shocking – but not unexpected.  Everyone living in Massachusetts should look at the events of January 4th as a sign of things to come so that we can mitigate the damage that flooding will bring to Boston and the region. 

The simple fact is that climate change is a reality, and that coastal areas will bear the brunt of it.  Homes and buildings near the Waterfront are already vulnerable to rising tides and flooding, especially during major storms, which are increasing in intensity. We know seas are rising – the City of Boston itself acknowledges that truth and have even issued reports like Climate Ready Boston, which recommends critical steps to make the region more climate resilient.  

The City’s report indicates that many low-lying neighborhoods, including the Seaport District, could face monthly inundation by the end of the century just from the average monthly high tide. And yet, even while the city has put together plans, neighborhoods like the Seaport – and the developments there - have been allowed to ignore the reality of these risks. In fact, only a handful of new residential and commercial buildings built on the water in the past decade include design elements that will help them withstand long-term flood impacts and other damage associated with climate change.  

With the announcement that Mass Mutual will be building in the Seaport comes another opportunity for a major corporation to set an example for climate resiliency on the Waterfront, which many developers have failed to do.  The company is proposing to spend $240 million to build 300,000 square feet of office space on Fan Pier. 

Ever since the state successfully cleaned up Boston Harbor with billions in taxpayer money, waterfront property has become highly valuable. But many of the areas on Boston’s waterfront, like the Seaport District, belong to the public and are governed by a set of state regulations that license private developers to build in exchange for providing public access and benefits. It is increasingly clear that, just like public access, climate resiliency is an urgent public purpose that must be met by new development.  

Three decades ago, Conservation Law Foundation filed the federal lawsuit that forced Boston Harbor’s cleanup, which turned the harbor from a sewer into one of the region’s greatest assets.  And now, we’re fighting to ensure that the Waterfront – and the people who live and work there - can withstand the ravages that icy, flooding waters, intense rain, and punishing winds will bring. 

So what can developers do to be more climate resilient?  For one, instead of taking the traditional approach of using historical flooding as a basis for site design, they can use future projections to make decisions about elevation, stormwater management, and buffer zones to accommodate climate impacts like sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme precipitation. They can work with the city and state to raise the Harborwalk to ensure it will provide public access to the water rather than being constantly flooded. 

On their sites, they can leverage the benefits of open space, which is not only a valuable neighborhood asset but a way to absorb flood impacts. We need a shift in design and planning to focus on working with water rather than against it. If we provide the natural systems, we can give the water a place to go rather than forcing it to spill onto Atlantic Avenue and surrounding neighborhoods.  The Seaport is one of the first lines of defense against flooding in the city, so if we do not address the vulnerabilities there, we can expect to see more flooding in other neighborhoods. 

Finally, instead of seeking long-term, extended permits and licenses, which is the default for Boston developers, they can instead aim for shorter term licenses. This will allow companies to assess the impact of climate change on their buildings in a more reasonable timeframe and provide the city and state with an opportunity to reevaluate the preparedness of a site as risks change over time. 

By adopting these measures, Boston will also be setting an important precedent for other waterfront communities – like Lynn, Everett, Quincy –on the cusp of major building booms.  

When it comes to climate change, the storm on January 4th taught us the future is now. We should anticipate that we’ll see more destructive weather coming, and that a frozen flood on Atlantic Avenue will be more the norm than the exception.  Now is the time to ensure that  new developments there incorporate reality into their buildings, to protect themselves and this important asset. 

Bradley Campbell is President of Conservation Law Foundation.