Boston: the struggle of a city built on water

BOSTON – On this warm fall day, the capital of Massachusetts is beautiful. The fallen leaves on the ground decorated the city streets in yellow. The sun’s rays, breaking through the clouds, make the Chelsea River sparkle. The view of the city center, with its skyscrapers and docked boats, is a dream come true. This is the neighborhood of East Boston.

University of Massachusetts professor and director of the Stone Living Lab, Paul Kirshen, did not choose this meeting place at random. “This is the worst,” the climate change expert said, meaning the most dangerous to be underwater in 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 a bridge. The water is rising fast. In some years, if there is a typhoon or typhoon, the neighborhood will be isolated. »

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

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

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

The dark algae lines visible on the rock wall indicate high tide levels.Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

The dark line and algae visible on the rock wall, which marks the level of high tide, is very close to dry land. When it rains heavily, water seeps between the rows of the area’s only grocery store. It’s like the parking lot of a small mall Liberty Plazanear

In 2018, a winter weather bomb hit the eastern United States and Boston. Water levels in Boston Harbor reached 4.5 meters. The East Boston neighborhood showed the extent of its vulnerability.

The supermarket parking lot was flooded.

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

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

All the streets were flooded, people were boating, and the subway station connecting 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 coming years, he runs an organization whose mission is to build 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 initiated the construction of a building that is not built at ground level and the basement is uninhabited and does not have any wiring or electrical systems. After all, nothing will be damaged there when there is a flood.

However, these shelters take a long time to build and a large part of the neighborhood’s population is vulnerable. You also need to be prepared to act in an emergency.

Latifa Ziyad sits 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. It is more than half of the approximately 50,000 inhabitants, who come from El Salvador and Colombia. Many do not speak English and do not have papers,” explained Latifa Ziyad, the director of community engagement and resilience of NOAH.

His team is made up, among others, of Spanish-speaking officials trying to limit the effects of poor air quality and extreme heat. But they also have to plan for the worst and make sure residents can evacuate quickly if a severe storm hits the city.

New adapted constructions

In recent years, East Boston has also become popular with professionals attracted by the possibility of living on the water’s edge. Exactly, 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 is a beautiful model: between the river and the condos, a stone staircase is built. It is surrounded by a natural strip of grass and mud, which supports ecosystems, and is surrounded by a footbridge for walking and a dock. Buildings are also built high. There’s even a retractable exterior wall that can be deployed to hold back water in an emergency. »

“This is a good start, says the expert, some owners understand, now you need a natural wall along the coast. We can create a high park, public squares, gardens that, at the same time, will make the neighborhood more pleasant for its 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 tide in Boston

In a few years, several areas of the city of Boston may see flooding.Photo: Radio-Canada / City of Boston

What do Bostonians think?

At several subway stations, two women walk along the water’s edge with their small dog.

Two women with their dog.

Bostonians love to walk along the water’s edge, but many know the dangers 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 just gets worse and worse,” one of them said. There are dangerous places, said the other. Recent storms have shown the need to act, they added.

Others do not feel at risk. “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 by the water's edge.

As with many environmental issues, younger generations are concerned about the future.Photo: Radio-Canada / Karine Mateu

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

Additionally, a man crosses the path. He only spoke Spanish. “I’m not worried about the water, everything is fine. They replaced the plumbing in my neighborhood. I’m not afraid of anything. »

And now?

A wall of ideas with “Now What” written on it which means “And now?

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

Movement is on the way. In an architecture and design center, a workshop brings together architects, citizens and researchers. They will redesign another area considered at risk: the Fort Point canal.

Completely different from the reality of East Boston, it is mainly restaurants, offices and studios of artists located there. Some had already been built on piles below, but they were not high enough.

Boston Challenges

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

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

Richard McGuinness smiles 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 some projects, such as one in the East Boston district, are still seeking funding.

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

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

“There are about 15,” said Philip Giffee of the affordable housing organization. “However, the neighborhood is active and the mayor is listening. It’s better to act late. »

In his office around him are maps showing projections of possible flooding. “So people can see them, he said, in my videoconferences. »

Meanwhile, he maintains that the situation doesn’t stop him from sleeping.

But I watch the weather more often. When there are hurricanes 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 timeat ICI PREMIÈRE.

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