On June 15th a group of business leaders and politicians gathered on Boston’s waterfront to celebrate the completion of a 17-floor skyscraper with a glass façade that reflected the glistening waters of Boston Harbor. 

The reason the building was being built on this spot is that Massachusetts has spent over $5 billion to clean up the harbor that is now providing almost $100 billion in ecosystem services, plus making the waterfront Boston’s premier spot for downtown development.

Gov. Charlie Baker drove home the point: “I think this is the third or fourth groundbreaking ceremony I have attended on the waterfront in just the past three weeks.”

Then, turning toward Boston Mayor Marty Walsh he asked, “Do you get to keep all those taxes?”

The governor hit the nail on the head. For the past 50 years developers have been building giant skyscrapers on Boston’s waterfront because that is where they could get the greatest return for their short-term investments.

Prior to the ‘70s, most old urban waterfronts had been crowded with crumbling warehouses, derelict buildings, empty parking lots and were generally considered to be places you didn’t want to be caught in – day or night. 

It was actually the New England Aquarium that ushered in Boston’s era of waterfront development. And construction has continued all around the filled-in periphery of the city ever since.

Some of the developers must have known about global warming. The information has been around for those same 50 years, but the economic benefits were just too enticing for anyone to suggest that it might be safer to build skyscrapers on land that wouldn’t be flooded in 30 years. 

Others had a more cavalier attitude. At one recent meeting a scientist pointed out that the tunnel Boston had just built during the $14 billion Big Dig, was now susceptible to sea level rise. 

“Oh that’s OK,” intoned a fellow engineer. “All we have to do is re-elevate the highway!” 

The fact of the matter is that major cities like Boston, New York and Miami have spent close to a trillion dollars on waterfront development over the past 50 years building, ensuring that their metropolises have become too big to fail.

Boston alone has added over a 1,000 acres of filled land, the equivalent of Manhattan’s Central Park. The land already floods a dozen times a year compared to two or three times just 50 years ago.

That fact was seared into the public’s brain when cars flooded, dumpsters floated and harbor water cascaded down the stairs of the MBTA’s Aquarium Station in December 2018.

Boston planning official Richard McGinnis reflected big cities’ attitude when he asked the rhetorical question, “How do you retreat from billions of dollars in assets? It’s just not practical.”

The city is planning to raise over a billion dollars for seaport defenses, which is the same amount of money the governor hopes to raise from his real estate transfer tax over the next 10 years. 

This will leave peanuts for smaller cities like those on the North and South Shores – to say nothing of rural areas like Plum Island and Cape Cod that, according to a recent study, will require $7 billion to protect itself from sea level rise.

Other cities have similar situations. New York, being New York, has already raised more than $20 billion for waterfront improvements plus a Staten Island seawall. But it says it needs another $10 billion to protect lower Manhattan. 

All these things can be done, but it leaves very little left for places like barrier beach islands. The cheapest way to preserve the role of such islands as barriers to protect mainland cities will be to gradually convert them into public lands, open to all, as part of the natural heritage of mankind. 

Bill Sargent is a North Shore science writer and contributing columnist. His most recent book, 20,000 Years on the Merrimack River is available in local bookstores and through http://plumislandoutdoors.org, and at www.ingramcontent.com

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