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Boston, MA

To Conquer the Sea: Boston as a Blue City

Boston’s Blue Cities project addresses the geographic problems inherent in the city since the area was settled by Puritan colonists in the 1630s. Located at the confluence of the Charles, Mystic, and Chelsea Rivers, Boston’s safe harbors and inlets made it a prosperous colonial town. Settlement began on the tactically-advantaged Shawmut Peninsula, which was a peninsula and not an island by a very narrow strip of land which allows access to and from the mainland. That connection (shown in the narrow neck of pink on the map) has since been widened considerably to allow the city to reach its present size. As the value of land near these harbors and the growing central business district rose, man pushed against the Charles River basin and dredged to create additional land, exacerbating the issues bound to arise by the removal of marshes and tidal wetlands that protected Boston’s harbors and docks from storm surges.

Wetlands provide many important functions: flood storage, wildlife habitat, mitigation of storm water and pollutants, filtration for drinking water, and prevention of storm damage to buildings and upland areas.  Boston’s wetlands are protected under the Wetlands Protection Act (M.G.L. Ch. 131, § 40), and Regulations (310 CMR 10.00), to ensure the public’s interests in wetland resource areas are not degraded or diminished. The city’s website explains the breadth of this definition:

“We often think of wetlands as marshes and swamps, however, the Wetlands Protection Act has a broader definition of wetlands which includes flood zones, coastal beaches and dunes, intertidal flats, salt marshes, eelgrass, ponds, lakes, rivers, streams and areas immediate to these waterways.”

Local Wetlands Ordinance
All Massachusetts municipalities have the power to enact local wetlands ordinances (LWO) that provide greater authority to protect more resource areas, protect existing resources to a greater degree, and consider how future conditions will affect resource areas.

 “A carefully prepared LWO is a critical component of the plan to make Boston more resilient to projected changes in the climate.”

In Boston, the Boston Conservation Commission - comprised of seven Commissioners who are appointed by the Mayor - is tasked with this oversight. The  Commission protects and preserves open space and other natural areas of the City including wetlands, via the administration of the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act (M.G.L c131 s.40), the Massachusetts Rivers Protection Act (HB s. 18.26) and the Conservation Commission Act (HB s. 18.9), by:

  • administering the Commonwealth’s Wetlands Regulations by determining wetland boundaries,
  • reviewing and permitting projects proposed in or near wetlands and associated buffer zone,
  • by placing conditions on development projects that affect wetlands, and
  • seeking public access to wetland resource areas where appropriate.

The Fens

Drawing their name from the English countryside of the eastern UK, Boston’s Back Bay Fens evoke the idyllic, fog-strewn marshes that inspired many settings for mystery and adventure books in British Literature. In Frederick Law Olmsted’s design of Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Back Bay Fens are a marsh restored to wetland conditions in 1879, but changed by the damming of the Charles River in 1910. Damming rivers causes the freshwater flow to decrease in relation to the saltwater, altering brackish water conditions and changing the classes of hydrophilic plants that can thrive in the area.

Belle Isle Marsh

In the 1970s, 350 acres of land was acquired from the Massachusetts Port Authority, and by 1985 had opened as a public park. The Belle Isle Marsh is home to the some of the oldest surviving marshland in the area, as much of it had been dredged for agriculture or used for cattle grazing since original European settlements. Part of the park site had been built up with homes and industrial buildings. In 1986, a wetland restoration project began to repair the degradation caused by industrial pollution. Since then, the site’s ecological integrity, recreational capacity, and aesthetic value have all improved. The work continued until 2005, when Boston completed the site’s state-mandated soil remediation process.

During this process, contaminated soil was removed, which allowed seawater to once again flow into the site. Planned grading restored tidal flows, allowing for native salt marsh and coastal bank vegetation to re-establish themselves. This resulted in an additional 1.3 acres of inter-tidal habitat, which is an important ecotone that supports many species as breeding grounds.

Chelsea Creek Wetland

The Center for Urban Watershed Renewal (CUWR) completed plans for a creative project in East Boston on behalf of a community group seeking to restore an area to wetland conditions. CUWR bioengineered a solution for the 8 acre plot in the Chelsea Creek port zone, which will be one of very few areas of greenspace in this low-income part of the city.

The Chelsea Creek Wetland was previously a Hess oil storage site, and had been the site of industrial activity - including pottery manufacturing and as the parking lot for dredging machinery - since the turn of the century. CUWR’s design plans create an educational site that emphasizes the industrial history of the area as well as the functions of a natural environment within fabric of urbanization. In addition to providing neighborhood water treatment to improve the quality of the Chelsea River and Boston Harbor, the site will incorporate recreational green space and animal habitat.

According to CUWR, “while funding for the project is not definitive, the proposal and design helped to forge a dialogue between the community, the City of Boston and its developers and the funder which resulted in the allocation of capital on adjacent properties for the restoration of wetland habitat along the waterway.” If funding for this project can be secured, then, yes, the sea might gain back a little bit of Boston, but Boston will be one step closer to becoming a truly Blue City.


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