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How to save East Boston from the sea

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  July 10, 2013 12:04 PM

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Rising ocean levels are bad news for Boston, and East Boston most of all, which is low-lying, flood-prone, and ripe for reclamation by the sea. But, even as danger looms, the city has found it hard to muster the political and economic resources to take action, in part because there's nothing particularly inspiring about building sea walls.

Carolyn Jenkins, however, has a plan that seizes on rising sea levels as an opportunity to launch a new architectural vision for the city. Her proposal is called "East Boston buffer: a transferable urban framework for adapting to sea rise," and she recently submitted it as her architecture masters thesis at MIT. As Jenkins sees it, protecting East Boston will require a lot more than cement and sandbags. Instead, she argues, a truly effective and politically viable plan should boost the Boston economy and improve living conditions for the city's residents while simultaneously holding back the encroaching ocean.

Jenkins marries economic growth with water mitigation through two strategies: aquaculture (of fish and salt-resistant plants), which would bring in revenue and might also provide storm surge resistance, and the installation of hydrokinetic turbines which would harness energy from the movement of the tides. She proposes engineering wetlands along the shoreline, which would serve as a buffer against the ocean while also filtering out contaminants from storm water runoff from the city, the creation of a public park adjacent to the Maverick T stop, and space for "amphibious" architecture that would rise and fall with the tides and could hold a marine-focused charter school or residential development. And, all of this comes alongside the type of seawater abatement strategies you'd expect- a levee, a pumping station, and a network of 100 storm surge baffles.

Jenkins's ideas have a fanciful ring to them (and their cost would surely be eye-popping), but at the same time they make an important point. Responding to rising sea levels might not be the urban development project Boston would have chosen, but given that it's here, the city might as well make the best of it.

You can see a (somewhat technical) graphic depicting Jenkins's plan here.

East Boston 1.jpg

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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