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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.
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