Opinion: City neighborhoods are showing the way on climate change response

The war to stem the climate crisis is global, but neighborhoods are the battlegrounds for creating a sustainable future that protects both infrastructure and people from the encroachment of high waters, fierce storms, and punishing heat.

Each Boston neighborhood is confronting its own problems and solutions. In the South Boston Seaport, rampant overbuilding has put streets, buildings, and people directly in the path of rising tides. East Boston shares the problems of rising seas, but also has a high percentage of vulnerable residents who are facing displacement on top of climate risks. Mattapan and Roxbury face extreme heat with a higher percentage of older, vulnerable housing stock, fewer trees for shade, and a large share of lower-income residents who shouldn’t be expected to bear the cost of readying structures for flooding, heat, and heavier snows.

All of these neighborhoods are seeing climate damage now. For Dorchester, the most obvious effects over the last decade include the submersion of Morrissey Boulevard under feet of ocean water in storm after storm, the flooding of Tenean Beach, and water washing across Columbia Point’s Harborwalk. Thousands of residents sandwiched between the Neponset River and Dorchester Bay are only going to see more flooding as sea levels rise.

At the same time, Dorchester, like Mattapan and Roxbury, has an aging housing stock, older residents, a large share of low-income residents, and neighborhoods that have little protection from searing heat. July was the hottest month ever recorded in Boston, and the temperature trend has gone in only one direction: Up.

According to a UMass study, days over 90 degrees in Boston – which are already higher than at any time in recorded history – will essentially double in number over the next 20 years if nothing is done to lower emissions.

A recent analysis of the impacts of climate change on neighborhoods from Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW) shows Dorchester to be one of Boston’s most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods with a high percentage of impervious surface area that leads to ‘urban heat island effect’ and extremely high land surface temperatures.

If all of this sounds grim, the picture brightens when you look to what Boston neighborhoods – including Dorchester - are doing to plan, prepare for, and mitigate the damage.

Just last month, Boston received a $280,000 state grant to begin designing actions to counter rising temperatures and protect residents in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. The city also released the long-awaited Climate Ready Dorchester report with coastal resilience solutions specific to the neighborhood. An earlier Climate Ready Boston analysis identified key areas of flooding around Joe Moakley Park and the MBTA Red Line. Since then, several projects have emerged, including a redesign of the waterfront park.

Two years ago, as part of its Resilient Harbor initiative, Boston announced a vision for Dorchester’s shoreline that will make it both resilient to climate change and promote public access to the harbor. And in 2019, the city launched the Climate Ready Dorchester initiative mentioned above, reaching out to the community to identify the unique challenges facing the neighborhood.

With major projects under way, like the redevelopment of the old Bayside Expo site and parcels along Morrissey Boulevard, it is clear that consideration around climate resiliency and access must be a part of the conversation in Dorchester now.

Our report recognized an important reality: climate resiliency is as much about the resiliency of the people as it is about buildings or open space. A lot of work is already being done to address the reality of climate change in Dorchester, but we are by no means out of the woods. Improving Dorchester’s “social resiliency” – ensuring that people have access to the kind of community resources necessary to weather extreme heat or bad floods – should not be an afterthought to physical interventions, such as shoring up the neighborhood’s coastline.

We must urgently deal with the reality of the climate crisis on the local level. Dorchester can be part of solving the problem here in our neighborhoods. We have a head start, but we must finish the job.

Jesse Caldwell is a Legal Fellow at Conservation Law Foundation and a Dorchester resident. Saritha Ramakrishna is a Policy Analyst at Conservation Law Foundation.