Clarendon Canal, a street view. Photo: The Urban Land Institute of Boston and New England. Clarendon Canal, a street view. Photo: The Urban Land Institute of Boston and New England.

Boston flood waters will inevitably threaten the city's waterfront neighborhoods, but innovative designs like Back Bay canals may help us embrace the rising tides.

The Urban Land Institute of Boston and New England on Tuesday released a report "The Urban Implications of Living With Water," which outlined ideas like building canals in the Back Bay, raising the Harbor Walk in the Innovation District, adding breakwaters in the Boston Harbor, and creating absorbent wetlands in waterfront areas.


"I think any solution to the rising sea level will be hard for people to grasp because it is something we've never had to deal with before," said Dennis Carlberg, Director of Sustainability at Boston University and chair of Back Bay site. "This [report] is a vision for what a positive outcome could be."


The ideas were born from a day-long brainstorming session that included more than 70 industry experts, including engineers and architects.

Scientists predict water levels could rise as much as seven feet by the year 2100. The Back Bay sits on filled-in marshland, and much of the land lies less than four feet above today's high tide.

While the top of the Charles River Dam is nearly seven feet above high tide, several lower-lying areas of the Back Bay may be affected by a rising sea well before the dam is overtopped. This could happen before the end of the century, according to the report.

"Rather than being frightened by this, it's important to think about the future and how to embrace it. We have to plan for it, we have to prepare for it, and we have to set policy for whatever direction we end up going in," said Carlberg. "And we have to invest in change."

The canal system would consist of alternating north-south streets and east-west alleys would become canals, allowing for the existing street grid to continue to function as waterways. The canals would provide new waterway connections to the Charles River througha system of locks and to Fort Point Channel by way of the naturally forming Mass Pike Canal.

If the city doesn't plan ahead, Boston can say goodbye to its beloved waterfront neighborhoods.

"The alternative is walking away from them, and there is so much value in our community, financially and socially," said Carlberg.

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