Deanna Moran

Boston Harbor is nationally renowned as a maritime resource with a long and distinct history of social and economic uses but building the next generation’s waterfront requires a reinvention of one of our greatest assets  the working port.  

Our maritime industry is vital to the economic success of Boston Harbor but many don’t know that our working port is a critical source of jobs, social development and economic security. As Boston’s working port communities, like East Bostondevelop over the next decade, there will be increasing demand to develop waterfront land for non-maritime uses. To counteract this effect, Boston needs to reimagine traditional working port uses and better facilitate connections between the city and port activity 

Unfortunately, instead of investing in the working port, we are seeing increased encroachment on Designated Port Areas (DPAs)DPAs serve a vital function by preserving a finite resource and keeping waterfront land values low enough for maritime businesses to compete in the real estate market. A luxury tower can go anywhere; a dock, a berth or maritime staging area only functions along the coast. Once a different use takes over a working waterfront property, we cannot get that land back.  

Aaron Toffler

We propose a path forward that transitions working ports to the emerging trends of the global maritime economy, invests in them as economic hubs, and integrates open space and public access to improve city-to-port connectivity and resilience for all Bostonians. 

Vital Spaces Lost 

The days of the port economy are far from over. Boston’s working port has grown in every sector – jobs, economic value and taxes paid all soared since the last Economic Impact Statement in 2012. In 2018, $8.2 billion of economic value and over 66,000 jobs were related to working port activity. However, the port is also sprinkled with vacant properties and deteriorated piers as property owners struggle to identify maritime tenants with enough capital to improve aging infrastructure.  

Reimagining the port means diversifying and generating more blue-collar jobs in an economy increasingly based on tourism, higher education, healthcare and tech. We must cultivate a port where at least a portion of the harbor’s docks hums with workers from all neighborhoods of Boston. The dirty industry of the past does not have to be our future.  

Nick Black

Many coastal cities are investing in innovation and marine technology to drive their blue economies rife with blue collar jobs. At the East Boston Shipyard, deep water access and ample dock space are ideal for launching the offshore wind industry that is growing in Massachusetts. These green energy industries do not just help stem the tide of climate change, they create hundreds of well-paying engineering, construction and maritime jobs. 

Other working port cities, like Hamburg, Auckland and Barcelona have also successfully integrated maritime uses and public open space. Our waterfront communities desperately need open spaces, but regulations governing the commonwealth’s working ports have been too inflexible to address this demand. Open space, unlike residential uses, can co-exist with working waterfronts and help increase connectivity to residents in all neighborhoods of Boston so they can access green spaces and high-quality jobs 

Three Keys to Transformation 

Integrating public access, parks and boardwalks along the waterfront as much as possible can also help insulate working port lands from climate risks like flooding and heat. Docks, piers and berths are better equipped to handle future levels of flooding anticipated in Boston Harbor and are more adaptive than office or residential buildings. 

To support this transformation, we need:  

  1. State and local investment in port infrastructure to attract emerging industries.  
  2. Climate resilience pilot projects and open spaces that address flood risks, buffer maritime uses from abutting residential neighborhoods and create seamless city/port connection.  
  3. Workforce development programs that facilitate apprenticeships and blue-collar jobs for a diverse group of residents from throughout Boston in emerging maritime industries, like autonomous shipping, operational and environmental efficiency and big data analytics. 

We cannot achieve a vision of clean marine industrial jobs and resilient working port lands if port operators are pushed out by new development.  

Recently, the city of Boston requested an East Boston DPA boundary review – it made a similar request for South Boston in 2018. The pressure to flip communities like East Boston from a working port to rows of luxury towers is growing daily. We must have the foresight to understand that once these lands and maritime industries are gone, they are gone for good.  

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future of Boston’s working port. Let’s take it.  

Deanna Moran is director of environmental planning at CLF. Aaron Toffler is director of policy at Boston Harbor Now. Nick Black is managing director of the Boston Waterfront Initiative at The Trustees of Reservations. The authors are speaking on behalf of the Boston Waterfront Partners, a coalition of organizations working toward a public, accessible and welcoming waterfront that benefits all. 

Boston Still Needs a Working Waterfront

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min