Can Canals Save Coastal Cities From Climate Change?

Boston’s best chance for survival may be to go the Venice route.

Boston fits the profile of a city that could suffer if it does nothing to prepare for climate change. Sitting on the coast, in part of the country that’s predicted to have some of highest sea level rises, it could be a sitting duck during major storms. Scientists predict the water could rise six feet by 2100, and perhaps go as high as 10 feet in extreme weather.


The city’s architects, engineers and developers aren’t sitting idly by, though. Seventy experts recently came together to discuss ideas to help stave off the climate change threat. Their report, published by the Urban Institute, looks at ideas for four different areas of the city.

The most striking? Canals in the Back Bay, one of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. In the view of the committee, Boston’s best chance for survival may be to become a modern-day Amsterdam of the Americas.


“Alternating north-south streets and east-west alleys will become canals,” says the report. “This will allow for the existing street grid to continue to function and serve the neighborhood, while intertwined with the new canal system.”

Boston-as-Venice may sound radical. But it begins to make sense when you see the options. Back Bay has too much building near the coastline for a “managed retreat,” the report says. And water is set to come from several directions, meaning that it could be dangerous to rely on a single diverting structure. The Charles River Dam, which is 6.8-feet high, may not cope if the sea level forecasts are correct.

The blueprint calls for Storrow Drive to become a “water-controlling canal” and for alleys like Clarendon Street to be “narrow waterways.” “Constructed wetlands and bermed parklands will provide support through absorption capacity and vertical relief between the Storrow Canal and the Charles River Basin,” the report adds.

In fact, the idea isn’t completely new. Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Jacob recently proposed something similar for New York, another city in peril. He argues that trying to repel water from low-lying cities in misguided. Better to let the water in, and put infrastructure higher or make it submersible, he says.


Ripping up streets for placid waterways won’t be popular with people invested in a car-centric system. But the idea is likely to proliferate as other cities continue to plan their future. We’ll be hearing a lot of keep-the-water-out/let-the-water-in debates in the next few years.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.