Heat, Floods, and Hope: Enhancing Community Resilience in Boston

Written by Ada Rustow
Tuesday, 17 October 2023

Walk down Beach Street in Boston and you’ll find yourself surrounded by the many Chinese restaurants and commences that make this the heart of the city’s vibrant Chinatown. At one end of the street, there is Auntie Kay & Uncle Frank Chin Park, a piece of the Rose Kennedy Greenway that houses the iconic Chinatown Gate. What you won’t see is the very thing that gives the street its name: “Beach Street used to be a beach,” says Debbie Ho, a long-life Chinatown member and the Executive Director of Chinatown Main Street, one of the community organizations that works to support local businesses and residents.  

Chinatown has a rich history dating back to the City of Boston filling a tidal flat in the early 19th century. Though the water may be out of sight today, this geography has left the neighborhood increasingly susceptible to flooding in an era of rising sea levels. The other great climate-related shock Chinatown faces? Extreme heat, with summertime temperatures in the dense neighborhood registering up to 5-10 degrees hotter than in other parts of Boston.  

The overlapping climate risks made Chinatown one of two pilot communities for implementation of the Resilience for Communities (R4C) program in Boston. The program’s first phase was focused on listening to the community through community surveys, focus groups and expert interviews with city and community leaders to understand how Chinatown residents are being impacted by both extreme heat and flooding. Chinatown Mainstreet, as well as the Chinatown Community Land Trust, are critical partners in completing data collection and ensuring residents’ voices are represented.  

Chinatown Residents participated in Household Surveys to determine how families are experiencing the impacts of extreme heat and flooding in their neighborhood

Lower Roxbury, where temperatures aren’t much cooler, is the other pilot community in Boston. This historic neighborhood is more densely populated than many other areas of Boston and is notable for having one of the shortest life expectancies in the city, largely linked to a lack of healthy foods, safe homes, and places to relax and exercise. “The parks and playgrounds in many parts of Roxbury are the definition of Urban Heat Islands, they’re Urban Heat Ovens,” says Kenneth Rearden, the director of the UMass Boston’s Summer Immersion Program in Community Resilience. Through the program, high school students went out on a hot day to conduct heat measurements and found that average temperatures in local neighborhood spots were several degrees above the National Weather Service’s predicted highs for the city.  

The Resilience for Communities Program (R4C) has been working in Lower Roxbury to understand how high temperatures impact residents, and what residents would like to see improved. In both Chinatown and Lower Roxbury, the data collected will become the basis of community design workshops, where residents will decide how to make their community more resilient. Their input will determine how the program and city invest an initial sum of $125,000.  

“There’s a lot of data about extreme heat and climate change but very little that comes from the folks who are living in environmental justice communities, who are rarely given the opportunity to talk about their knowledge, their experience, their struggles and offer their perspective of what the problem is and what could be done and what are viable options,” adds Kenneth Rearden, who is also the Chair and Graduate Program Director Department of Urban Planning and Community Development . Despite the challenges faced by Lower Roxbury, residents in the neighborhood have been proactive in addressing the social and environmental inequities around them, something that Rearden’s own program, set on expanding Boston’s pipelines for Youth of Color in Resiliency Planning, helps facilitate. 

Fieldworkers from Lower Roxbury, including Professor Kenneth Rearden pose with R4C Staff after a focus group session. Fieldworkers in Lower Roxbury also help run U Mass Boston’s Summer Immersion Program in Community Resilience for local high school students.

Debbie Ho is excited to see which issues will arise In Chinatown during the data collection phase of R4C, based on the survey answers and focus groups. Ho says that as a potential solution, she would love to see water fountains set up along the stretch of Boston’s Greenway that borders Chinatown, so that children in her area have access to the same kind of amenities that children in wealthier neighborhoods do.

“I want to make sure that people are heard and count in this community,” she concludes. 

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