Urban Redevelopment and Water in the Boston Area: Giving a Voice to the Mystic River
As far back as Mesopotamia, cities have developed along rivers. Water that once fed the industrial revolution has been polluted for over a century, but sparked by voices like Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, water and environmental quality have bounced back over recent decades. Waterfronts and nature will always call humans to them, for recreation and for less polluting land uses, let us hope. This is where urban redevelopment comes in.
What I would like to talk about is this tiny sliver of waterfront, the intersection of Boston and three of its suburbs – Everett, Somerville, and Medford. These four cities meet at the Mystic River, a river that has brought the area economic growth, but has the pollution to show for it.
What I would like to suggest is that the cities ‘pay back’ the river for its service, to bring it closer to its cleaner past.
While each of these cities, to some extent or another has had its share of industrial growth, I would like to focus on Everett. Everett, a 2.5 square mile, often maligned inner-ring suburb of Boston, is home to a largely lower income working class population that recently decided to allow the redevelopment of a large section of waterfront that was once the home of a Monsanto chemical plant.
While the redevelopment of polluted urban lands should normally be met with applause, this plan has been met with extraordinary, grinding resistance, largely due to two issues– first, the fact that this area will be redeveloped as a casino (Wynn Resorts) and second, that this, like any other development will have an impact on traffic in an area where the geography (a narrow bridge over the Mystic forms the border between Everett and Boston) already makes vehicular traffic difficult. [The casino has just been given the go-ahead, but my feelings about this have not changed]
While I will not detail the excruciating and bitter, endless drama that this development has brought on (this would take forever), I am summarizing the categories of resistance and making an argument that the missing stakeholder from this discussion has been the river itself.
On top of the numerous and repeated referendums and the strict licensing has followed, the talk of this casino has been imbued by paternalistic moralism about gambling. This has been the idea- largely from people outside of the City of Everett-that the presence of gambling is bad for the poor and vulnerable residents of Everett and that, others’ (non-residents’) paternalistic perspective on what is good for the people of Everett should override both the state’s and the city’s approval of the development. This is a bit much, in my view. Having said this, safeguards for some of the social and economic externalities of gambling are fine (resources for potential gambling addicts, etc.).
The other concern is essentially a mixture of understandable mitigation and, to some extent plain old NIMBYism. There has been resistance to the project by adjacent cities because of traffic. This is very understandable, and numerous adjacent city agreements and mitigation plans have been negotiated. This is a good thing- this is cooperative planning.
What has been missing from this discussion of the redevelopment along the river is the voice of the Mystic River. Redevelopment that remediates polluted land and water is good, and this is a major opportunity for an economically disadvantaged community to improve the environmental health of its waterfront. Otherwise, the land and water will stay polluted and dilapidated.
In the management of cities and natural resources, rivers need to have a voice.
They cannot speak. Sometimes we must speak for them.