Manifest Boston Change Maker: Kathy Abbott

President and CEO, Boston Harbor Now

Manifest Boston Change Maker Kathy Abbott —Manifest Boston

Kathy Abbott is the first President and CEO of Boston Harbor Now and is excited to be back on Boston Harbor. Upon assuming this role, Kathy has come full circle since beginning her career on the Harbor Islands as a park ranger in college to leading Boston Harbor Now today. She is responsible for working with the board and staff to create a welcoming and resilient harbor that benefits everyone in the Greater Boston region. Kathy has a history of leading change through public and non-profit organizations including advancing statewide park planning, management and land conservation, educating students and impacting resource-based economies in primarily developing countries through applied environmental studies, creating a new national park through a first of its kind public-private partnership in Boston Harbor, creating and managing a statewide park system, increasing funding for public parks in Massachusetts, and growing the impact of the only year-round botanic garden in New England. She has never done this work alone and credits great teams and collaborations for her success.


Lindsay Gearheart: I would love if we could start off by talking about your background and how you got involved with the organization.

Kathy Abbott: Boston Harbor Now is the result of a merger almost four years ago of two prior Harbor organizations. First, The Boston Harbor Association, who had been very involved in the Harbor cleanup and in ensuring everybody had access to that clean harbor by getting the Harborwalk developed on 43 of the 47 miles of Boston’s coast. The second organization was the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, which was started about 25 years ago and came into being to help create the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. It became the first nonprofit ever legislated into the creation of a national park to help support that park in an ongoing way.

Those two organizations merged to tie together the waterfront, the harbor, and the islands all under one organization: Boston Harbor Now. I had had a history of involvement with the Islands and with the Boston Harbor Island Alliance. I was the first Executive Director and then President and CEO of that organization, so I was really excited when I was offered an opportunity to come back to Boston Harbor and try to take it all to a whole other level, in a whole new era, in terms of climate change and its impact. A really exciting and important time to be here. 


LG: Partnerships are obviously very important to your work, so could you talk about how you work with public agencies, community leaders, businesses, and other nonprofits?

KA: Boston Harbor Now is the only nonprofit solely focused on the harbor and all aspects of the Harbor. And we do all our work in partnership, predicated on that early alliance model. We’re also a public/private partnership or a P3 in that we work with the public sector, the national park service, the DCR, the state parks, and the city, and we work with the private sector. We find ourselves connecting and working across those sectors and with all our fellow nonprofits across Boston Harbor. We don’t do anything alone. Within the geography of the Boston Harbor, there are 7,000 acres of public land along the waterfront and another 2,000 acres on the islands. We’re really very focused on those publicly-owned lands and ensuring that the resources are secured to enhance public access to those places, and now in this day and age, to improve the resiliency of those properties.

LG: How is your organization preparing for sea level rise while still promoting waterfront open space?

KA: It seems ironic, doesn’t it? Those are the two things that are our highest priorities. One is to continue to promote the fact that we have a harbor, that is clean, that it’s this phenomenal asset, that it benefits our city environmentally, socially (and not just the city, but in the Greater Boston region), and economically. We want everyone to benefit and we want everyone to get down to it, out on it, and out on those islands. 


In an era when we are experiencing the impacts of climate change, primarily storm surge and sea level rise, there is this tremendous need to now protect all of us from those potential impacts of climate change. It is not lost on any of us. Our focus has been on the waterfront and islands because of this. What we are doing specifically is working on several major projects around the harbor to try to, a) Make inroads into solutions to protect our shores from sea level rises and storms, and b) Find areas that can be developed to both enhance access and resiliency as models for what’s possible. 

LG: As you might know, we have our annual fall festival, HubWeek, in Seaport. Could you talk about the Seaport area specifically — the risks there, and the attitude you are taking towards that?

KA: I am sure you know that about a third of Boston is built on filled tidelands, and those are areas that are very prone to flooding. The Seaport is one of them. They are not the only one. The Climate Ready report that the city did a few years ago is really the bible for all of this. It shows it happening all around the city. The new developers, and the Seaport is a terrific example of this, have been building to new standards, raising their buildings up, putting plans in place to put barriers and things, if and when a storm hits. It’s the other 78,000 older buildings in the city, and all of the city infrastructure — streets, subways, and everything else — that are tremendously vulnerable. 

The Seaport fared fairly well in the storms we had two winters ago. We’re very focused, though not far away, on the other side of South Boston in Moakley Park. Two of the major flood pathways are Fort Point Channel on the north side of the Seaport and Moakley on the other side of South Boston. We are very interested in working with the city to develop what we hope will be the largest waterfront destination on Boston Harbor for South Boston and the city and its residents at Moakley Park. It’s adjacent to Carson Beach, which DCR owns, so you have about 100 acres of public open space there. But it’s low and flat, and it is an area that is prone to flooding. It is an opportunity to demonstrate how you can build up, build out, create a berm that passes through that whole area at the same time that you’re improving all the recreational amenities that are going to bring people down to the waterfront. 

The Seaport has got probably one of the best examples of Harborwalk in the city because of its more recent development. It is quite beautiful, heavily used, but it was built prior to this awareness that we really need to begin to build everything up more. Much of the Harborwalk today is very floodable, and developers have done things like build sea walls, and like I said, build their buildings up. But the edges themselves are still floodable. One of the things we’d like to see, we call it Harborwalk 2.0, is to work with everybody all around the waterfront to see what we could do to build up the edge of our waterfront in ways that will make it even more attractive and interesting. 

[The Harborwalk] is a phenomenal resource. We created a web tool two years ago, which is a great place to go to find out where the Harborwalk exists, almost the entire coast line, and then what you can do where. 

LG: That’s fantastic. Moving beyond the Harbor, I saw that you authored a piece for Architecture Boston about the importance of investing in Boston’s parks to revitalize the city. Why do you think parks are so important to a city like Boston?

KA: I think that parks are critical infrastructure for addressing the impacts of climate change environmentally, socially, and economically. Olmsted, I indicated in that article, thought about them 150 years ago as infrastructure that can help. In this day and age, we’re not prepared to deal with not only rising seas and increasing storms, but increased precipitation. In New England, we have greater increases in precipitation than anywhere else, and the heat island effect. So tree canopy in parks, and the capacity for parks to develop ways to absorb stormwater, are all critical. We need more and more parks, not fewer and fewer. 

LG: What can everyday Bostonians do to support the mission of Boston Harbor Now? 

KA: Come on down to the harbor, the Harborwalk, and the Boston Harbor islands. They are an incredible resource that are still relatively underutilized compared to our growing population, and have lots of potential for incredible day trips and overnight camping trips. They’re great places to take visitors. Our goal is to get the harbor and the islands to be one of the three most-seen things in Boston. When you come to Boston, you come to see Fenway, you come to walk on the Freedom Trail, and we want you to come out in awe of Boston Harbor and the Boston Islands and Harborwalk. 

The other thing to do would be to get involved with Boston Harbor Now. Check us out on the web. Follow us. We do a monthly newsletter that promotes not only what we are doing on the harbor but also other organizations and interesting things that are happening. We would love to count you among our supporters. We’d love to see people get more involved.

The Manifest Boston Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.

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