Habitat Network Focal City: Boston, MA.

Photo © Jorge Salcedo

The City of Boston was founded for its access to the Boston Harbor, which enticed European settlers to inhabit, The City on a Hill. The original city of Boston was established on the Shawmut peninsula, a mere 789 acres consisting of three hills; Copps, Fort and Trimont. Over the centuries, the tidal wetlands that surrounded Shawmut peninsula were infilled with sand and gravel from the hills and surrounding lands outside of the city to form the present day City of Boston.


Photo © Winso [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Established in 1630’s Boston is not only one of the oldest cities in the United States, it has also grown to be the largest city in New England with an estimated population of 667,137 as of 2015. Between draining and infilling wetlands, and the demand for natural resources in an ever-growing metropolis, Boston is now faced with a reduced water table, flooding, and other water quality issues. The Nature Conservancy’s Urban Conservation Program in Boston is working with local organizations to address these environmental issues through nature-based solutions which are often resilient and cost effective ways to address growing pressures on natural resources in urban areas. Habitat Network is the tool that will be used to help map, track, and guide these efforts in Boston.


Photo © Bill Damon

Reduced Water Tables
Like most cities, as Boston’s population grows, so do its infrastructure needs. Some of these infrastructures are built underground, including basements, sewers, highway tunnels, and subway lines, all of which are imperfect and eventually leak. The water that leaks into these structures is pumped out and into the ocean causing a constant drawdown of the water table. Stormwater, which would naturally replenish the water table, falls primarily on impervious surfaces in the city and is re-directed to storm drains and sewer systems, also eventually making its way into the ocean.


Photo © Brendan Riley

What makes a reduced water table so critical to this city is that over half of present day Boston is built on man-made land, which comes with some structural constraints.To provide greater support for the large buildings, engineers drove pilings into the ground down to the marine clay. These pilings can last centuries when submerged in water, but when exposed to air, they start to break-down. With the lowering water table these pilings are increasingly exposed causing major structural risk for many large buildings around the city.


A map of near worst case storm surge flooding (inundation) scenarios using the National Weather Service (NWS) SLOSH model maximum of maximums (MOMs) product for Category 1 hurricanes at a high tide.

Photo © Megan Whatton, Resource from:National Weather Service (NWS) SLOSH model and ESRI Online

The population of the city of Boston has grown eight percent over the past six years and is projected to continue its steady growth into the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, as urban populations increase, so do the pressures on public infrastructure, finances, and natural resources. On the other hand, rising sea levels and extreme precipitation events are predicted to discharge more water, more frequently into an urban system barely above sea level (10m), increasing the threat of flooding. As you can see from the map above, many of the regions with the highest threat of flooding are those that were reclaimed wetland, like Back Bay and East and South Boston.


Photo © Dan4th Nicholas

Pollution and Water Quality are a major threats to the three watersheds (Mystic, Charles, and Neponset) that drain into Boston’s inner harbor. Non-Point Source (NPS) pollution results from stormwater and snowmelt collecting contaminants like fertilizers, oil, grease, and salt, from roads, lawns, sidewalks, and rooftops as it makes its way to either the sewer systems or to our streams, rivers, and lakes. This non-point source pollution can lead to other issues in the watershed including algal blooms (Cyanobacteria), invasive species (Water Chestnut), contaminated fish as a food source, and closed recreational facilities.

Nature-based Solutions a.k.a. Green Infrastructure

Nature-based solutions are the good kind of “old school,” you know –the kind where things make sense. Basically it is addressing environmental issues by taking it back to basics and letting nature fix the problem. Nature-based solutions or green infrastructure are living solutions, that use natural processes and structures designed to address various environmental challenges while simultaneously providing economic, social, environmental, and health benefits.


Photo © Megan Whatton, The Nature Conservancy (Devan King), Megan Whatton

A.Rain Gardens are gardens built to collect, store and absorb storm water. These specific gardens allow for polluted stormwater runoff from developed areas, like roads and rooftops, to be captured and absorbed into the ground to naturally filter and recharge water tables.

B.Native Trees and Shrubs provide ideal ecosystem services in our landscapes for both humans and wildlife. When it comes to wildlife, there is nothing like a native tree or shrub because they provide food, shelter and nesting materials and locations. For humans the benefits are numerous, including beautification, shade/cooler temps, storm water retention and purification, reduced erosion, and cleaner air.

C. Reducing lawn and impervious surfaces by adding native vegetation is a great way to reduce non-point source pollution, clean our waterways, slow down rainwater drainage velocity, reduce erosion, and recharge our water tables.


This map displays the proportion of the landscape that does not absorb water for the contiguous United States from the National Land Cover Database 2011.

Photo © Megan Whatton, Resources: National Land Cover Database 2011 and ESRI Online

The Habitat Network will work closely with the Conservancy’s Urban Conservation Program in Boston to map and track the green infrastructure installations and tree plantings through the use of our web-based, citizen-science mapping application. Over the next two years, we will also work with local partners and citizen scientists to field-test practices that private property owners can undertake to restore ecological functions and services, map private properties, and collect feedback on how to improve and adapt Habitat Network to meet the needs of an urban environment. The data collected through the mapping process allows us to track current and future green infrastructure and native habitat developments to see how they can contribute to the Boston-specific solutions to environmental issues.


Habitat Maps in the Boston Area

Photo ©

Live around the Boston, MA. area? Get Involved

If your site happens to be within the Boston Metro Area, use our Groups tool to add your site to the Habitat Network-Boston. Group and help us track habitat in the city.

Step #1 Sign into Habitat Network and navigate to the Groups Tool

Step #2 Search for a group within the tool by either:

  1. Using the “find a group” search in the left-hand panel in the groups tool.
  2. Expanding the list of groups found at the bottom of the Groups page.
Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 3.29.49 PM

Photo © Habitat Network

Choose the Group Habitat Network-Boston.

Step #3 Once you are viewing the Habitat Network-Boston Group, choose the “Join Group” at the top right of the Group Summary page.

Step #4 From the “Join this Group” dropdown, choose the map from the list of your sites that applies to the Habitat Network-Boston group.


Photo ©

Step #5 Some groups might have membership conditions. If you want to add any justification as to why your map should be accepted into the group, please include before submitting your property to the group.

Step #6 Submit your map to the group for review. The creator of the group will review your map based on the group conditions (which can be found on the group summary page) and likely accept your map into the group.


Photo ©