Column: Two projects foretell our fate

A section of the Swampscott Rail Trail.


People just want what they want. We can talk all we like about global warming, educate ourselves about carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere, learn about the coastal flooding to come, and advocate for “green” energy and electric cars, but in the end it still remains difficult for us to truly transform our old habits and approaches.

Two current development projects – one in Boston and one in Swampscott – put me in mind of that observation.

The first project is a proposal to replace the Bunker Hill public housing complex with a new and larger one. The existing housing – built in 1940 – is outdated, worn-out, and literally moldy. It contains 1100 units of low-income housing. The new project will include almost that number of affordable units and also add roughly 1700 market-rate units. So far, so good.

But the existing site of 26 acres contains 340 large, mature trees – maples, elm, and pine. Many are 60 to 100 years old and have substantial shade canopies. Shockingly, constructing the new buildings would require the removal of a full 250 of the trees.

Now, we all know and accept that some developments require some tree removal. We do our best to balance all of the gains and losses that exist in any complex project. But in 2021, with guaranteed heat misery coming our way within 10 or 20 or 30 years, removing two-thirds of the Bunker Hill apartments’ trees is just folly. Sure, the developers say they’ll plant new trees. Do you know how many decades it takes for a 2-inch caliper sapling to reach even, say, 50 feet in height? We no longer have those decades.

In Swampscott (where I live), a similar fiasco is underway. Well-intentioned, but completely myopic, the town has embarked on constructing a 2-mile “rail trail” along an abandoned track right-of-way. The trail, with a walking surface designed to be 10 feet wide, requires clearing a 14-foot swath through areas of varying vegetation. Some parts of the trail are already open, some have just weeds, and some are filled with brambles, bushes, and trees of varying sizes.

The tree removal – already started in some sections – is significant. Many dozens of trees from small to very large will be cut down.

Given the extreme levels of carbon dioxide already in the air, and the extreme heat we’ll soon see, building this trail is short-sighted and destructive.

And unlike in Charlestown, where at least the construction provides something dearly necessary, in Swampscott we are building a “trail” that adds little to the town’s infrastructure. Swampscott is a tiny hamlet of 3 square miles, substantially developed, and with few areas of sizable woods or green space. The proposed “trail” is ludicrous. Calling it a “trail” conjures the wrong impression because in most sections it parallels roads and yards and housing. It is often wedged between stockade fences or rows of cheap arborvitae shrubs, newly planted to provide screening from adjacent yards. It won’t be a walk in nature. It’s more like a backyard cut-through.

On the rail trail website, the proposed path is touted as a “2-mile linear park.” Well, the only things remotely parklike about this narrow, 40-foot corridor are the trees and wild vegetation now on it – vegetation that will be removed to construct the walk. My well-paved town doesn’t have the good sense to see this tiny strip of land as the natural relief it already is.

What’s really silly is the supposed rationale for the “trail.” Sold as a safe place for children and adults to walk and bike, it often parallels residential streets that are already safe for children and adults. And the small neighborhood streets crisscross the town like a lattice.

Lastly, building the trail requires time, money, energy, and resources. Some of the money assuredly comes from grants – as though that money doesn’t count. But climate change will affect all of humanity, so we’ve got to recalibrate our sense of who “owns” resources. In fact, all the costs of a rail-trail come from a larger society that would do well to harbor its resources for the unavoidable costs and choices that are coming. By comparison with the rising-ocean emergencies that will within decades face Swampscott (and other seaside communities), building the rail-trail is a tone-deaf, reality-ignoring, colossal and counterproductive waste of society’s money.

I find the pursuit of these two projects – with their blithe tree removal – depressing and emblematic of our general lack of responsibility and imagination. That both Charlestown and Swampscott of all places – coastal communities – can be so unresponsive to and dismissive of what daily stares us in the face bodes poorly for our future. We’ve got to start connecting what we do today – removing trees – with the overheating atmosphere and the rising seas.

It isn’t that halting or reforming these two projects would save us. It’s just that we’re unwilling to do even that. We want what we want – now – and we disconnect ourselves from considering whether the gathering crises of the future ought to change what we do now.

Boston developers are smart and sophisticated and Swampscott residents are progressive, educated, and caring. That both groups can nonetheless embrace such present-oriented approaches indicates the difficulties we are having in transforming society in preparation for the climate catastrophe already on the horizon.

Parts of Boston already see new coastal flooding. Swampscott will soon. If we really want to give our children some safety, let’s give them an actual future – a future at all – rather than a denuded housing project and a sliver of walkway built where greenery used to be.

Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” Contact him at


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