When you follow behind a salt truck on the highway, watching crystals spiral out of a spreader, you are witnessing part of a vast material network facilitated by the Port of Boston. This salt might be from the Zechstein Sea, 250 million years old, which evaporated during the Permian era and is now mined 1,200 feet underground in Northern Ireland or Poland. Humble road salt helps tell the story of the seaport’s profound role in translating the scale of global goods arriving by water and moving onto local roads.
Salt is delivered in 50,000-ton packages (ships) from across the sea, stockpiled and redistributed into 30-ton deliveries (trucks), and received in public works sheds or tucked under highway viaducts, ultimately to be spread across highways, runways, docks, parking lots, driveways, stoops, and patios throughout the region. The port facilitates this massive downscaling and dispersal of resources, a fantastical moment of global convergence.
Towns from Bedford, Massachusetts, to Bedford, New Hampshire, depend on this infrastructural flow of resources for goods delivery, just as Boston depends on distant landscape resources such as the Quabbin Reservoir (water) or the European Permian Basin (salt). In planning Boston’s waterfront today, consideration of port operations is crucial—yet it is often an awkward fifth wheel in conversations about recreation, flooding, real estate, and ecology.
Access to the shoreline is difficult to reconcile with security perimeters around marine terminals. Kayaks (7 feet long) and Panamax vessels (700 feet long) are mismatched partners. Seawalls that block surges also block ship routes, and living shorelines conflict with deep-draft vessel mooring. Dredging and pile driving uproot shellfish and plant life. Luxe waterfront condos constrict truck routes and other noisy, messy processes inherent to dispersing goods into a city. These conflicts between city and port persist despite Boston’s origins as a city birthed from trade across the sea. Designing the shoreline as a shared resource between city life and port operations remains the great challenge in considering the waterfront’s future.
The distinction between the port and the city is important. The port is not Boston’s. Even the traditionally recognized boundaries extend outside Boston into Chelsea, Everett, and Revere. The seaport is not a singular artifact; it is an assembly of thousands of infrastructural elements that bridge the turbulent divide between sea and land—berths, piers, wharves, bulkheads, bollards, and fenders were built discretely over hundreds of years but today form a continuous linear chain that wraps nearly the entire coastline.
Neither is the port an isolated artifact: numerous upland communities of the Charles, Mystic, and Chelsea River watersheds are hydrologically linked to the harbor, where sea-, road-, rail-, and airways converge to facilitate the movement of goods and people, collecting and dispersing resources like a two-way funnel. (Salt arrives in big ships and disperses in little vehicles into the city; little bits of metal-like cars, toasters, and chain-link fences condense at portside scrapyards into mountains of rusting steel and ship out in massive packages across the globe for recycling.)
Herein lies one of the most challenging aspects of waterfront design: It is local, regional, and global all at once, which can create conflicts among competing interests. Although Boston might benefit from converting a waterfront scrap-metal terminal into a recreation landscape or might generate more property taxes with new condominium development, how do such developments benefit all the communities between Williamstown or Provincetown? These towns depend on and benefit from port operations in Everett for collecting and shipping out their scrapyard steel.