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Boston Is Planning A Sustainable Future aerial of Boston's downtown city skyline at the waterfront with the Charles River in the distance

How Boston Is Planning For A Sustainable Future


Do you know what a sustainable Boston will look like? The city has already started taking action and applying various initiatives to make Boston a greener, more resilient, and equitable city. We will look at four of the main initiatives in detail:

  1. Carbon Free Boston 2050
  2. Go Boston 2030
  3. Zero Waste Boston
  4. Climate Ready Boston

These initiatives all play off of each other to reduce waste, reduce resource usage, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Other cities could adopt these solutions as they (finally) begin to realize climate action is necessary.


Carbon Free Boston 2050 is the overarching main goal in which the city plans to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. They will use carbon offsets to cover the remaining 20%. The initiative began in 2016 when Mayor Marty Walsh signed the Metro Boston Climate Mitigation Commitment. In its first year, Boston reduced its emissions by 4%. The initiative relies on these three strategies which must be pursued together in a socially equitable way:

  1. “Improve the energy efficiency of all activities;
  2. Electrify activities to the fullest extent feasible;
  3. Purchase 100 percent GHG-free electricity and sustainably sourced fuels”

The report is broken into four sections which reflect the four GHG emission sources: buildings, transportation, waste, and energy supply. The report provides short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to reduce GHG emissions from each of these sources. Together they will guide Boston toward a sustainable future. Let’s first take a look at buildings.


Space heating is responsible for over half of the energy used by residential buildings. In commercial buildings, space heating, ventilation, and plug load are the top three contributors to energy use. Most of Boston’s buildings and residences were built before 1950. As a result, they have less insulation and less energy efficient equipment than newer buildings. This increases their energy use and GHG emissions.

The report proposes a host of solutions for buildings. To increase energy efficiency, buildings should add insulation and switch to efficient lighting and appliances. Buildings should also optimize their HVAC systems. Owners can convert heating systems from heating oil or natural gas to electricity and install rooftop solar arrays.

Buildings can also undergo deep energy retrofits which seek to reduce energy use by at least 50%. This involves moisture management and air sealing to prevent heat leaks and energy losses.

The City may set new building standards which could include carbon emission performance standards and net zero or net positive performance standards. This will ensure new buildings are not heavily contributing to emissions. It will also reduce the amount of retrofitting needed in the future.


Currently over 65% of transportation emissions come from personal vehicles, calling for a shift in transportation modes and technologies. The report lays out three strategies for creating a carbon neutral transportation system.

  1. “Shift trips out of automobiles to transit, biking, and walking;
  2. Reduce automobile trips via land use planning that encourages denser development and affordable housing in transit-rich neighborhoods;
  3. Shift most automobiles, trucks, buses, and trains to zero-GHG electricity”

These strategies highlight the need for improved and expanded walking, biking, and public transportation facilities. The City will use the Go Boston 2030 goals as a guide. The report also proposes free and reduced cost of public transportation and private vehicle pricing. Private vehicle pricing includes strategies such as smart mobility, congestion pricing, increased parking fees, and a vehicle miles traveled fee. Smart mobility would impose a fee for single-driver car trips or a discount for carpooling.

Carbon neutrality would require both private and public vehicles to switch to electric where possible and expanding the availability of charging stations throughout the city. To reduce the demand for travel, the City can direct population growth into centrally-located, walkable areas with high access to transit facilities. They can also encourage employers to allow employees to work from home/telecommute or switch to a compressed work schedule (e.g. four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days).


Since the 2014 Climate Action Plan update, Boston has been committed to being a “waste-and litter-free city.” The City launched another sustainable initiative called Zero Waste Boston in 2018 with the goal of diverting at least 90% of waste from landfills and municipal solid waste combustors.

In 2017, the City’s residents and businesses produced nearly 1.2 million tons of solid waste. Only 25% of this waste is diverted. As we know, not all materials sent for recycling get recycled. According to the report, about 20% of recycling material is too contaminated and gets sent to the waste disposal stream (landfills and waste to energy facilities). Below are current and projected waste generation and disposal diagrams.

Comparison of Boston's waste generation 2017 to 2050 as part of goals to become a zero waste sustainable city
Credit: Carbon Free Boston 2050

Waste reduction and diversion strategies include source reduction, fees, education and outreach programs, increased paper and plastic recycling, and increased composting programs. It would be illegal to pass fees from landlords to renters. Source reduction policies are expected to have the largest effect on lowering emissions and reducing waste. To reduce water treatment and wastewater emissions, facilities would switch to clean energy sources. By transitioning to a zero waste city, Boston can subsequently expect more employment opportunities in recycling centers and community reuse projects.

Energy Supply

Comparing Boston's energy use 2015 to 2050 as part of goals to use sustainable energy sources
Credit: Carbon Free Boston 2050

The graphic above shows energy use in both 2015 and projected use in 2050. All electricity will be generated from clean energy sources, and electricity will amount to nearly 75% of all energy use.

Energy demand peaks on very hot and very cold days. Electrification will shift peak energy demand from summertime to wintertime. Deep energy retrofits will reduce demands for energy during these peak times, but the grid will have to carefully consider energy sources to ensure demand is met. There are concerns with solar and wind power not being consistently available as well as with the higher costs of offshore versus onshore wind projects.

In addition to expanding rooftop solar in Boston, the City is also looking at incorporating district energy systems and community electricity aggregation as sustainable energy solutions. District energy is a network of steam tunnels and hot water pipes used for heating. Currently they rely on burning natural gas or oil, but new systems with a central plant could utilize heat pumps to recover energy from other sources such as bodies of water, the earth (geothermal), and even heat from data centers.

These new systems can increase efficiency and store energy for use later when demand is high. Community electricity aggregation programs treat municipality residents as a single energy buying group and allow them to buy more energy from renewable sources at fixed rates. This way Boston residents will have more access to sustainable electricity in their homes.

Unfortunately, not everything can be electrified. Heavy equipment in the transportation sector and buildings that haven’t undergone retrofits will still rely on fossil fuels. The report outlines three ways to cover these emissions:

  1. “buying MA Class I Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs)
  2. purchasing zero-carbon electricity directly from a producer via a local ISO-NE power purchase agreement (PPA)
  3. entering into a virtual power purchase agreement (VPPA).”

Other fuel sources like biofuels, renewable natural gas, biomass, and hydrogen could also be substituted in places where electrification is not possible. The purchase of carbon offsets would cover the remaining emissions. These offsets must be additional, permanent, real, verifiable, and enforceable.


The report stresses the importance of immediately pursuing emissions-free electricity in order to reach its 2050 goal of carbon neutrality. The pathway to 2050 will not be linear because the City also has goals to cut emissions by 50% by 2030 and to properly contribute to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5°C.

In order to become a sustainable city, Boston will need to tackle all four emissions sources. But they must do even more. The report also states that GHG emissions reduction efforts are not enough to limit global temperature increase. They propose methods like afforestation to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.


Go Boston 2030 is all about making the city’s transportation network a more sustainable and equitable system. It involves reducing transportation emissions, addressing the social and economic inequality as it relates to transportation options and accessibility, and addressing how climate change will affect transportation. The initiative started in 2015, and between 2005 to 2014, Boston already saw a reduction in GHG emissions of 17%.

Below is a list of the main objectives of the plan:

  • Expand access
  • Improve safety
  • Increase reliability
  • Provide quality experience
  • Utilize technology innovations
  • Ensure affordability
  • Build for resilience
  • Increase community involvement and transparency
  • Guarantee health

Today’s Transportation

Each morning, 395,000 people are headed somewhere in Boston. Of these trips, 60% originate outside of the city, and 44% of people entering the city do so by driving alone. Despite these numbers, there are over 1 million riders on the T (Boston’s subway system) every single day.

In 2016, Walk Source ranked Boston the third most walkable city in the United States. But while being a very walkable city, cyclists have a much harder time. Currently “a protected bike facility or lane is within a 5-minute walk of only 20% of Bostonians.”

To create the Go Boston 2030 Vision and Action Plan, the Boston Transportation Department began a huge public engagement process to find out what citizens needed. Over 8000 ideas were submitted to the BTD, and over 4000 residents helped prioritize those ideas.

Looking Around the World

Boston has also looked to successful transportation developments used in other parts of the world like Mexico City and Oslo. WBUR, Boston’s local NPR station, put out a great series called ¡Viva Buses! which follows city leaders as they research efficient busing in Mexico’s capital.


Around 21 million people move through Mexico City every day; Metrobus moves 1.5 million of them (that’s more than the entire MBTA system in Boston!). Launched in 2005, Metrobus now operates along 7 routes in the city using dedicated bus lanes and platform stops.  In addition, passengers pay at the station prior to boarding to reduce delays.

A trip on Metrobus is only 30 cents, and the cost for the bus line is 20 times less than a subway line would be. So not only are these low emission buses transporting millions efficiently in terms of space and the environment, but they also do it cheaply.

It does, however, come with a set of issues. The Metrobuses in Mexico City have become very crowded, and the bus routes do not provide easy access to/from everywhere in the city. As a result, many passengers take other forms of transport to get to a station to then take a Metrobus.

According to Kathryne Benesh, who heads the MBTA’s operations strategy, the city is looking to install more dedicated bus lanes, adjust some routes to better serve passengers, and lengthen signal times so buses have longer green lights. Mayor Marty Walsh has also proposed ride share pickup/dropoff points in Fenway and providing middle/high school students with free bus passes.

With Boston looking for a “complete streets” future in road design (streets that serve pedestrians, cyclists, buses, and cars), a system like Metrobus on dedicated lanes would be a good fit. However, they would need to carefully plan to ensure accessibility throughout the city.

Oslo, Norway

After Oslo’s city election in 2015, the city began shifting away from catering to personal vehicles in favor of other transportation modes. The new government had promised in its campaign to remove cars from the city center by 2019. The pillars of this initiative are “putting people first, promoting public transit, [and] encouraging public rather than private uses of common space”.

This quick shift has seen backlash from residents and businesses who worry about accessibility and the wintry cold. While the city is not completely banning cars, cars are banned in certain areas, all non-handicap parking spots will be removed, and pedestrians are prioritized.

Across the pond in Boston, bike infrastructure is currently not developing fast enough to meet the Go Boston 2030 goals. The city also worries about not receiving support from the federal government which at this time does not fully believe in climate change. However, Boston must cater to bikes and pedestrians over cars if it wants to be a sustainable city of the future.

Tomorrow’s Transportation

According to the Go Boston 2030 report, “the number of daily trips starting in Boston on buses and trains will increase by a third, from approximately 500,000 to 675,000” in the next decade. This switch to more sustainable transportation in Boston will reduce GHG emissions and congestion.

With respect to climate change, the number of days over 90°F will increase from 11 in 1990 to somewhere between 20 and 40 by 2030. As a coastal city, Boston is at risk of flooding from sea level rise. The average monthly high tide is projected to flood areas like the Seaport, the North End, Charlestown, and East Boston. It will also affect surrounding cities like Chelsea and Quincy.

The table below, from the Go Boston 2030 report, outlines the transportation mode goals. In order to meet these goals, the city has started and planned a multitude of projects and policies aimed at achieving the main objectives of Go Boston 2030 listed above.

City Streets

For pedestrians, one project I’m excited for is pedestrian-first traffic signals. Intersections will automatically give pedestrian “Walk” signals so long as there is no conflicting movement with vehicles. There will no longer be push buttons to request to cross. “Walk” signals will also begin before vehicles get a green light (such as allowing them to turn right and pass through a crosswalk) to increase pedestrian visibility and decrease accidents. Sidewalk improvements and a multi-use “green links network” will improve accessibility and connectivity around the city.

As mentioned previously, Boston is working toward implementing a sustainable complete streets model which incorporates multiple modes of transportation into a single design. These new streets will require sidewalk improvements, additional bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes, an expansion of the bikeshare network, and changes to signalized intersections.

Public Transit

For buses, the MBTA plans to increase frequency on popular lines, restructure all 30 bus routes, and provide service overnight. Station improvements will provide the off-boarding payment and platform accessibility that Metrobus implemented to shorten boarding times and delays. Rapid bus routes are also planned for the following areas:

  • Forest Hills to Roslindale
  • Mattapan to the Longwood Medical Area.
  • The Brighton neighborhood
  • Massachusetts Avenue

The Green Line will be improved with 3-car trains instead of 2-car trains. The trains will get priority at traffic signals to reduce delay, and like buses, the Green Line will update its outdoor stations to provide off-boarding payment and accessibility. The Green Line Extension project will extend the E line from Heath Street an extra mile to Hyde Square. Red and Orange Line improvements are already underway.

Silverline improvements and expansion, inner harbor ferry, and urban rail projects are also among the large list of sustainable transportation solutions Boston plans to implement. More information on all these projects and policies can be found starting on page 128 of the Go Boston 2030 report.


The Go Boston 2030 vision will require a massive overhaul of the transportation network and coordination between government, citizens, and surrounding municipalities. As someone working on a current project listed in this report, I am personally connected to the sustainable improvement of transportation facilities in Boston. I look forward to seeing this vision of a safer, greener, and more accessible Boston become a reality in the coming decade.

Zero Waste Boston

Launched in 2018, the Zero Waste Boston initiative appointed a Zero Waste Advisory Committee to recommend strategies and actions that will allow Boston to “reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost at least 80 to 90 percent of its solid waste“. The committee’s report released last year provides 30 short- and long-term recommendations to move Boston toward a sustainable, zero waste future.

The Guiding Principles for Implementing Zero Waste in Boston were developed in a 2016 Zero Waste Summit held by the City and the Zero Waste Boston Coalition and are listed below.

  1. Make zero waste a key priority
  2. Focus first on using less and diverting more
  3. Support this work through local business development
  4. Sustain this work through culture change

Strategies to reduce waste were evaluated based on the following seven criteria:

  1. Effectiveness
  2. Economic feasibility
  3. Convenience
  4. Equity
  5. Economic development
  6. Legal and institutional feasibility
  7. Other benefits including public health and carbon emissions

Today’s Waste

In 2017, Boston’s waste sector emitted an estimated 393 kilotons of carbon“. The commercial sector is responsible for 70% of the City’s waste, 22% comes from the residential sector, and the remaining 8% is from construction and demolition activities.

The current residential waste situation involves curbside trash and single-stream recycling pickup, yard waste collection, four hazardous waste drop-off days, and five Project Oscar compost collection bins spread around the city. Most residents have trash and recycling pickup once per week, but Downtown residents have pickup twice per week. The Department of Public Works is in charge of these programs.

The current commercial waste situation is very different. Businesses must hire private haulers for trash, recycling, and compost. The business and hauler then determine the frequency of pickup. In my opinion, this added cost could deter businesses from having recycling or composting.

Boston currently has a combined reuse, composting, and recycling rate of around 25%. The other 75% of waste is sent primarily to waste to energy facilities, and some is sent directly to landfill. Surprisingly, 75% of that 75% waste sent to incinerators and landfill actually could be composted or recycled (40% could be composted, and 35% could be recycled). In other words, over 80% of all waste could be diverted, but the City is currently only diverting 25%. The figure below from the report shows the correct breakdown of materials.

Tomorrow’s Waste

The report outlines 30 strategies that cover four core categories:

  1. Reduce and Reuse
  2. Increase Composting
  3. Recycle More and Recycle Right
  4. Inspire Innovation

Twenty-two of the proposed strategies could be implemented within just 5 years. The table below organizes the 30 strategies by core category and by short-term or long-term that will significantly reduce the city’s waste. This strategies will help Zero Waste Boston achieve its diversion rate goals of 80% by 2035 and 90% by 2050.

Boston's Zero Waste Timeline listing goals to from the Zero Waste Boston report
Credit: Zero Waste Boston

Other Initiatives

Boston has already begun implementing zero waste strategies. In December 2018, a plastic bag ordinance went into effect. As a result, customers are now charged a 5 cent fee for each plastic bag from a business.

The City of Boston also sponsors zero waste events in the city. The Boston GreenFest has been running annually since 2006. It is a weekend-long festival filled with various exhibitors and vendors promoting green living and sustainable products. The event also has GreenTech Expo showcasing new innovative technologies. This event aims to be zero waste and has water bottle fill-up stations.

The City also sponsors the Boston Local Food Festival, a day of local and sustainable food vendors convening on the Greenway to educate the community and sell their goods. This event has a group of volunteers in charge of ensuring all waste is properly sorted (composted, recycled, and wasted).


It is clear Boston has quite a ways to go when it comes to reducing waste, but luckily with proper material sorting, plenty of waste can be easily diverted for recycling or composting. The local government, however, can only do so much. Boston will need to be strict with enforcing its regulations on businesses since a large majority of waste comes from the commercial sector.

The second guiding principle is about using less to begin with. This means a large cultural shift and action by large companies to become more sustainable (less packaging on products, right to repair laws, etc.) will also be necessary for Boston to reach its zero waste goals.

Climate Ready Boston

Climate Ready Boston focuses on planning for the impacts of climate change in order to “guide Boston toward a more affordable, equitable, connected, and resilient future“. Boston is at risk for many damaging effects of climate change, such as coastal flooding, intense heat waves, extreme precipitation, and strong winter storms. Strategies and initiatives for mitigating or preventing these impacts were evaluated on these five principles for successful resilience:

  1. Generate multiple benefits
  2. Incorporate local involvement in design and decision-making
  3. Create layers of protection by working at multiple scales
  4. Leveraging building cycles
  5. Design in flexibility and adaptability

The main Climate Ready Boston report contains a vulnerability assessment which looks at how extreme heat, sea level rise, and intense storms will affect the city. They look especially in areas with concentrations of vulnerable populations like low-income families, minorities, and people with disabilities. This post will cover Climate Ready Boston’s strategies for addressing climate change risks in the city as a whole, but you can find specific neighborhood climate ready reports on Boston’s website for the following areas:

  • Charlestown
  • Charles River
  • Dorchester
  • Downtown
  • East Boston
  • Roxbury
  • South Boston
  • South End

The report outlines 39 initiatives based on 11 strategies which cover 5 layers of climate readiness.

Layer 1: Updated Climate Projections

  • Strategy 1: Maintain up-to-date information on future climate conditions in Boston
    • 1-1) Update Boston-area climate projections periodically
    • 1-2) Create future flood maps to support planning, policy, and regulation

Layer 2: Prepared and Connected Communities

  • Strategy 2: Expand education and engagement of Bostonians about climate hazards
    • 2-1) Expand citywide climate readiness education and engagement campaign
    • 2-2) Launch a climate ready buildings education program for property owners and users
    • 2-3) Conduct outreach to facilities that serve vulnerable populations to support preparedness and adaptation
    • 2-4) Update the city’s heat emergency action plan
    • 2-5) Expand Boston’s small business preparedness program
  • Strategy 3: Leverage climate adaptation as a tool for economic development
    • 3-1) Identify resilience-focused workforce development pathways
    • 3-2) Pursue inclusive hiring and living wages for resilience projects
    • 3-3) Prioritize use of minority- and women-owned businesses for resilience projects

Layer 3: Protected Shores

  • Strategy 4: Develop local climate resilience plans to coordinate adaptation efforts
    • 4-1) Develop local climate resilience plans to support district-scale climate adaptation
    • 4-2) Establish local climate resilience committees to serve as long-term community partners for climate adaptation
  • Strategy 5: Create a coastal protection system
    • 5-1) Establish flood protection overlay districts and require potential integration with flood protection
    • 5-2) Determine a consistent evaluation framework for flood protection prioritization
    • 5-3) Prioritize and study the feasibility of district-scale flood protection
    • 5-4) Launch a harbor-wide flood protection system feasibility study

Layer 4: Resilient Infrastructure

  • Strategy 6: Coordinate investments to adapt infrastructure to future climate conditions
    • 6-1) Establish an infrastructure coordination committee
    • 6-2) Continue to collect important asset and hazard data for planning purposes
    • 6-3) Provide guidance on priority evacuation and service road infrastructure to the Infrastructure Coordination Committee (ICC)
  • Strategy 7: Develop district-scale energy solutions to increase decentralization and redundancy
    • 7-1) Conduct feasibility studies for community energy solutions
  • Strategy 8: Expand the use of green infrastructure and other natural systems to manage stormwater, mitigate heat, and provide additional benefits
    • 8-1) Develop a green infrastructure location plan for public land and rights-of-way
    • 8-2) Develop a sustainable operating model for green infrastructure on public land and rights-of-way
    • 8-3) Evaluate incentives and other tools to support green infrastructure
    • 8-4) Develop design guidelines for green infrastructure on private property to support co-benefits
    • 8-5) Develop an action plan to expand Boston’s urban tree canopy
    • 8-6) Prepare outdoor facilities for climate change
    • 8-7) Conduct a comprehensive wetlands inventory and develop a wetlands protection action plan

Layer 5: Adapted Buildings

  • Strategy 9: Update zoning and building regulations to support climate readiness
    • 9-1) Establish a planning flood elevation for zoning regulations in the future floodplain
    • 9-2) Revise the zoning code to support climate-ready buildings
    • 9-3) Promote climate readiness for projects in the development pipeline
    • 9-4) Pursue state building code amendments to promote climate readiness
    • 9-5) Incorporate future climate conditions into area plans
  • Strategy 10: Retrofit existing buildings
    • 10-1) Establish a resilience audit program for private property owners
    • 10-2) Prepare municipal facilities for climate change
    • 10-3) Expand backup power at private buildings that serve vulnerable populations
    • 10-4) Develop toolkit of building retrofit financing strategies
  • Strategy 11: Insure buildings against flood damage
    • 11-1) Evaluate the current flood insurance landscape
    • 11-2) Join the National Flood Insurance Program Community Rating System
    • 11-3) Advocate for reform in the National Flood Insurance Program


The Climate Ready Boston report provides a comprehensive set of initiatives to protect the city and its residents from the various effects of climate change. Boston must act quickly to increase its tolerance of and resiliency to intense weather events and geographical changes. Without proper planning and mitigation, thousands of people and buildings are put at risk. Although Boston has big plans for becoming a more sustainable city, it is inevitable that climate change will continue to occur. Luckily Boston is already preparing itself for battle.


I feel lucky to live in an area so dedicated to the future of our environment, our city, and its people. Although I live in a neighboring town, my husband and I both work in Boston. It’s also where we spend our free time. The sustainable initiatives in Boston will affect us in many of the same ways they will affect residents, and I am glad to be a part of that.

I’d love to hear what’s going on elsewhere around the globe! What’s going on in your city or town? Are they taking action for a sustainable future?

Boston Is Planning A Sustainable Future aerial of Boston's downtown city skyline at the waterfront with the Charles River in the distance
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