Currently on her fourth stint of caring for the Boston Harbor—this time as CEO and president of Boston Harbor Now—it was Kathy Abbott’s first go-around that clinched her curiosity and love for Boston’s waterfront. She was living on Gallops Island as a 19-year-old manager during the summer. During the day, she’d see the island fill with visitors from the ferry, but at night, the island was empty and she would stare back at the city.

“In terms of the harbor, it was seeing it as this thin edge of the wedge between 3.5 million people and these then-34 relatively overgrown and wild islands. It was a place where people could see their connection to the water, to the land and to nature in a very urban environment,” Abbott says, noting an ironic twist to her job on Gallops. “I would watch the sewage come out of the outflow at the changing tide because that’s what we did back then. It wasn’t that long ago. You waited till the tide was going to go out and that’s when they let it all go—on the theory it was all going to keep going away, but then, of course, a lot of it didn’t.”

The harbor has come a long way, with Abbott crediting the $4.5 billion cleanup that led to fish- and swim-friendly waters and thriving shores as the biggest reason for the turnaround. That progress has revved the engine on waterfront development across the city, from Rowes Wharf to Charlestown to East Boston to the Seaport. (That is the route of a ferry set to launch soon that will connect those four areas.) Boston Harbor Now has a voice in all of those developments, and part of Abbott’s multifold mission includes ensuring public access to the harbor at all new developments and working on ways to protect the waterfront from the rising sea level.

“All the development gives the perception of being walled off as we build up these buildings all along the edge, but it’s not. There’s still this fabulous public resource right behind those buildings, both in terms of the Harborwalk and the harbor itself. We talk about it as the city and the Greater Boston region’s largest natural resource of public open space—because it is,” Abbott says. “We’re thinking about the Harborwalk in a much more creative way of being a berm, a buffer and a collection of public open spaces and habitat that will help to protect us as the tide rises.”

What have you learned from a setback in your career?

“We called for the capping of Spectacle Island with fill from the tunnel that is today called the Ted Williams Tunnel. And then I got involved in the planning of the Big Dig. And as we began to plan for Spectacle, the budgets kept getting cut and cut, so this spectacular new island park that we thought we were going to see seemed like it was going to be whittled down to nothing. But you go out there today and it’s unbelievable. It looks like it’s been there forever. Everything is grown in. The visitors center—no it doesn’t have a second story—but it’s terrific and well used. You know, it’s got the five miles of trail, tons of vegetation, the swimming beach. It’s got some moorings, some slips. I think the lesson is you perceive your big hurdles as big opportunities. Don’t let the setbacks knock you off your path. Don’t give up.”


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