In 2018, record coastal flooding offered pedestrians an unexpected sight: a dumpster floating down the middle of the street in Boston’s new Seaport District. While perhaps comical, the much-shared video helped sharpen public concern around climate change-driven sea level rise and extreme weather. 

Just north of downtown Boston is the Mystic River watershed, a 76-square-mile area that comprises 21 separate cities and towns. The watershed is home to a high concentration of life-critical infrastructure (e.g., transportation, energy, health care, and communications) and the largest number of residents in environmental justice communities (i.e., neighborhoods composed predominantly of people of color and those with low incomes) between the North Pole and New York City. Inhabitants of the Mystic River watershed are particularly at risk from extreme storms, heat, and coastal flooding. 

“All of the countries that do really good climate resilience work are either social democracies like the Netherlands or Germany or have highly centralized governments like South Korea or Singapore,” says Julie Wormser MC/MPA 2008. “They have a regional ability to regulate, to raise funds, and to do big construction projects in a way that we don’t.” 

As the senior policy advisor for the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA), Wormser helped found and continues to co-facilitate the Resilient Mystic Collaborative (RMC), a voluntary partnership that works across municipal borders to plan, finance, and implement equitable remedies. “When we started in 2018, our executive director and I went out to about 50 different people and said, ‘Help us understand what climate challenges you can’t manage within your municipal boundary and how a collaborative regional nonprofit could help.’” 

Julie Wormser speaking to the boat filled with people on the Mystic River.

In its five short years, the RMC—which last year served as a client for two MPP students’ Policy Analysis Exercise—has raised over $111 million from both state and federal sources for everything from constructed wetlands and shady parks to major regional coastal resilience projects. Wormser is thankful for the resources, noting that the collaborative aspect of the work has been really exciting to funders. “What we’re doing together is so much more compelling and sophisticated than what we would be doing solo,” she says. 

Wormser says that what she learned at HKS helps her navigate difficult challenges, such as the skills she developed in her negotiation class: “How do we change things to succeed? If there’s a regulation that makes climate resilience harder, how can we fix that? If there’s not enough funding, how can we fix that? Negotiations as a practice and as a head space makes you think about the world as not immutable. That’s been incredibly helpful.” 

She says that successful collaborations are not to-do lists but rather exercises in building trust and understanding people’s needs and aspirations. This approach continues to serve the RMC well. “We’ve built relationships among municipal and nonprofit staff who might not have a chance otherwise to work with each other,” Wormser says. “This is a classic good governance effort that pools technical, financial, and community resources together to create something that’s really making a difference in people’s lives.”