Final Boston Blog Post

by Sherrie LaRose

May 15, 2013


If you are out for an early morning run or an afternoon stroll through Boston’s Public Gardens, there is a good chance you will catch a glimpse of two large, pure white birds with long graceful necks, either gliding in the duck pond or sitting atop their large nest of branches and mud at the water’s edge. These two female swans are moved from their over-winter home in the Franklin Park Zoo to the Public Gardens every spring, and they are a pleasure and delight for the park’s thousands of daily visitors. Though these two birds are domesticated and have clipped wings, several of the city’s parks do have wild swans that come to nest each year. Traveling from the very rural and foliated upstate New York to the big city, we were all pleasantly surprised to find acres upon acres of green space and walking paths in and around Boston, all open for the public’s enjoyment. We took a tour with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy through the Back Bay Fends Park and heard residents of South Boston advocate for their neighborhood’s green spaces at “Coffee Hour in the Park” with Mayor Menino. It became clear to us not only how important this greenery is for preserving at least some natural vegetation in an urban environment, but also how much the residents of Boston value and appreciate these spaces.

One of America’s first ecological restoration projects and voted one of the top ten best public spaces in America, the Back Bay Fends Park was a design by the famous Frederick Olmstead (who also designed New York City’s Central Park) as a means of addressing the sewage buildup and flooding issues in the Back Bay area during the late nineteenth century. Accompanied by a docent from the non-profit Emerald Park Conservancy, we toured through this park and learned about Olmstead’s two overarching principles of design. He believed in the restorative potential of nature, and that parks represent an antidote to dirty, industrialized city life by adding a wild and natural component to counter the straight lines and strictness of urban areas. Olmstead’s second principle was that parks, as a democratic institution, should be open to the entire public, and are an equalizer among different socioeconomic classes. After addressing the sewage and flooding issues of this area by dredging and diverting the Muddy and Stonybrook Rivers, and installing a city sewage system, the Back Bay area was finally inviting and sanitary enough for the creation of a public park. In accordance with his vision, Olmstead specifically chose species of plants that were native to the area and would thrive in the then-brackish waters that flowed through the park in the 1800s. Today, these waters are fresh and the riverbanks are choked with invasive species, phragmites and Japanese knotweed, that threaten to drive out all native vegetation. These species and the impending threat of increased precipitation due to climate change have brought about the multimillion-dollar Muddy River Restoration Project that will ensure the sustained health of the park. In phase one of this project, the river bottoms will be dredged to allow for increased storm water retention and invasive species will be removed to ensure the survival of native and non-invasive vegetation; the people of Boston will be able to enjoy this green space for years to come.

The tour also included walking through the Victory Gardens that have been actively gardened since World War II. These plots are located directly in the middle of the city, and are valuable real estate in Boston, with a waiting list to get a plot and strict guidelines for the maintenance of that plot. Most of the gardens were decorative with fountains and flowers and stone paths, but unfortunately only a few people had chosen to grow vegetables and fruits on this hard-to-come-by urban agricultural space. It was very pleasant walking through the narrow paths overgrown with newly leafed hedges, and regardless of what gardeners chose to plant in their plots, the Victory Garden was an oasis among the gray backdrop of the city.

A few days later, we attended “Coffee Hour in the Park,” a rotating opportunity for Boston’s residents to meet with Mayor Menino and address any concerns that have arisen in their neighborhood. These democratic meetings empower residents to voice any issues directly to the mayor, most often regarding their local green spaces and animal control. As it turns out, Mayor Menino was not able to attend this specific meeting, but some of his colleagues in city government were there to answer questions. The citizens’ expressed their concerns about the trees along their streets, and animal control. A few women spoke about how trees were being cut down near their homes and how they had been told not to worry because new trees would be planted within eighteen months; they wanted new trees sooner. The man who was answering questions told them he would look into it and that they should talk after the meeting. The women didn’t seem quite satisfied though, and it was evident how passionate and upset they were about having greenery destroyed in their neighborhood. A few other people expressed concern about animal control, speaking of dogs being let loose in children’s parks, owners who didn’t clean up after their pets, and an increased number of wild pests, like raccoons, that were invading the area. The Mayor’s colleague again addressed these people in a very political manner: he seemed at a loss for a solution to the dog issues since things had been tried in the past but failed. He did however say that he would send someone out to the home of the elderly woman who kept being pestered by raccoons on her front porch.

Both our tour of the Back Bay Fends Park and the neighborhood meeting displayed how much the residents of Boston value green spaces within the city limits. Like Olmstead expressed, green spaces have both a regenerative and equalizing power. Urban areas can be very sustainable with new green infrastructure, but they also have to be pleasant enough so that people want to live there. Parks and green spaces not only provide enjoyment, but they are also areas that preserve wildlife, sequester carbon, and reduce flooding. Thankfully the city of Boston is making great efforts to incorporate greenery into the city, and the citizens also recognize its importance and show their support for these efforts by attending neighborhood meetings and fighting for their right to have trees, parks, and clean waterways in their communities.