Depave Boston! How to Find Land for Boston’s Parks

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Where are we going to find new parks? Over the years, Boston has lost a lot of public open space—even parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, maestro of the Emerald Necklace. Olmsted’s Wood Island Park was entirely paved over to create Logan Airport; the fact that it was designed by Emerald Necklace planner Frederick Law Olmsted didn’t help it at all. Part of  Olmsted’s Riverway was paved over in the 1950’s to create a parking lot for Sears (more on that in a moment), and Storrow Drive bludgeoned acres of the Charles River Esplanade and the Back Bay Fens Charlesgate Entrance into gray oblivion.

Sometimes, park advocates fight back. East Boston’s advocates worked for years to get the state to build a park to replace 46-acre Wood Island: in the end, they got Piers Park, 6.5 lovely acres built on an abandoned pier. It’s a wonderful park, with great views and a fantastic public sailing program, but it’s a little on the small side. Still, where else are you going to find more park land in Boston?

Under a dump Millennium Park, Pope John Paul II Park, Boston Harbor Island’s Spectacle Island, and Cambridge’s Danehy Park are all former landfills. Millennium Park and Spectacle Island are capped with dirt from the Big Dig; Danehy Park is covered with whatever they dug up from the Red Line extension to Alewife. Unfortunately, subway fill has been used to, ahem, redesign parks, too; large swaths of Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens were filled in with dirt from under Boylston Street.

– Underground  Last fall, the New York Times published an article about a plan to put a park in a “dank former trolley terminal under Delancey Street,” complete with bowl-shaped “light collectors” to illuminate the underground. If we’re not going to put in a rail link between North Station and South Station, how about a park?  The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, although not technically underground, was certainly overshadowed by the Central Artery (Route 93).

In a mall  Another New York Times piece highlighted how ailing malls are being turned into community gardens (among other things).

Under the pavement Depaving isn’t just for Somerville any more. Boston has hundreds of miles of paved roads which make the city hotter and send rainwater into overloaded storm sewers instead of rivers and streams. Some of them could turn into parks. The Sears parking lot on the Riverway was torn up and made back into a park by the City of Boston in the late 1990’s—a pretty scrubby-looking field with a few trees in the middle of a traffic rotary. There are plans to daylight the Muddy River there, taking the water out of the underground culvert where it’s languished since the 1950’s, making the field into a stream.

Most ambitiously, the Esplanade Association is unveiling its Esplanade 2020 plan this week, including this guiding principle:

“2) Reclaim as much parkland as possible

“Over the years the Esplanade has lost land to highway construction and particular interests that have taken possession of significant tracts of parkland. Esplanade 2020 aims to reclaim parkland paved over to accommodate traffic and to regain as much previously public open space as possible.”

Got that, Storrow Drive?

Removing a lane or two of Storrow Drive isn’t exactly finding new parkland; it was all part of the park for 40 years before Storrow Drive was constructed in 1951. But it will be interesting to see the reactions to the idea. I’m looking forward to seeing the slides from The Esplanade Association’s public meeting.

Of course, finding new land for parks doesn’t help if you can’t keep it open space. Someday, you might happen to notice some private landowner eyeing public park land for a new parking lot. The Lantana function hall managed to corral 3.2 acres of the Great Blue Hills Reservation for parking in 2010. If that happens, take a cue from the Boston Preservation Alliance, and see if you can get the park declared a landmark. That’s what the Boston Preservation Alliance did for the Esplanade in 2009. Bostonians can still change their park, but, in the words of the BPA, “Boston Landmark Designation will provide the public the opportunity to weigh in on significant proposed changes to the park… Landmark designation does not prohibit all changes to the park, but rather sets guidelines to ensure that if any changes are made they are in keeping with the park’s historic nature.”

It’s hard to see how a private business’s parking lot would be in keeping with any park’s historic nature, unless the site was a former car dealership. Come to think of it, a nice, airy car dealership could make an excellent greenhouse…

Meg Muckenhoupt is the author of Boston’s Gardens & Green Spaces.  She is a freelance environmental and travel writer. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, the Time Out Boston guide, and many other publications. She holds a certificate in Field Botany from the New England Wild Flower Society. 

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