Does a Park Need Nature? The Challenge of Chelsea’s PORT

Eastern Minerals in Chelsea, photograph by Stephanie Mitchell for the Harvard News Office

Poor Chelsea! The city’s forthcoming waterside park at 99 Marginal Street was grievously insulted in a recent Salon column titled “New and Improved Parks: Now with No Nature.”  Writer Will Doig deplored the lack of “natural beauty” in the plans for the site, otherwise known as the Publicly Organized Recreation Territory (PORT). He did mention that it will “be packed with amenities, including a playground, an amphitheater, three geodesic domes and a circuitous series of walking paths separated from its grasses and flowers by low gray walls”—all in three-quarters of an acre.”  But what kind of “nature” could you have on a site like 99 Marginal Street? It’s missing its mud flats. Or, rather, they aren’t missing; they’re buried. And what they’re buried under makes all the difference in what’s even possible, much less desirable, for a “Recreation Territory” at 99 Marginal Street, Chelsea.

99 Marginal Street, Chelsea MA (courtesy of Google Maps)

There, I gave you the address. Go and look at the Google satellite map of the site, home of Eastern Minerals (ed note: we did this for you, see above!). See those giant red, blue, and white stripes? That’s the cover on top of the giant salt pile which makes your town’s roads safe to drive on in the winter (in the years that Massachusetts has one.) Eastern Minerals has owned the future park site now. See those white circles on the right? Those are the giant oil tanks, used most recently for storing construction debris.

Eastern Minerals is going to be removing them and the contaminated soil—likely soaked with oil and heaven knows what else—to make the 3/4 acre site into a public park. Then, they’ll  bring one of their giant piles of salt right next door, in case the park needs more salt. You wouldn’t want an underseasoned park, would you? (It’d be like a year without a winter.) There’s a great picture of the friendly salt pile next door and the future park on the WBUR Flickr site.

Site of the future park in Chelsea, by Landing Studio

What you can’t see in the WBUR photo, or the rendering of the nifty plant-dome in the Boston Globe piece about the park, is the boundary line for the historic high tide line. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, almost the entire section of Chelsea waterfront south of Marginal Street went under water at high tide in 1630, and is subject to Chapter 91, the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act.

In short, this park is on top of land that only exists because somebody put it there. It’s an old mud flat. The “natural” inhabitants of this area aren’t plants at all. They’re clams.

So what do you do with an old, contaminated industrial site on filled land when you make a park—particularly in a densely-populated, built-out city that isn’t known for housing Boston Brahmin clans of wealthy park patrons? You try to make it work as best you can on a limited budget. The entire west end of the new park nearest the salt pile will consist of a parking lot and an artificial-turf soccer field; to the east, there will be contained planting beds under some shade structures that will ease the glare from pavement and water.

Eastern Mineral site today, photograph by Ted Siefer of WBUR

No, the Publicly Organized Recreation Territory isn’t wild. It won’t have “natural beauty.” It’s more like a giant stack of window boxes than the Arnold Arboretum. But a park carved out of an old oil-tank field on top of filled land will never be natural. Frederick Law Olmsted’s “invisible design” for wild-looking parks that Doig praises is expensive to create and maintain in a windy, open, formerly contaminated site.

And there’s the problem; when you build a park, you have to build it in a particular place. And the particular place called Chelsea is a city with a population of more than 37,000 people in 1.8 square miles with a median household income $20,000 below the Massachusetts average. It’s urban, and it doesn’t have that many parks for the population. It’s hard to feel like a natural human when you’re wedged between a red white and blue salt pile, rotting piers, and Marginal Street anyway, so why try to create “natural beauty” in an artificial place? Chelsea has chosen to make a garden, not a wild park; given their budget and site constraints, I suspect the city couldn’t have done otherwise, even if Chelsea residents had wished to.

Maybe in a few dozen years, after the waters of Boston Harbor rise, the docks start to crumble, and Japanese knotweed starts shooting up through the broken sidewalks, Chelsea’s waterfront will look more “natural.”  After all, city nature is the stuff that grows in vacant lots; you can read more about these hearty plants in Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast.

The future P.O.R.T park in Chelsea, rendering by Landing Studio

In the meantime, I look forward to seeing the PORT’s funky shade structure and the goldenrod and purple coneflower blooming in its geometric shade. It’s nature Chelsea’s kids can actually experience, instead of just wishing for somewhere to go besides a sidewalk next to an oil tank. That’s wild enough for me.

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 PhoenixBoston Magazine, the Time Out Boston guide, and many other publications. She holds a certificate in Field Botany from the New England Wild Flower Society.

  One Reply to “Does a Park Need Nature? The Challenge of Chelsea’s PORT”

  1. Georgia (local ecologist)
    March 31, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    The trees and flowers in the last photograph are nature, no? And what of the waters of the Harbor nearby?
    Thanks for writing about the proposed park.

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