Wet Lions at Harvard’s Allston Library Park

When Harvard’s involved with a park, you need at least four lions and three prepositions. The pretty little Library Park behind the Honan-Allston Branch Library, which opened to the public on July 7, was “was created on land given to Boston by Harvard,” (emphasis mine) according to the Harvard Gazette. And it does have lions, or at least their heads. They sit in a circle, waiting to pounce on passers-by and cover them with lion spit!  Well, actually, the lions don’t move, and they just spew water from the Quabbin Reservoir, and the fountain doesn’t operate unless someone pushes a button, but still, there are lions! In Allston!

…and for now, that’s all that Harvard has built in the area. The new Library Park was originally supposed to be part of a 500,000 square foot science complex. Skip to the last page of this PDF of Harvard’s 2006 master plan for the site and you’ll see just how big the Proposed Science Site was compared to the library. In a 2006 meeting hosted by the Harvard Allston Task Force, one resident was concerned about conflicts “between residents and graduate students.” Harvard neatly avoided that conflict by not building the science complex, thanks largely to the university’s endowment tanking during the recession. There are currently vague plans to build something different there, but it’s not clear when that something will be built.

For now, Allston has gotten a new park, and no pesky graduate students. Instead, the site has used lions. They were found (lurking?) somewhere near Western Avenue when Harvard excavated the site, an erstwhile wetland and former concrete plant. In the hierarchy of “reduce, reuse, recycle,”  I suppose the landscape architects would have been more environmentally correct to eliminate the lions altogether, and just let the water trickle on the ground–but reusing buried lion heads was part of the grand scheme to be “sustainable.”

“Sustainable” is a tricky word. It means something good; the Harvard Gazette used it four times in one article about the park. But what is sustainability, really? Here’s what Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the park’s landscape architects, think it means:

Viewed as a pilot project in sustainability, the project will feature LED lighting, organic maintenance, increased ecological diversity, improved wildlife habitat, the reuse of salvaged fill, and the collection of surface runoff for groundwater recharge through rain gardens.

How did MVVA do? I visited on a weekday afternoon, so I couldn’t see the lighting, and no one was doing maintenance, so I couldn’t see if it was organic (a word almost as undefined as “sustainable”) or not. Considering that the site used to be a concrete plant, then a grass lawn, MVVA could have planted barrel cactus and ragweed and increased the ecological diversity and wildlife habitat at the park.

And that’s here’s what Harvard got for $2 million an acre; a pleasant park with a rain garden, a hill with a spiral, lawns for sitting and reading, and a lion-spit sprinkle deck. It’s pretty, (even though it seems to have lost a few of the trees that were originally planned), the spaces are diverse, there’s clearly a variety of trees and shrubs that will bloom at different times in the spring, and there were a few people from the neighborhood enjoying it on the hot, sunny day. It’s a nice addition to a very urban neighborhood. Heaven knows what it will look like when a few thousand extra people are walking through it every day, but for now, it’s lovely. So is the Library’s front garden, which has nothing to do with Harvard at all.


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