Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Navigating Boston by the trees

Urban green spaces and their role in neighborhood advocacy and environmentalism.

SW Corridor Park.jpg

Southwest Corridor Park is pictured.

Hopping off the MBTA Green Line after riding from the Medford/Tufts station to Park Street, the transition from a suburban to urban landscape is self-evident. The air downtown is saturated with the smells of street food, gasoline and sweat. Glancing around offers a view of Boston’s skyline juxtaposed with the expansive Boston Common and Public Garden. From this spot, exploring Boston can take on many different forms, like traveling by way of urban green spaces.

Urban green space is defined as land within an urban environment containing substantial amounts of vegetation, which can consist of community gardens, manicured parks, recreational spaces and lawns.

Rosalind Greenstein, a lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts, shared her thoughts on the purpose of urban green spaces in an email to the Daily.

“Urban green spaces provide environmental and recreational services. When the space is publicly owned and publicly maintained it can translate into more access for more people,” Greenstein wrote.

A shining example of urban green spaces that provide multiple services for Boston is the chain of parks and green spaces known as the Emerald Necklace. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the mid to late 1800s, the Emerald Necklace extends across 1,100 acres, from the Boston Common through Jamaica Plain to Franklin Park.

Alyx Britton, volunteer and field maintenance coordinator for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, elaborated on the three main purposes for the design.

[Olmsted] designed the Necklace for three main purposes, one of which was to provide recreational space for urban residents of Boston who couldn't afford to get up to the Cape or the Hamptons,” Britton said. “The second [purpose] was to do something about the … unbearable odor of the Back Bay area, which at that time was a tidal marsh and raw sewage dump … and then the third reason was to provide stormwater drainage to the city of Boston.

Following catastrophic flooding in Oct. 1996, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy was created to advocate and care for the entire linear park system. The conservancy’s work is holistic, covering preservation, education, programming, safety, sustainability and park administration in the Emerald Necklace.

Today, the Emerald Necklace offers a diversity of recreational activities for Boston residents and visitors. The park system, which is the namesake of the Green Line, offers a range of activities from relaxation to hiking to sports.

“There [are] places where you can go for a hike, fully forget you're in the city and can be in what feels like the middle of the woods. Or you could go to a highly manicured rose garden and then to a soccer game, also in the Necklace,” Britton said.

Beyond recreation, urban green spaces are homes for environmental advocacy, like that provided by the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. Britton spoke to the role of nonprofit advocacy in green spaces.

“One of the things that's important to recognize in our work and in nonprofit advocacy work is that we're here to amplify voices. The work didn't start with us, and it doesn't end with us either, honestly,” they said.

Many of the voices amplified in urban green spaces are those of residents in surrounding neighborhoods. This concept can be seen in the Southwest Corridor Park, which stretches four miles from Back Bay to Forest Hills.

The park was created out of efforts such as the People Before Highways rally of 1969, and continues to serve as a hallmark of community involvement in Boston. The park is home to numerous community gardens, biking and walking trails, basketball courts, dog parks and playgrounds.

Similar to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Southwest Corridor Park Alliance advocates for and represents this linear park as a whole. Jennifer Leonard, chair of the Southwest Corridor Park Alliance, described the role of her organization.

“We have the mission, basically, to continue the community involvement — to be the community voice for the park. And so that involves focusing on supporting volunteer garden stewardship, supporting advocacy for the bike and walking trails and supporting … a number of different activities in the park,” Leonard said.

One of the largest programs overseen by the Southwest Corridor Park Alliance is their community garden, which — according to Leonard — offers both an opportunity for volunteerism and community socialization.

“A lot of people don't really have their own yards, or they just have a tiny patio, at most. And so, it's an outlet for gardening, but it's also a service to the community,” Leonard said. “It also becomes social because they go out and do some work in the park, see their neighbors, get into conversations and have that strong connection.”

Additionally, the Southwest Corridor Park Alliance advocated for the community in the planning of areas bordering the park. Jennifer Jones, volunteer coordinator and community garden steward with the Southwest Corridor Park Alliance, spoke to the organization’s role in local redevelopment.

“There's a lot of rebuilding that's going on [near the park]. The Mildred C. Hailey public housing is being redeveloped, so they're knocking down buildings, [and] building new buildings. We're involved in making sure that, because they share a boundary with the park, … there's proper flow and community involvement,” Jones said.

Designing and maintaining urban green spaces is not without its challenges. Leonard expanded on how even tasks like tree planting can be difficult when having to consider an urban landscape.

The Southwest Corridor is challenging because so much of it is over the MBTA. Some of it is actually decked over the trains and so there's a limit to what trees can be planted on that space,” Leonard said.

Overall, urban green spaces are a vital part of Boston and its surrounding communities. Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, urban green spaces provide health benefits, recreational space and places for neighborhood connection. These publicly accessible lands are fruitful places to explore and engage with environmental values.

“Having a place that is easily accessible to connect to the natural world, I think that is a mental health benefit, a spiritual benefit and a benefit for future generations, as we teach other people and youth to value our natural resources,” Britton said.

As much as urban green spaces allow stakeholders to pass on environmental values, they are also a reflection of social values. When thinking about urban green spaces overall, we must consider how their impacts are distributed across all who use them.

Greenstein probed the possible equity concerns of urban green spaces.

“As with any ‘public good,’ everything about green space reflects social values,” Greenstein wrote. “For example, we know that well-maintained public green spaces will increase the value of nearby private property. Are these beautiful and well-maintained spaces broadly scattered around the city to benefit all residents and all neighborhoods, or just selected neighborhoods?”

Urban green spaces have numerous benefits and can be inspiring examples of community advocacy. However, it is always important to think about who does and does not benefit from urban green spaces.