Strap on your helmet, lace up your sneakers and hop on your bike, because Alewife Linear Park is getting a makeover.
Alewife Linear Park is one of the two multi-use paths that pedestrians, bikers and recreationalists can access from Davis Square. While the other multi-use path, the Somerville Community Path, leads towards downtown Boston, the Alewife Linear Park starts in Somerville, heads across North Cambridge towards the Alewife MBTA station and eventually connects to the Minuteman Bikeway.
Linear Park is part of an extensive network of multi-use paths, sometimes called “bike highways,” throughout the Greater Boston area. The Cambridge portion of Linear Park is being reimagined based on hundreds of survey responses and feedback from in-person and remote events.
Charles Creagh is the Linear Park redesign project manager and a transportation project planner for the City of Cambridge in the Community Development department. He is also a part-time lecturer in the Tufts Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning department. Creagh explained the importance of Linear Park.
“[Linear Park is] a multi-use path, and that means that it can be used by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, in-line skaters, dog walkers — everyone that's not on a car or a moped,” Creagh said. “It's a really important commuter bike way, and it's also an important recreational walking and biking way.”
Gary Chan, a neighborhood planner in the Community Planning division of the Cambridge Community Development department, emphasized the path’s key role in linking Somerville and Cambridge to a wider network of Greater Boston paths.
“We like to think of [Linear Park] as a path within a park that connects to some pretty significant destinations. … and then if you zoom out a bit, it's also a vital part of a larger multi-use path network that connects all the way up from Bedford, Mass. to North Station,” Chan said. “You can get from one end to the other more or less completely off-road.”
Alewife Linear Park currently functions as a heavily-trafficked transportation corridor, especially for bicycling. The park was initially constructed in 1985 directly above ground over the Red Line Northwest Extension.
“When [Linear Park] opened, the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway did not exist. And this year, in 2023, on the other end of the path past Davis, it connects all the way into East Cambridge and downtown Boston, on the Community Path Extension, which parallels the Green Line,” Creagh said. “The context around Linear Park has changed. It's getting busier and it's not meeting the needs of all of its users.”
A major element of the redesign is the widening of the paved portion of the path from an average width of 11 feet to 14 feet — the standard for a busy urban shared-use path set by the American Association of State Highway Transportation officials.
“[The path] can be a tight space for how heavy the amount of use of the path gets,” Chan said. “People walking, walking with kids, walking with dogs on a leash, perhaps someone in a wheelchair or people on bikes, rollerblades … it's a lot of different users moving at different speeds.”
Another goal of the Linear Park redesign project is to create more recreational space while preserving it as an important commuterway.
Kevin Beuttell, a supervising landscape architect with the Department of Public Works, elaborated on the upcoming renovations for the space.
“What we'd like to do is to make it a little bit more park-like, so it can sort of function both as an open space for the public park … as well as a multi-use path corridor,” Beuttell said.
To achieve this goal, the renovation will also include secondary pathways branching off the main direct path, intended for those who wish to travel at a slower pace.
“Some people also just like to enjoy the park at different speeds … and we want to create opportunities for that as well,” Chan said.
These secondary paths will include opportunities for natural play for children.
“[We want] to have … some kind of whimsical, playful ways for people to move through the space too,” Chan said. “We think about how we use boulders or lawns or things like that to create a path that a kid may gravitate toward as they're walking alongside a parent or grandparent.”
Additionally, the park’s landscaping will be revitalized — something Beuttell believes is a necessary and overdue change for the area.
“From a landscape standpoint, it needs a little bit of help,” Beuttell said. “We've got mature trees, but the ground plane is kind of in rough shape … there hasn't really been any major investment in the park since it was constructed about 30 or 35 years ago.”
One of these planned changes, according to Creagh, is the addition of greenery. An army of new trees will take root along the path, which will contribute to the aesthetics of Linear Park and make a positive impact on the environment.
“We're going to plant between roughly 120 to 150 new trees … and try to increase the shade canopy, which is very important from a path-user perspective,” Creagh said. “From a climate perspective, increasing shade and decreasing built environment impacts on the environment is one of the goals in the city.”
Also coming to Linear Park are signs to help users navigate where they are and where they are going.
“The current state of the signage is … a little bit neglected, and the signage is basically rules and … a lot of MBTA signage, [which is] not helpful because that's really only for emergency responders,” Creagh said. “We do intend to include wayfinding signage.”
Creagh acknowledged the difficulty of designing for a community with many competing interests and that trade-offs have to be made.
“We're trying to make a path and park that's a successful place for all users,” Creagh said. “The bike commuter is like, ‘You need to make it wider, it's not wide enough.’ And then right next to him is the pedestrian advocate who says, ‘It's too wide, you’ve got to make it narrower, these bikes go too fast.’ And then right next to him, you have the guy who says, ‘There's no place for my kids to play.’ … Everything in planning is about trade-offs.”
Additionally, the Linear Park redesign will feature the works of two unique artists: Matthew Mazzotta and Dan Borelli.
Matthew Mazzotta is an American social practice artist and is designing a unique bench for the triangular section of the park called Camp Cameron at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Cameron Avenue.
“It [will be] a small seating area with a special feature that … evokes structures that [Mazzotta] has observed on site,” Chan said. “I think the idea is to be able to lay down in one spot and listen to music … to have kind of a sonic experience.”
Another art installation planned for the Alewife Linear Park will be designed by Dan Borelli, director of exhibitions at the Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
His art installation will combine mosses and low growing plants with bricks to connect to the history of North Cambridge. The project will be featured in multiple different locations along the path.
“Dan Borelli is interested in bricks and the relationship between man-made objects that are natural and the way that we use them in an unnatural environment,” Creagh said. “You see bricks all over Cambridge. Hundreds of years ago, Cambridge was on the map because of clay making, and he is trying to play with that.”
In terms of a timeline for the Alewife Linear Park redesign project, Creagh expressed optimism for its rapid completion. Currently, the construction team is anticipating to begin work in 2024 and finish in under 18 months.
According to Beuttell, most of the path will remain open during construction, with safe detours provided for segments that are closed at any given time.
“I think it's highly unlikely that we will close down the entire [path] … I think we'll probably do it in pieces.” Beuttell said. “What we're going to try to do is get the work done as quickly and as painlessly as we can. But it's … a little bit of a puzzle to try to figure out how we want to do that.”
The new and improved Alewife Linear Park and its multi-use path will continue to make Cambridge and Somerville great places to live and facilitate future expansions of the Greater Boston path network.
“You're living in one of the most walkable, bikeable places in 200 miles,” Creagh said.