Boston’s Evolving Urban Wilds

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In the 1970s, landscape architect Elliot Rhodeside, FASLA, Rhodeside & Harwell, created a program with immense, lasting value for Boston: the 1,400-plus-acre urban wilds program. Not quite parks, urban wilds are in-between natural open spaces — wetlands, shorelines, hilltops, meadows, woodlands — saved from development. To this day, they have a “unique hybridity,” and are still not part of Boston’s official park system. In a session at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston, Harwell, the program creator; Paul Sutton, the current manager of the urban wilds at the Boston Parks and Recreation department; and Jill Desmini, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), discussed the challenges involved in both preserving and maintaining Boston’s wild urban places.

Protecting Wild Beauty in the City

As a young landscape architect, Rhodeside said Boston’s wild urban spaces had a “profound effect on me.” He felt that “developing these natural areas was the wrong way to go,” because only in Boston can “someone walk out of their house and come across a Puddingstone rock cropping right in the middle of their urban backyard.”

To make conservation a reality, Rhodeside, who was then chief landscape architect for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, had to get a plan in place. After winning a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with some $50,000 in matching funds from the city, Rhodeside began reaching out to the local communities to connect them to the vision. “The idea wouldn’t work unless we could tie it to the neighborhoods.”

Rhodeside said he was inspired by San Francisco’s hilltop parks, with their unique micro-climates. “These places provide relief from the city.” Palo Alto has these wild wetland trails. He also looked to Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and Ian McHarg for models.

At first, the goal was pretty conservative: to simply identify 10 sites with natural value, some 100 acres in total. But his team soon set-up a database and recorded all known threatened sites. Using an aerial photographic analysis, they covered the entire city. They decided to focus on “scenic, vacant land next to park lands, undeveloped land, vacant land next to water bodies, and highly publicized areas.” Combing the whole city, they discovered more than 2,000 acres of land possessing “scenic beauty and natural value.” If all these ecologically-valuable lands were protected, they would expand Boston’s park system by 50 percent.

The next step was to create an implementable plan. For that, they had to find out who owned what. Through their investigation, they discovered that the city already owned 25 percent of the prospective urban wilds. “They were just sitting there unprotected.” Collaborating with community leaders and the Boston Conservation Commission, they began pushing the city to protect those.

One advocacy tool was a “beautiful report” that was both “poetic and comprehensive.” A companion education piece was put up in Boston’s subway showing people how they connected to existing natural areas. Then, Eugenie Beal, a local conservation advocate, came in and set up a $250,000 line of credit from the bank to buy up urban wilds and then hand them over to the city. She created the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN), “accomplishing an enormous amount.”

Rhodeside said their efforts succeeded in saving 2,000 acres in part because the timing was right. “We were in a recession, so we had a respite from the development era. It was the era of conservation.” He added that a burst of “renewed interest in the great landscape architects of the past helped,” as did the new federal programs that were created in the 70s like the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and others.

Managing the Wilds Without a Budget

After BNAN was set up, it became “extremely active,” said Sutton. Through the 80s and 90s, the program became “adept at purchasing private property and transferring it to the parks department.” But while there were victories, with large parcels added to the network of wilds, the overall condition of these natural places declined, all the way through the 90s. This decline began with the economic downturn in the early 80s and statewide tax cuts. The result: “There was no maintenance, and lots of graffiti, litter, vandalism, drugs, and invasive plants.”

Still, one victory was purchasing Allandale Woods in West Roxbury, some 100 acres of forested wetlands near the Arnold Arboretum. Another was adding 25 acres of woodland near Hyde Park. To connect Boston’s MBTA transportation system with the Arnold Arboretum, the arboretum was given Bussey Brook Meadow, adding another 25 acres.

In the 90s, the city hired a urban wilds consultant who focused the parks department on creating a master plan for these places. Then, beginning in 2000s, there was a renewed effort to purchase and set aside ecologically-valuable land. The city got Belle Island Marsh, “one of the most ecologically-productive systems in the city,” a wetland that is being further restored.

Nira Rock was renovated. “It’s a success story.” The urban wilds program “piggy-backed of a nearby playground restoration,” leveraging the activist neighborhood. There has also been a “subtle, hidden restoration of larger sites,” multi-year initiatives that involve a real “hodge-podge” of local groups. Volunteers now deal with invasive plant removal and trail improvements throughout the system of urban wilds.

Sutton said the urban wilds program is “still a stepchild. We can’t use the park system logo.” There’s no budget, given most of the parks department’s finances go to active recreation areas and historic parks. “We have to market ourselves to the city.” But he said realtors are starting to see the value of the restored areas. And universities and non-profits are getting involved.

Within an increasingly revitalized system, the big challenge remains how to deal with sites spread all over the city and “getting new stewardship groups formed.” For the future, he wants these urban wilds to be “fun, inviting, and accessible,” but he also worries about how the city is going to “market these spaces to the next generation” so they remain valued.

Redefining These Places as Novel Ecosystems

Desmini, who teaches landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), said there were 143 urban wilds covering some 2,000 acres in 1976. In 2010, there were  just 105 wilds covering 1,414 acres. Of that, 785 acres are permanently protected.

She said in the Allston / Brighton areas of Boston, “lots of urban wilds were lost.” In East Boston, segments near the airport are also gone. Other sites have been “dramatically transformed” over the past 40 years. Many places now have a “unique hybridity.”

Desmini said the definition of an urban wild has also changed over the years as these places have evolved. “Urban wilds are not parks or wilderness,” but something in between. Urban wilds are “unorganized scraps of nature,” celebrated for their “indigenous qualities.”

Urban wilds are “places of natural beauty and reflect a history that predates the American revolution.” They are a living story of “urban ecology and abandonment.” These are spaces “where nature instead of man shapes the space,” yet humans’ influence is still felt. They can be defined as novel ecosystems.

As with any novel ecosystem, they will not be pure, but they can still be celebrated. They have an “openness,” so they can be viewed as either “orphans or opportunity-filled.” They are rich with “vegetative succession and continuously evolving.” They can also have different hybrid uses. As an example, she pointed to an urban wild in Berlin where the local authorities actually allow graffiti spraying during certain hours.

Today, preserving an urban wild is about “conserving spontaneously-vegetated sites.” She said the future will be about “innovative maintenance” that takes into account the unique qualities of these spaces.

She said it’s also important the city starts treating the urban wilds as a comprehensive system of novel ecosystems. “The city can amp up the hybrid qualities.” Otherwise, they will “continue to struggle with fragmentation.”

Image credit: Allandale Woods / Boston Exotic Flowers

One thought on “Boston’s Evolving Urban Wilds

  1. Mark L. Johnson 12/04/2013 / 12:00 pm

    We’ve come a long way from Rhodeside’s initial conservation of scenic properties. Hopefully, today we are seeking ways to enhance biodiversity and avoid habitat fragmentation when we can.

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