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Urban Places of the Heart

Originally printed in The Boston Globe

July 14, 2002
Ashley Lanfer (Project Manager, The Heart of the City)

In 1949, trailblazing conservationist Aldo Leopold articulated an ethic that was novel to many Americans but to him was a golden rule for society's relationship to the natural world. "A thing is right," he said, when it protects and enhances "the integrity, stability, and beauty" of the ecosystem. "It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

More than half a century later, many still struggle to live by an environmental ethic, in both urban and pristine settings. But those who come closest to realizing that ethic each day do not necessarily live in log cabins deep in the forests or in leaf-shaded houses in the suburbs. As it turns out, many live in tightly clustered neighborhoods like Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Roslindale, and Mattapan.


It is in these communities where the future of Boston can be found. Located in the geographic center, truly the heart of the city, these neighborhoods have forged an impressive comeback from the disinvestment and unrest that began in the 1960s. They are safer, fuller, more diverse, and more attractive than they were just a decade ago. Jay Wickersham, director of the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, has called these and other inner-city neighborhoods "the greatest hope for the environment."

But before these communities can meet that hope and realize their prospects, those who care about the city - residents, merchants, park lovers, and public officials - need to understand the nature of their common space. Let's start by looking at the area's human and ecological potential.

In the city's heartland neighborhoods, land is often used intensely. Communities are thick with human activity in shops and galleries, at transit stops, in community centers and schools, and in houses of worship. People living there tend to leave fewer ecological footprints on smaller plots of land than do their suburban and rural counterparts. They pump less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere because they often have the option of walking, biking, or taking public transportation. Convenient shopping lies nearby in Grove Hall in Roxbury, Forest Hills on the border of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale, and on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury.

More extraordinary, however, is that these very urban spaces are also part of the natural world that Leopold celebrated.

Within a mile and a half radius of the Forest Hills MBTA station, there are more than 1,570 acres of public open space, not including several cemeteries. That is about 2.45 square miles of rolling hills, gurgling brooks, community gardens, diverse plant life, massive outcroppings of Roxbury puddingstone, ponds, historic ruins, outdoor sculptures, and even (inside the gates of the Franklin Park Zoo) wildebeest, peacocks, and western lowland gorillas.

Two of these open spaces are famous around the world. The Arnold Arboretum is a 265-acre that is a mecca for those who delight in the rich diversity of woody plants. Franklin Park is a 527-acre masterpiece with woodlands, vistas, paths, ruins, and glades designed by preeminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Other natural spaces include the Forest Hills Cemetery on the southern edge of Jamaica Plain - an arboretum, sculpture garden, and historic treasure that rivals Cambridge's Mount Auburn Cemetery in artistry and natural beauty. The Boston Nature Center in Mattapan is reclaiming an urban wasteland at the former Boston State Hospital site for the benefit of thousands of Boston's children. According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, 40 percent of the Boston Public Schools population lives within a two-mile radius of the sanctuary.

The area also includes about two dozen community gardens, historically significant urban wilds such as the Allandale Woods near the Boston-Brookline border, and more than 15 smaller neighborhood parks and tot lots. These urban green lands provide not only a place for recreation and renewal, but also perform invaluable environmental services for the communities that surround them - purifying the air and water and preventing flood damage.

Some elements of these natural spaces desperately need attention. The Canterbury Brook, which runs through parts of Mattapan and Roslindale, is contaminated, with elevated levels of lead and other toxins. In many areas, the brook is mired in a soup of bottles, cans, and other trash. Illegal dumping is rampant at the connector between American Legion Highway and Morton Street just north of Mattapan, in the vacant lots across from the Archdale Village public housing development in Roslindale, and even in parts of Franklin Park and the Boston Nature Center.

Some paths connecting communities to green lands are blocked or underutilized. Tires, wooden planks, and garbage block a rare passageway, under the commuter rail in Roslindale, that leads into the Arnold Arboretum. There are no signs pointing the way from the Forest Hills T station to Franklin Park, and the journey on foot through traffic can be harrowing.

The neighborhoods also fall far short in measures of environmental health. According to a 1999 report of the Boston Public Health Commission, 70 percent of emergency asthma attacks in Boston occurred in the communities surrounding Franklin Park. Children in these neighborhoods are far more likely to have elevated blood-lead levels and less likely to have access to health care.

As vacant lots and abandoned buildings are rehabbed, and as progress is made on the Boston State Hospital site, as well as the Arborway transit yard near the Forest Hills station, and the Arborway itself that extends from Jamaica Pond to Franklin Park, there are opportunities aplenty to build on the best of the neighborhoods.

Many players are already taking hold of these opportunities. The Erie-Ellington community just east of Franklin Park constructed 50 units of energy-efficient, cost-effective affordable housing in 2000. The apartments cost 25 percent less to construct, provide better internal ventilation, use half as much energy, and produce fewer contaminants than most affordable housing constructed in Boston.

The city and Massachusetts Audubon have almost completed construction on the George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center as part of the Boston Nature Center. The building, which features geothermal heat pumps and solar panels, is a model of energy efficiency and green design. The city, state, abutters, and the Arboretum Park Conservancy worked together for years to create a pedestrian footpath between the Arnold Arboretum and transit at the Forest Hills station. They celebrated its opening in May.

On the development side, the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, Boston Consulting Group, and Urban Land Institute have taken steps to understand the area's economic opportunities. Community development corporations such as Lena Park and Urban Edge have promoted new and rehabbed housing and worked to protect residents from getting pushed out with gentrification. The Boston Society of Architects has drawn attention to the area's potential for housing development near the Forest Hills station.

And Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the Parks Department have done much to make strategic improvements, from betterments along Blue Hill Avenue to the creation of the Grove Hall Mecca mall to the opening of a newer golf clubhouse in Franklin Park.

But much more work remains. In a city, no home, park, school, or business exists in isolation. To improve the places that people care about, they need good information that is accessible to all. They need to know about their corners of the world, but also about how their places connect to other areas - how their plans affect their neighbors and the environment. The Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the Arnold Arboretum have collaborated on an ambitious project to provide Web-accessible information about every social, environmental, and design issue in the region.

The database will be available this fall, but it will need continued input from people who care about the heart of the city's problems and promise. We don't need to overplan the area, but we do need to step back periodically, examine the facts, and make sure we are headed in a direction that reflects our deepest values.

These neighborhoods provide an opportunity for extraordinary environmental quality and stewardship in Boston, as well as a dynamic and inclusive community life. We can choose to squander that opportunity through complacency and drift. Or we can use our significant resources to realize an environmental and social ethic that few have had the courage to imagine.

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