Main Street to Green Street

By Renée Loth

Boston, MA (July 3, 2010)- The words “urban” and “forest” would hardly seem to belong in the same sentence, but urban forestry is a growing field that recognizes the value of trees to the physical and social life of cities. Last week, Boston Mayor Tom Menino dedicated a strip of reclaimed parking lot in Allston that has been transformed into green space, helping the environment and – though he might not phrase it just this way- contributing to a new urban aesthetic.

This tiny bit of unpaved paradise – like the Joni Mitchell song in reverse – is on Everett Street in North Allston, a residential neighborhood hemmed in on all sides by industrial or institutional encroachments, including the Mass. Pike and Harvard University’s still-developing life sciences center. At only 2,500 square feet, the lush little park will hardly reverse global warming. But with seven new trees, a rain garden of native plants, new water-permeable pavestones, and several interpretative signs, it is an ideal demonstration project for the benefits of greenscaping in a heavily urban area.

The park, squeezed in between St. Anthony’s church and the German International School, is the fruit of a two-year collaboration between environmentalists – especially those concerned with the health of the nearby Charles River – and community development activists concerned about the livability of neighborhoods. “The neighborhood is severed in a couple of places,” said Gustavo Quiroga of the Allston-Brighton Community Development Corporation. “We wanted to create a green corridor to connect residents to the largest open space in our community, which is the Charles River.”

The rain garden and permeable pavement aren’t just attractive, however: they provide a crucial filter for storm water runoff, preventing it from flushing into the Charles. Think of it as traffic calming for the rain. The runoff contains phosphorus, which comes from fertilizers and car exhaust. It collects on asphalt surfaces, washes off and chokes the river with algae, starving it of oxygen and killing fish. The green space allows the water to filter slowly and safely into the ground.

The project also positions the city to address proposed new EPA regulations that would eventually require phosphorus reductions near the Charles. The regulations have caused an uproar in three communities at the river’s headwaters – Franklin, Milford, and Bellingham – which have been chosen by EPA to be at the vanguard of the program. Under the proposed regulations, businesses with more than two acres of impermeable surface would have five years to reduce their phosphorus pollution by 65 percent. Towns would also have to come up with phosphorus reduction plans on municipal land.

Last week at a public hearing in Franklin, local officials and business owners blasted the proposal, saying that the EPA itself should fund the project. But why should taxpayers pay to mitigate pollution caused by private businesses? The Allston experiment shows that greenscaping not only reduces pollution but enhances the whole community by creating cool, peaceful, pedestrian-friendly buffers.

Curt Spalding, the EPA’s regional administrator, emphasizes that the agency isn’t requiring every business to install a costly wastewater treatment plant. “We are talking about restoring the natural environmental function” of the land, he said. Greening the so-called hardscape also replenishes natural groundwater and guards against flooding, a growing problem in many communities.

Cost estimates to meet the proposed requirements vary wildly, but Robert Zimmerman, director of the Charles River Watershed Association, said the Allston experience suggests that larger projects will yield to economies of scale. “I’m sure we could get it down to $5,000 an acre,” he said. The Allston project, though, did benefit from grants from Harvard, Boston College, and the state department of Conservation and Recreation.

Urban forestry is about more than just managing trees. The Allston initiative involved several community meetings and opinion surveys to educate the public and gather suggestions. Kate Bowditch, a hydrologist with the watershed association, says the green streets effort also connects into broader environmental issues. “It ties into people’s interest in climate change adaptation,” she said, or “how to make a city functional and sustainable in a hotter, wetter climate.” Everett Street will never look like the Arboretum or Franklin Park. But it is the first of several green streets proposed for the densest neighborhoods, reclaiming Boston from the tyranny of asphalt, one city block at a time.

Related Resource:
The Boston Globe- Main Street to Green Street