It’s Too Easy Being Green

With Boston in the midst of a park-building binge that has no end in sight, two questions arise: How much grass is enough? And can we pave over the Kennedy Greenway yet?

This month, two more sections of the Rose Kennedy Greenway will open—one by the waterfront, the other by the North End—joining the new Chinatown park that debuted in September. With the cutting of the ribbons, there will be much cheering and back-slapping, perhaps even a window-rattling 21-lawnmower salute. There will be rousing speeches about realizing the Boston of the future, about silencing the cynics who doubted the project would ever come to fruition. And everyone in attendance will be buoyed by the certainty that there’s nothing on this earth that cannot be made better with the application of a little grass seed.

But this glorious greening hardly represents a new leaf for the city. However much pabulum we’re made to suffer about the “New Boston,” the Greenway, in fact, is straight out of the Boston of old, complete with the myopia-masquerading-as-vision that’s burned us so many times in the past. The park is the City Hall Plaza of the new millennium. And just as City Hall Plaza is a symbol of an era when it seemed wise to knock down half the city and replace it with an archipelago of terrifying concrete gulags, the Greenway will become a symbol of an absurdly wrong-headed time when Boston, for whatever reason, was seized with a burning desire to convert its dynamic urban landscape into an enormous meadow.

Boston has long been known for its green space: the Esplanade, the Public Garden, Franklin Park, the Arboretum. Nearly a fifth of the entire city, in fact, is green space, the fourth highest proportion in the country. And in the past two decades we have gotten only grassier. From the “Greening of Boston” campaign in the ’80s to the park-adoring administration of Tom Menino, it just keeps coming. In the past few years alone we’ve seen the unveiling of the 100-acre Millennium Park in West Roxbury, the 65-acre Pope John Paul II Park in Dorchester, the 105-acre Spectacle Island Park in Boston Harbor, the 18-acre Bremen Street Park in Eastie, and myriad swaths of vegetation sprouting from Turnpike property. No question that going green on top of former landfills—as was done with the Millennium, Spectacle, and Pope John Paul II parks—is all to the good. And certainly, maintaining park space on the Harbor Islands is a worthy reminder of how far we’ve come from the days when the surrounding waters were a nauseating sump-slick that you could practically walk across. But on the whole, we’ve gotten far too zealous about this park business.

This summer, a fight broke out over a plan by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to reconstruct the Storrow Drive Tunnel, a structure presently in a race with the parking garage at UMass Boston to see which can fall down first. The DCR wants to reroute traffic during construction by building a temporary road along a 1,000-foot stretch of the Esplanade. The agency says doing so will shave six months and $5 million off the project, and it has promised to fully restore the affected area afterward. But the cofounder of the Esplanade Association, Linda Cox, responded to this sensible idea by vowing to chain herself to a tree to stop the bulldozing Visigoths from ravaging her beloved park. You’d think the state had proposed a 20-story hog-rendering plant, rather than a short length of temporary pavement laid on a former tidal marsh.

Then there was the response to the request for proposals the city put out for Trans National Place (a.k.a. Tommy’s Tower), the 1,000-foot skyscraper planned for Winthrop Square. To deflect charges that the tower was merely a vanity project for the mayor, the city required that the designs include a sizable “civic component.” The lone development team moved to enter the competition satisfied this criterion with, you guessed it, more parks: one on top of the building, and another, partially enclosed 1-acre park directly beneath the high-rise. Sticking a public park atop a giant tower is indubitably cool, but underneath? When you envision parks, you envision people eating lunch in them. But the thought of enjoying a sandwich in the shadow of 80 zillion tons of steel, concrete, and glass is at best a deeply unsettling proposition.

Say what you will about the proposed tower parks, at least they won’t be built on land we could have actually done something with. For that kind of gross miscalculation, we return our attention to the Kennedy Greenway. Part of the sales pitch for the Big Dig was that it was supposed to rejoin the two halves of Boston that were severed by the Central Artery, and restore to the people the long, jagged scar of land it once covered. This, it was proclaimed, could best be accomplished not by reconnecting the cross streets and filling the space with good, mixed-use development—housing for various income levels, cafés, shops—but by converting it to a nebulous stretch of grass, overlaid at points with lattices of concrete and the occasional genocide memorial, the whole thing hemmed in on both sides by busy roads.

If urban development guru Jane Jacobs were still alive to see this, she would have bitten someone. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities—the sacred text for planners intent on overcoming the “urban renewal” that marred so many American cities—Jacobs stresses the need of cities to “foster lively and interesting streets.” Parks and squares should be part of the urban fabric, she argues, but “they should not be used to island off different uses from each other.” Even a quick glance at Jacobs’s book could have spared us this monstrosity. Just because you don’t have to walk under the Expressway anymore to get from Faneuil Hall to the North End doesn’t mean the two areas have been successfully knitted back together—in fact, in the name of mending the streetscape, planners have simply found a new way to keep it torn.

But the real folly of the Greenway is rooted in the popular notion that green space is inherently useful to people. It isn’t. We’ve taken nearly 30 newfound acres of prime urban land and converted it into something that will be used only in nice weather, during daylight hours, for at best seven months a year, and even then mostly by tourists. The rest of the time it will serve as the narrow, windswept, bum-strewn expanse that North Enders walk across to get to work in the morning, and then avoid after sundown. Sure, it’s an improvement over the rotting hulk of the old Artery, but it’s hard to look at the thing without thinking we could have done better.

As the North End and waterfront parks are unveiled this month, the pols and the papers continue their glorification of all things photosynthetic. But before the rest of us blindly follow them down this path, throwing fistfuls of sod at one another and handing big chunks of Boston back over to Mother Nature, let’s pause and consider two things: One, the best way to improve a city isn’t necessarily to make it less like a city. And two, this is Boston. Beyond the 5,500 acres of perfectly good green space we already have, we’re a half-hour from Lincoln. If your lust for grass is so insatiable that it can’t be slaked by a day at the Arboretum, or a stroll along the coves of the Esplanade (road or no road), go there. It’ll leave more space on the sidewalks for the rest of us.