AN OPPORTUNITY FOR EQUITABLE DEVELOPMENT: Boston Needs To Give As Much Attention to the Low-income Fairmount/Indigo Corridor as to the High-Income Seaport

The Seaport has everyone’s attention as city and state agencies scramble to make up for the hard-to-believe absence of a Master Plan to guide the big-money area’s development into a functional neighborhood with  parks, transit, stores, schools, bicycle facilities – just about everything beyond offices, restaurants, and condos too expensive for anything besides speculative flipping.

   But given Mayor Walsh’s commitment to equity, to improving conditions for all Bostonians regardless of income, it’s surprising and disturbing that more attention hasn’t been paid to one of the city’s biggest equalizing opportunities – the 9-mile Fairmount/Indigo Corridor, especially the Fairmount Greenway component. This inattention is especially disappointing because there are many high-impact actions that can be accomplished at extremely low cost that would visibly improve conditions in a nine-mile stretch through many of the city’s low-income and non-white neighborhoods.

True: the Fairmount\Indigo Line has been upgraded and in-city service started (although fares to Readville are still out of scale with appropriate transit amounts and the inability to use Charlie Cards makes payment very confusing).  But even though the city has played a role, the rail and the stations are state projects.  What’s clearly a city responsibility is the Fairmount Greenway Project – a walking, bicycling, and family-friendly play-in-the-street route meandering through adjoining residential neighborhoods parallel to the rail tracks.  

Years of community meetings organized by the Fairmount Collaborative and the Fairmount Greenway Task Force have devised and approved an extensive set of ideas for the street route and key parcels.  The plans include creative designs for inexpensive improvements as well as grand plans for major projects.   But with few exceptions, already overburdened city agencies have not been able to do more  than provide verbal support and small actions – and it should be clear by now to everyone that they won’t do any more (perhaps, given inadequate funding and staffing levels, they can’t do any more) unless the Mayor explicitly makes this project a strategic priority.   The Greenway needs to be prominently written into all the long-range plans the Administration is currently preparing – from GoBoston to Imagine Boston 2030 – but even more important, the many quick-easy-cheap ideas need to be funded and accomplished.  Soon.

 

THE BIG STORY:  EQUITY

Every big effort requires a core idea backed up by a good story.  The foundational idea behind the Fairmount Greenway is equity.  Nearly two-thirds of the 93,000 people living along the corridor are African-American, about 16% speak Spanish, over 40% earn less than $40,000 a year and about 20% or below the poverty line.  They live in an area woefully deficient in public open space, playgrounds, walking and bicycling facilities, and in desperate need of additional connections to the opportunities emerging in the Seaport, Longwood, and other growth areas.  The Greenway would also lead to improvements in public health, better storm water and flooding controls, increased mobility within neighborhoods, more safety-enhancing “eyes-on-the-street” – and perhaps most important, a chance to improve living conditions in low-income areas enough to make a difference in resident’s lives without triggering displacement.

Making the process more complicated is that the community groups carrying the vision and effort so far have reached the limit of their resources and capabilities.  Three local Community Development Corporations (Dorchester Bay EDC, Codman Square NDC, and Southwester Boston CDC) and dozens of community groups that have put the untold thousands of hours of work that has involved over 500 residents in planning, volunteer days and community events, and chunks of their limited budgets, into the Fairmount/Indigo Corridor over the past 11 years don’t have the resources or clout to push the project over the hump of government inertia.   There is also a very rich but confusing network of Coalitions, Task Forces, Ad Hoc Groups, Neighborhood Associations, Health and Civic Organizations involved – making the effort a wonderful repository of many people’s energy and ideas and creating broad local support but sometimes making it hard to figure out who’s in charge or to move quickly about big decisions.

 

STRATEGIC MOVES

The effort also suffers from the wonderful breath of its vision for wholescale transformation of neighborhoods in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.  The ultimate goal encompasses changes both to the Corridor’s weaving line of streets from Hyde Park to Newmarket in South Bay and to the numerous city-owned abandoned parcels along the way.    The Fairmount Greenway Task Force’s most exciting visions for the land will require finding appropriate organizations to take formal ownership of each plot, funding for design and construction, recurring revenue to over long-term maintenance and on-going seasonal programming to activate public use of the properties.  Some of the needed funds might become available if the city passes the Community Preservation Act or treats Corridor plans as required mitigation for developers.  But money is scarce and it has been hard for the community to step back from these dreams to pragmatically separate ownership from the other functions and just push for the quicker-and-cheaper immediate goal of removing garbage and poison ivy shrubs, dumping lots of dirt, planting low-maintenance grass, finding a local group or families to take responsibility for watering, and then fund local non-profits to use the city’s many Youth Employment Programs for regular mowing, clean-up, and maybe even installation of simple benches or other structures.   (Also helpful would be Mayoral pressure for city departments to more quickly work through the administrative steps that would allow the Task Force to take over the parcels.)

Even more strategic would be to focus on turning the jumble of Corridor streets – almost all along quiet residential blocks – into a coherent route.  Some signs are supposed to be installed and bike “sharrows” have been painted on some streets, but it still feels very disconnected.  With the Mayor’s vocal backing, the city’s new Slow Streets (aka Neighborway) program should be focused on the Greenway and approvals expedited.  Particular attention needs to be paid to the streets providing access to the new Fairmount\Indigo Line stations.  The northern endpoint of the Fairmount Greenway should be extended from the uninviting Newmarket to the South Bay Harbor Trail which then brings it to connections to the Seaport, downtown, and the Longwood Medical.  A colored-paint wavy line should be painted down the entire route – even across the few intersecting busy streets – to create visual continuity.  Flexible posts, traffic-control barrels, and planters should be put at every intersection to slow traffic to 20mph (or less!); with signs proclaiming that drivers should go slowly and yield to everyone else.  The city should more frequently and rapidly approve applications from Civic Organizations for Play Street status at appropriate locations to turn their blocks into after-school and summer-time places for children to safely be outdoors.  Community groups should be encouraged to create informal pavement murals, including “unofficial” mid-block crossings (safer than corner crosswalks because traffic is only coming from one or two directions rather than around corners from multiple places).  And local activists should begin sponsoring block parties, down-the-route fun bike rides or bike parties, and street-by-street clean-ups to create local ownership.

 

BUILDING ON SUCCESS; MAKING THE PROMISE REAL

            Impressively, despite the difficulties the Task Force already has an impressive portfolio of success since the Greenway Concept Plan was approved in 2011. The Woolson Street Community Garden in Mattapan went from idea to ribbon cutting in less than a year.  The OASIS on Ballou Street near Codman Square, acquired from the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, became an urban farm, providing over 400 pounds of produce for local consumption in its first year.  The wonderful Goats-In-The-City contract, implemented with the Boston’s Parks Department, brought the animals to West Street in Hyde Park where they devoured the poison ivy and trash shrubs and energized the entire the entire neighborhood.  And the Talbot-Norfolk-Triangle (TNT) has won designation as one of the city’s first Slow Zones this past fall

But for all this progress, too much remains unrealized yet without tantalizingly easy reach.  Ultimately, this is not a technical or funding problem, it’s a political challenge – how to get the city (and to some degree the state as well) to realize that making the Fairmount Greenway happen will be a visible, tangible, and important step towards the equitable and prosperous future that Mayor Walsh (and Governor Baker) promised.

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Thanks to Michelle Moon for feedback on earlier drafts.  All remaining errors and opinions are my own responsibility.

You can view a map of the Fairmount Greenway here.

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Related Previous Postings:

>STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets

>THE MAYOR’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Creating Prosperity by Lifting the Basement Instead of Raising the Roof

>SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility

>IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

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  • commented 2016-02-12 11:06:48 -0500
    Steve, this is a great piece of advocacy and comprehensive thinking for promoting city and state support to realize the Fairmount Greenway vision and plans that have emerged since 2011. It’s a terrific minim-compendium of many of the key ideas that emerged from the Greenway Re-Visioning session involving over 20 core non-profit healthy communities/alternative transportation/open space advocacy groups and representatives of public agencies that took place last week. Thank you for your strategic thinking and advocacy.