Boston’s Urban Wilds are a special collection of open spaces that give beauty and comfort to the city’s neighborhoods; they tell us something about the history of the city, its landscapes and geology; they are open spaces that are too often unused, unappreciated and unprotected. Some are huge emeralds of woodlands. Some are dark stone masses formed far back in the earth’s history. Many are like diamonds of un-built, pleasant spaces locked in the surrounding rock of a busy, dense, bustling cityscape.
To add some definition to the idea of Wilds, it may be useful to define them by what they are not. Urban Wilds are not parks. Parks provide greenery and open space in urban settings, but they are designed and sculpted. Urban Wilds are natural landscapes. Either they are what nature has shaped through depositions, erosion, glaciation and other processes, or they are what nature has fashioned in taking back landscapes people had made for farming, for their estates, or in quarrying stone to raise the built city. Parks are designed by people for people, for people’s games and pastimes. Little that shapes a park happens by accident, whether the lay of the land or the species of trees. Urban Wilds are taken as we find them, because they are places where nature can shape us.
Wilds are not wilderness. In fact, many need human attention to trim undergrowth and make paths so people can enjoy them. They are not cut and filled and shaped and paved and equipped in the manner that marks the traditional urban park. Like parks, though, Wilds are for people. They provide a place to sit or walk, or watch or listen. Sometimes they are barely removed at all from the concrete hustle and bustle of urban streets. Even small Wilds, tucked into neighborhoods, heavy with human infrastructure, can be home to birds or wildflowers or a few trees. All of them provide the visual and psychological relief of being someplace that is not more of the same built environment. For that, the small neighborhood Wilds are all the more valuable.
The Urban Wilds of Boston are like the city itself: so diverse as to defy an all-encompassing physical description. They are natural landscapes- sometimes a few hundred square feet, sometimes dozens of acres. In them, one can see bits and pieces of Boston’s geological, topographical or economic history. Some Wilds are woods. Some are ponds. Some are meadows and swamps. Some are rocks, some are valuable for what is in them, some because one can see so much from them, and some because one can see them. Many are part of open space networks that are vital to their neighborhoods.
Urban Wilds are Boston’s special treasure. In the city famed for having the first public open space in America, Boston Common, it is appropriate to have this inventory of special green spaces that are something other than parks. Urban Wilds mark Boston’s commitment to having special places throughout its neighborhoods.
Making a Network
In several cases, the Wilds mimic Frederick Law Olmsted’s woven greenbelt. Seen on a map, many Wilds connect, whether literally or with only a block or two between. In Jamaica Plain’s Mission Hill neighborhood, Urban Wilds climb the hill through the Harvard Quarry, cross the summit through Parker Hilltop and descend through Alleghany I and II. Not far away, behind Jamaica Pond, the large Wild at Hellenic College defines the backdrop for that jewel in Olmsted’s necklace. In Dorchester, there is a chain of waterfront Wilds along Boston Harbor and the Neponset River. Upriver, in Hyde Park, Wilds are studded along the Neponset, Mother Brook, and the public forests of Stony Brook Reservation.
Among the Wilds that have survived in whole or in part, many are significant because of the rock outcrops they reveal. Boston was heavily quarried. Builders seem to have dug wherever they found hills underlain by the stone they wanted for the office buildings, churches, civic buildings and monuments of the 19th century. In Wilds from Hyde Park to East Boston, we see hints of the rock that is under the city and in its buildings.
Some Wilds teach geology. Some serve as ecology classrooms. Others give lessons in the economic and social history of evolving neighborhoods. The Souther Estate Wild in West Roxbury and Roxbury’s Warren Gardens are from the days of large country estates and farms. Allandale Woods in West Roxbury tells another piece of the same story, this time about landed gentry who had working farms along their landscaped grounds.
Wilds as Respite
Wilds can be beneficial even if the public cannot walk the land. A green hilltop or a dense neighborhood wood can set a restful tone simply because it can be seen, and what the eye sees is not more of the same built environment. Hellenic Hill in Jamaica Plain and Dudley Cliffs in Roxbury work that way. Green spaces cool an urban neighborhood in summer, alleviate air pollution, buffer winter winds, brighten spring days with song birds, and color the autumn without anyone having to set a foot into them. They are part of the atmosphere of their neighborhoods as much as the styles and colors of buildings and the width of streets.
A Distinctive Look
Every Urban Wild contributes to the character, look and feeling that makes a neighborhood distinct. Several are important for all city residents because of what they show us about our land and our history. Parker Hilltop in Jamaica Plain, the balcony of the City exemplifies the latter. Some Wilds are open fields where children play, birders watch, families picnic, or classes learn biology or geology or zoology. Some Wilds are rock outcrops that reveal the geological history of their area. Others are wetlands that feed streams, filter water, soak up excess water to prevent floods and provide habitat for wildlife. A Wild can be dozens of acres or it can be a small garden. What matters is that the Wild has been in place, has been part of the city’s environment, longer than any generation that wants to change it. Wilds are our past and, if we preserve them, our future. They contribute to the sense of place, and changing them changes the street and the neighborhood and the city. We must be good stewards of what we inherit.
Stewardship: New England Tradition
Stewardship is an honored principle that goes back to the European settlers of New England and the Native Americans whom they met here. It requires that we pass on what we inherit. Certainly, changes in technology, lifestyles, and the economy in which Boston lives demand different uses of the land in different times. But the Urban Wilds are history and tradition, and it is simply good stewardship to pass them on as the open spaces they were when we found them.
In 1976, the BRA said “Wilds represent the memory of where one played as a child, where one’s children play today, and where one looks for beauty, fresh air and green spaces.” They are, as the report put it, “beautiful bits of Boston’s natural landscape.” We now have to decide whether we want to protect them and pass then on for future generations to enjoy.
Enter the Urban Wilds Website for more details.
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Boston Natural Areas Network
62 Summer Street
Boston, MA 02110-1016