Monday, February 12, 2007

More Than a Garden

For the past few years I have been working to restore a public garden, the Minot Rose Garden, located within Winthrop Park at the corner of St. Paul and Browne streets. Like most things in life, the effort started small and was a simple instinctual response to the situation. The effort has of course grown since then to include a dedicated group of volunteers, the Town of Brookline, The Brookline Community Foundation, the Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, the Brookline Garden Club and many generous contributors. Through much hard work and perseverance, the rose garden is once again a place of rare beauty and a source of inspiration for its many visitors.

On some level, it is a very simple story, one of renewed life and beauty on a little patch of earth, but on the other hand, I can't help reflecting on the larger implications that have resulted from the transformation and to celebrate the spirit that it represents. A flourishing garden in one's neighborhood represents pride and demonstrates nurturing and care lavished on a public resource. What message does this send? It shows a respect and concern for the welfare of others and the world we share, thereby counteracting abusive, degrading and competitive messages that are often thrown at us in our hectic world. By providing a place of beauty and sanctuary for all to enjoy we declare our intent to bypass to prevailing cultural norm that reserves such places for those with the means to provide it for themselves.

It is the fact that this is a public garden that is truly remarkable. The trend towards privatization of public space is pervasive in America today. As the place-less suburbs became ubiquitous, the enclosed shopping mall took over as a substitute for main streets and town squares. But of course they really weren't substitutes because they existed for the purpose of selling and profit. The shift to the malls of the common social functions that used to happen on main street were in some cases unintended consequences, as in the case of their use by displaced teenagers as gathering spots. The mall management, of course, feels justified in exercising their role as regulators and they simply banish those they do not regard as desirable. The public, ultimately have no rights in a mall or restaurant or store. Where than are the basic functions of a free society to gather, discuss and meet to occur? Only in those places where we see others like ourselves? Where we must buy something to justify our presence?

One of the prime motivating forces that propelled F.L. Olmsted to advocate and design public parks was his belief in the benefits of social interaction in a peaceful and free setting. While many have criticized his views of the resulting social cohesion this interaction might bring as being pollyannish, I do believe it is vitally important for our culture to have places we can see and meet people in a spontaneous way that we would not encounter any other way. After all what is it that draws us to lively public places? We enjoy being with our fellows, feeling part of a community. The value of this type of interaction has become more important in the age of the Internet. We are rooted to geography because we are physical beings. We occupy a space and live in a neighborhood and are affected by and effect that setting. Those things, like a beautiful neighborhood park that we share, help us to feel a part of that and go a long way towards dispelling feelings of alienation.

Our public spaces are endangered and precious. As local budgets tighten, maintenance suffers. Several options have surfaced in response to this trend. In New York City, private money has been tapped. Of course this comes with strings that benefit the private funders, often imposing advertising and even buildings within park lands. This is a dangerous and unfortunate trend that does not accurately reflect the will of the citizens and gives away precious resources that cannot be recovered. This is an unacceptable option.

Here in Brookline, we've seen the remarkable spirit of local citizens pledging time, energy and money to protect, maintain and create parks and open space. We understand the value of our parks on a very visceral level and are willing to walk the walk. I have been truly moved by the actions of those who are willing to spend their precious free time working in the garden and by those many families and individuals who have been willing to tap their family budget to contribute to our effort to improve the park. This willingness to participate is a treasure we are blessed with. The personal benefits to be found when working with a group of like minded people in pursuit of a common goal cannot be overstated. I can say with great conviction that for those of us who have labored in the garden, the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices, and we have had many fun and pleasant interactions too.

To find out more about the Minot Rose Garden or volunteer opportunities, please email Linda at

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Can Brookline Adapt?

Recently, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a report that states that climate change, caused by human activity will bring profound disruptions to everything from rainfall, ocean levels, and food production to plant and animal diversity. Reminding us again that the consequences of our actions are coming home to roost. The ecological imperative for change is upon us as well as we struggle through another winter of painful payments to the heating oil companies. Our cold winters have made us dependent upon what is increasingly seeming like an antiquated technology.

How well-positioned is Brookline to respond to these challenges? What might Brookline as the eco-city of the future look like? One big problem is the age of our housing stock which exacerbates our reliance on heating oil. At my condominium, we have paid extra assessments last year and this to cover our staggering oil heating bills. Calling these fees temporary is merely a form of denial. We are also buying a new boiler and adopting new efficiency enhancing techniques of temperature control, which will yield some small savings. But I can't help but wonder at the folly of investing vast sums in a new oil heat boiler. But what alternatives do we have? How will we heat our homes in the future? Bio-fuels?

Like most buildings in Brookline our building is old and not that efficient. Some upgrades are available that will help somewhat, such as replacement windows. Which are easy to do but expensive. Other energy saving enhancements may require major reconstruction and investment. Unlike new construction, we cannot take advantage of all the new green building materials and techniques. On the plus side, adaptive re-use is ecologically efficient in its own way, avoiding the ecological consequences of manufacture, construction and demolition. Surely adaptive techniques, materials and technologies will be developed as their need becomes apparent.

Our greatest asset is our compact development pattern and the mass transit system that provides for our mobility without the necessity of using a personal automobile for each trip. We are extremely fortunate, unlike most of the rest of the country where widely dispersed development means complete reliance on automobile travel. As James Howard Kunstler writes, "American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." All sorts of infrastructure efficiencies flow from compact living, and the task for the future is to enhance livability in these settings. With more attention paid to the public realm we could have amenities that would allow individuals to, in essence, expand their living area through use of shared public spaces for recreation, access to nature, transportation and civic functions. The sharing of these resources would achieve benefits to social well being and community life as well.

New housing will need to be accommodated in areas already well served by transit and we will also hopefully see improvements to transit service in those areas that are currently now only served by infrequent buses at best. New nodes of density could perhaps be accommodated in tandem with transit improvements. We are fortunate as well that our existing density means Zipcars are available, allowing for occasional auto use without the burden of ownership. As gas prices spiked, I found myself driving less and less. It was a relief to have that option. I achieved this by seeking my recreation closer to home and relying more on the Internet for shopping. I'm not sure that this shift is really a net energy savings though. Is it more efficient to order a necklace from Canada that is delivered by UPS than it would have been for me to drive around to several stores looking for the item I wanted? It doesn't seem like it. Ultimately, the need to reduce transportation costs would lead to economic shifts away from global markets to a return to more locally produced and exchanged goods. Perhaps more "cottage industries" will spring up in our business districts, where we can imagine that creative reuse and recycling of materials will be employed in the making of useful household products.

Another great asset we have, is our own Allendale farm, and the other open space and undeveloped land concentrated mostly in South Brookline. The ability to grow food locally will become more important as well as the need to be better long term stewards of our arable lands. These trends favor the small family farm and community gardening. Perhaps many more Brookline families will find themselves involved in growing food for themselves and the local markets and restaurants. Will we dedicate more of our park lands for this? Or will we simply accommodate gardens in yards, roofs or containers?

Shifting patterns of rainfall seemed evident last spring. If this trend continues, our flood prone areas will expand, and structures in vulnerable areas will have to be abandoned. We will see changes to the cycles of our plant life, resulting in different growth patterns. The palette of trees, bushes and perennials we take for granted as well suited to our climate will change, perhaps requiring us to replant and plan for continuous change. This additional care and replacement could become too burdensome economically and physically for us to keep up with, bringing unwanted change to our beloved leafy environment.

Surely the future holds many unknowns and will probably be very different from anything we can imagine. One thing is certain though and that is that Brookline will always be home to many individuals with the capacity for creative problem solving and commitment to community, two qualities that have been in evidence since 1705 and will serve us well into the future.