If we could only connect Boston’s parks together, city residents would get to know people and places they’d otherwise never see. Right now, how would someone in Myrtle Street Park on Beacon Hill know about the giant double slide in Hemenway Park in Dorchester? How would children in Noyes Playground in East Boston know how thrilling it is to walk the mile-long wall through the wilderness in Allandale Woods?
This spring, my three small children and I completed a yearlong journey to visit every park in Boston. City Hall had put out a long list of parks they needed photographs of. I decided to help out — and used it as an excuse to go to places we’d never visited. While the famous parks in the Emerald Necklace define the system in most people’s mind, it turns out there are well over 300 state, city, and private parks that the public can visit.
Despite having lived here for 20 years, I discovered a city I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I also met people who, like me until recently, had no idea how much the parks outside their neighborhood had to offer.
If, in the last year or so, you were in your local park and a guy in a waterproof hat started asking you questions about it as his kids ran around nearby, well, that was me. Of everyone I spoke to, no one knew about the 40 Urban Wild parks, where the City of Boston preserves wild spaces. Most didn’t know how much art is the parks; or that you can learn a lot about Boston’s history through the inscriptions, symbols, and ideas inside them; or that lots of parks, even neighborhood parks, have spectacular features that no other park has. But who could blame people for not knowing?
The problem isn’t just that there are amazing parks people don’t know about, several miles away, it’s that people aren’t aware of the great parks they could go to that are close to where they live. I recently talked to a dad in Rossmore Stedman Playground in Jamaica Plain who had never heard of Jackson Square Playground, just over a mile away. It has two ziplines, and this huge, amazing orange contraption my kids keep saying they want to play on again.
In this city, you can be a short distance from somewhere, but it can feel much further away. A good example would be Ringgold Park and O’Day Park in the South End. Ringgold Park is surrounded by very expensive housing. The families who play there, by all outward appearances, are doing quite well. O’Day Park serves a far less affluent area. Yet these parks are only eight blocks apart.
That both neighborhoods have green space is a testament to the egalitarian nature of our park system. There are parks in every part of the city. What we need most is to connect the parks, and enable many kinds of journeys through the city. Here are some recommendations:
1. Enlist all park owners in creating a unified view of the system
There are lots of park owners: the City of Boston, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, Massport, The Trustees of Reservations, and several private entities. The websites for each just show the parks they control, and sometimes these lists are incomplete. If you were from Brighton and visited the City of Boston website, the parks page wouldn’t mention the wonderful Artesani Park, which the state owns. Everyone needs to update and share their lists.
2. Develop smartphone-ready maps and information
Someone on their phone in a park should be able to easily get recommendations for what other parks they might enjoy, especially parks that aren’t far away. There could be a list of trips through parks by themes, such as playground equipment, art, events, or history.
3. Create physical maps and wayfinding signs in parks
Many people wouldn’t think to use their phones, so there could be signs in parks showing the scope of the system, with highlights and paths starting at that neighborhood park. When someone first brings their two-year-old child to a neighborhood park, they should see something that launches them on years of adventures to other places in Boston.
4. Renovate to create unique destinations
The City of Boston does a lot of work improving parks and replacing equipment. But the mission shouldn’t be parity. O’Day Park in the South End is in need of an update. But if it gets renovated, the goal shouldn’t be to have equipment that’s just like what the kids have in Ringgold Park. The equipment should be entirely different so kids in Ringgold have a reason to walk down Shawmut Avenue and play with the kids there. When a park is changed or added, designers should look at the entire system and imagine incentives to get people to cross neighborhood lines.
5. Create neighborhood ‘park-hopping’ events
Organizations could establish days where families could go to six wonderful, but little-known parks across different neighborhoods. It wouldn’t have to be limited to playgrounds. For example, there are dozens of little-used chessboards in parks. Why not have a tournament across the city where kids played rounds in different places throughout the day?
In a city that’s all too often segregated — racially, ethnically, economically, and more — persuading families to try out parks in other neighborhoods all around Boston could bring us all together.Ed Lyons is a computer programmer. See more of his parks photos on Instagram @edfactor.