The East Boston Greenway is in many ways a success story for advocates of urban trails. The work of local advocacy groups like the Boston Natural Areas Network, Friends of the East Boston Greenway, and the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, Inc. (NOAH), has lead to the creation of a remarkably continuous corridor, connecting major open spaces in a neighborhood that has historically been fragmented by infrastructure like the MBTA Blue Line, Route 1A and Logan Airport.
Currently two miles long, the greenway follows the path of a former Conrail line from the East Boston Piers through residential neighborhoods and into the Bremen Street Community Park, which opened in 2007. The Greenway Extension, which was completed in 2016, follows the Blue Line tracks northwards past Logan Airport and Wood Island Marsh before terminating at Constitution Beach. The greenway creates opportunities for outdoor recreation, play, and mobility in a neighborhood with less than ideal amount of public space. Boston’s 2015 Open Space and Recreation Plan notes that East Boston has fewer acres of park per resident than the city as a whole, and that most of the nearby parks are at the edges of the neighborhood, and have been difficult to reach.
East Boston has fewer acres of park per resident than the city as a whole.
However, the greenway can too often feel like a tunnel through the neighborhood, a path between two places rather than a vibrant urban place itself. Much of the greenway is sunk below grade or fenced off from the adjacent neighborhood, with limited opportunities to get on or off the trail. In some cases, this reflects the physical realities of using former rail lines, which are designed to be closed off from their urban surroundings. In other cases, this reflects negotiations between greenway planners, local residents and a Public Agency with a prominent presence like Massport. “In every project there are tradeoffs; there’s never a perfect answer,” says Lisa Jacobson, an East Boston resident and mobility program officer for the Barr Foundation. “There’s always a camp of advocates calling for greater access and more connections in every greenway project, while another camp of local residents doesn’t want entrances onto their streets and backyards.”
"There’s always a camp of advocates calling for greater access and more connections in every greenway project, while another camp of local residents doesn’t want entrances onto their streets and backyards."
Even so, segments of the trail show how design decisions and the insertion of programming can help activate the greenway as a true public space. Bremen Street Park serves as a useful example: the addition of trees, lighting, and seating enhance the experience of the space, while the East Boston YMCA, Public Library, and community gardens all bring residents into contact with the greenway, making it a more lively, safe, and welcoming space. In the future, planners and designers should think more about what is adjacent to the greenway, such between the East Boston Piers and Bremen Street Community Park where the greenway runs adjacent to a number of parking lots. The city could consider redeveloping some of these spaces as parks, re-grading them to allow access to the sunken greenway. Even if these lots were re-developed for residential or commercial uses, planners could consider how new buildings could face onto and interact with the greenway to bring more eyes to a space that can feel unsafe because of it’s sheer geometry. Future planning that creates outdoor dining areas, apartment house playgrounds, or recreation facilities could all bring new users to the greenway, helping to make it an integral part of people’ daily lives who live, work and play in the neighborhoods.
Future planning that creates outdoor dining areas, apartment house playgrounds, or recreation facilities could all bring new users to the greenway, helping to make it an integral part of people’ daily lives who live, work and play in the neighborhoods.
Future projects and investment in the public realm near East Boston Greenway should also take into account the issue of neighborhood connectivity, thinking about how the greenway can connect not just parks and open spaces, but also the places where people live and work. There has been long-standing interest in extending the East Boston Greenway further east towards to Belle Isle Marsh and Winthrop, connecting All of East Boston’s major open spaces. Alternately, however, the greenway could extend northwards along Bennington Street towards Revere. At present, Bennington Street is quite wide, with four lanes of traffic, two lanes of parking, and a concrete median. Removing or narrowing traffic lanes could potentially create space for new tree plantings to soften the asphalt, a protected bike lane, or an enhanced sidewalk. This would connect the Orient Heights neighborhood to the southern half of East Boston, while also extending the greenway to Belle Isle Marsh and Revere Beach. With the expected redevelopment of Suffolk Downs, a greenway or complete street project would help offset some of the new car traffic in the area, and provide pedestrian and bicycle access to mobility options and places for recreation, as well as new jobs and homes.
With rapid changes in the area, both at the waterfront and at Suffolk Downs, activists and advocates should be looking for ways to harness this development to strengthen the public realm and build upon past successes.
“The other piece is always planning for the future,” says Jacobson, “the user base relates to what the greenway connects to, but you need to think ahead.” Here, the history of the Greenway provides lessons for the future. In part, the extension of the East Boston Greenway was made possible because the Boston Conservation Commission wouldn’t permit the creation of a new bus depot at Logan Airport unless Massport met with greenway advocates. While the city government was supportive of the project, it was the collaboration of neighborhood and city activist groups that made the Greenway happen. With rapid changes in the area, both at the waterfront and at Suffolk Downs, activists and advocates should be looking for ways to harness this development to strengthen the public realm and build upon past successes. This will mean looking for opportunities and building local support, but also coordinating with other communities, as well as regional organizations. Building these connections is a critical step towards creating a truly integrated network of greenways and trails across the Boston area.