Featured Greenway: Neponset River Trail

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Photo: Neponset River Watershed Association

On a slightly overcast Saturday in late July, Dorchester’s Neponset Park was abuzz with activity.  Children hovered by the splash pad and ice cream truck, while others checked out displays on local wildlife by the New England Aquarium and Mass Fisheries and Wildlife. Visitors paddled canoes and kayaks along the quiet stretch of river between the Granite Ave and Route 93 bridges and people on bikes wove through the park on the paved, multi-use Neponset River Trail. 

The day marked the first annual Neponset RiverFest, a celebration of a decades-long effort to reclaim the waterfront along Boston’s southern border. Twenty years earlier, neighbors would have had difficulty even accessing the river, let alone celebrating along its banks. 

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Photo: Neponset River Watershed Association

For decades, the land was occupied by a scrap metal yard and towing company. This was typical for much of the Neponset River, which was largely cut off from neighboring communities and bordered by parking lots and industrial uses.

Many of the changes since then, including the Neponset River Trail, can be traced back to the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN), an organization founded in 1977 to help protect Boston’s Urban Wilds. BNAN initially proposed the greenway as a way to link together natural spaces, while connecting inland neighborhoods to Boston Harbor. In 1994, BNAN convened the Neponset River Greenway Council. The all-volunteer community council and BNAN were instrumental in organizing annual programming that built public support for the greenway trail. The council also became an important point of contact between local communities and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which owned most of the land along the river. According to Valerie Burns, former director of BNAN, “Initially DCR was really seen as the adversary, or as an agency that didn’t want to serve the neighborhood. This created a place where the agency and community could talk.” This link would become critical to the success of the project over the following decades.

“Initially DCR was really seen as the enemy, or as an agency that didn’t want to serve the neighborhood. This created a place where the agency and community could talk.”

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By the early 2000s, the collaboration was paying off: Pope John Paul II Park opened in 2001, and in 2002, the first section of the Neponset River Trail opened, connecting the new park south towards Dorchester’s Lower Mills neighborhood. This was followed by a second trail segment along the Truman Parkway, running south from Milton towards Hyde Park and Fairmount.

For years these substantial paths remained disconnected, separated by more than a mile long gap between the Milton-Mattapan border. Although this link had originally been included in DCR’s Master Plan for the Neponset River Reservation, it had attracted strong resistance from some residents in Milton. “Milton Town Council listened to constituents and their constituents were really opposed. The only way it could move forward was to take the Milton area out of the master plan and declare it a special study area,” said Burns. “It came down to the differences between Mattapan and Milton.” Vivian Ortiz, a Mattapan resident and active volunteer with the Greenway Council, was more direct. “They didn’t say it outright, but it was like ‘we don’t want those people here.'"

“It came down to the differences between Mattapan and Milton.” Vivian Ortiz, a Mattapan resident and active member of the Greenway Council, was more direct. “They didn’t say it outright, but it was like ‘we don’t want those people here.’”

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Despite these objections, plans for the missing link slowly moved forward, and in 2015 construction began on the section connecting Mattapan Station to Central Ave. The momentum was due to a number of different factors, including more residents in Mattapan becoming involved in the planning process, and advocates like Bike Milton arguing in favor of the missing link within their community. Equally important was the success of the already-built sections of the greenway: “As it got up and running and became successful, real estate listings in Milton started advertising the greenway,” Burns noted.

The missing link finally opened to the public in May of 2017, and it has quickly become a popular destination for people from all over Boston and beyond. The new segment features two beautiful bridges: an elevated boardwalk over the MBTA tracks, and a suspension bridge over the river near Mattapan’s Ryan Playground. The trail has opened up new opportunities for residents in Mattapan, a community with a population that is 80% black and has historically had limited access to the river. According to Ortiz, “When the trail was first opened for public use, the users didn't reflect the ethnic diversity of the neighborhoods surrounding the river.  By now, that's starting to even out.” On this particular Saturday morning in July, the Mattapan section of the trail was filled with teenagers on bikes couples jogging, and babies in strollers, most of them people of color. Ironically, this may be related to the contentious planning process, which left the link with far more access points on the Mattapan side.

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The Neponset River Greenway is one of Boston’s largest and most important open space projects in decades. But its success will not be easy to replicate. According to Ortiz, “The Greenway Council is a group of mostly residents that have been meeting for decades. Essentially we are the neighborhood association for the Neponset River and having direct access to the DCR every month is what makes it a unique. ” Jessica Mink, a long-time Council member and bike activist added, “In setting up the Council, BNAN was very politically connected, and that helps a lot.” This kind of mediation between state agencies and local communities is especially important when organizations like DCR are understaffed and underfunded. “Unfortunately it falls to communities to approach the agency and express community needs. The agencies are really not staffed for it, and they’re just trying to empty the barrels and mow the grass,” Burns said.

“Unfortunately it falls to communities to approach the agency and express community needs. The agencies are really not staffed for it, and they’re just trying to empty the barrels and mow the grass."

Ultimately, the responsibility of planning and organizing projects like the Neponset River Trail has to fall to a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits, and community groups. While greenway projects are almost always community-driven, we can’t assume that all communities will have equal access to the planning process, or that different communities will see eye-to-eye. As a result, there is a need for organizations like BNAN and the Neponset River Greenway Council to actively reach out to communities, and connect them with policy-makers and agencies. It is this network of agencies, organizations, and individuals that will ultimately make a network of trails and greenways possible.