Posts by Author: Sandra Larson

Outside Boston, Park Offers Multisensory Experience for All

Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail

The new Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail in Massachusetts exemplifies not only innovative accessible design, but the potential of effective private-public collaboration to nurture an idea to fruition.

Nearly 10 years in the making, the park, 8 miles from downtown Boston, offers a peaceful wooded area for people of all abilities and ages to stroll (or roll) along a wide and level path, get close to the Charles River on wood platforms, and relax or play in the “sensory garden” filled with creations by local artist and craftsman Mitch Ryerson.

For blind or visually impaired visitors from the nearby Perkins School for the Blind and beyond, the quarter-mile Braille Trail provides a guide wire with shape-coded wooden beads alerting users to features and information kiosks. Plaques in Braille and English explain area history and wildlife. A signaled street crossing and new sidewalks create a safe and welcoming gateway to the park.

For years, this narrow stretch of state-owned riverfront was neglected and hazardous, with eroded banks and a deteriorating asphalt path. Thick invasive vegetation rendered the path and the river barely visible from Charles River Road. There was no obvious access from the street.

“People were just going down on their own with machetes and hacking away vegetation to go fishing,” recalls Chris Hayward, Watertown’s conservation agent, historic preservation agent and tree warden. “The asphalt paths were beat up, the benches had been vandalized, and there was no money to replace them.”

Enter the Solomon Foundation, a family foundation with a mission to support the preservation and improvement of Greater Boston’s public parks and greenways.

The foundation kickstarted the riverfront project back in 2007 by funding the entire planning and design process and tapping local firm Sasaki Associates to provide pro bono early stage design work.

Herb Nolan, Solomon’s deputy director, says that a willingness to test bold ideas is where private foundations can play a key role in catalyzing public projects.

“We can afford to try something and find out it doesn’t work. It’s harder for people in government to do that and have people feel they’re wasting taxpayer dollars,” Nolan says. “It’s key to come up with rudimentary cost estimates, reach out to the public and abutters and interest groups, find out if there’s opposition. We can poke the bee’s nest and get stung.”

When design, cost estimates and community awareness are already in place, it becomes easier for policymakers to act.

In this case, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation was interested, but funds were scarce. The onset of the Great Recession didn’t help, and the project was “left for dead two times over,” Nolan says, before a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant came through to seal the deal, eight years after the idea was first conceived.

In the end, besides federal and state funds, money for the $1.5 million project came from the town of Watertown, the Perkins School and the Watertown Commission on Disabilities.

The Solomon Foundation also supported a part-time director for the Friends of the Watertown Riverfront group, which advocated for the park through the years. And late in the project, the foundation pulled Ryerson into the mix to provide what Nolan calls “the ‘x factor’—the bit of magic every project should have.”

At the Braille Trail’s sensory garden on a recent fall day, Travis Mazerall, a landscape architect at Sasaki, pointed out details that make for an accessible and multisensory experience.

“We tried to choose fragrant plants,” he noted. “Magnolia smells really sweet in the spring. Spicebush, when you crush the leaves, has a fragrant smell.” In addition, Ryerson’s sleekly crafted wooden boats are smooth to the touch and fun to climb on; a bench doubles as a marimba; a table-size chunk of stone has rough sides but a smooth-as-glass depression that catches rainwater.

Besides magic, into all projects a little resistance must come. Some residents objected to a stoplight that might slow parkway traffic flow. The final plan was a small compromise: The signal was installed, but remains flashing yellow for cars until pedestrians press the button to cross.

Kim Charlson, director of the Perkins School library and president of the American Council of the Blind, was an adviser on the park project. A blind person herself, Charlson took inspiration from the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s accessible trails projects and from a blind-accessible trail in Cape Town, South Africa, that she had experienced. One of her recommendations was the Braille Trail kiosks’ “roof top” shape, with the English on the front and the Braille down the back side.

“People ask, ‘Why put the Braille on the back?’” Charlson says, “but think of your hand going up the slope and down over the other side; it’s an easier way for your hand to read it without bending back at the wrist, which is uncomfortable. So that design is very ergonomic.”

As another layer of partnership, Perkins School has an agreement with the DCR to handle park upkeep and maintenance, marshaling volunteers to clean up the trail.

The new park has been a thrill for Perkins students, who range in age from 4 to 22. As much as park designers had to consider the needs of elderly and frail walkers and people using wheelchairs, for some, the park means rare freedom to speed up.

“The kids like to hold onto the guide wire and run,” Charlson says. “Blind kids don’t get many opportunities to run.”


Silo-Busting Data Analytics Help Mass. Cities Tackle Vacant Properties

(Photo by Nick Allen)

Cities large and small grapple with neglected properties that can give rise to public safety and health risks, push property values down and drain city tax coffers. Whether stemming from Rust Belt deindustrialization or the more recent foreclosure crisis, the problem is entrenched and widespread enough to spur advice from HUD and even creative responses like vacant home tours and art installations that highlight the human stories behind deteriorated facades. The annual Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference, held last month in Baltimore, draws some 1,000 attendees from diverse disciplines and communities to seek and share solutions.

No city wants blight to proliferate, yet municipal governments struggle to identify and resolve vacant properties, much less prevent them. Even when a city does have a problem property list, there may be no easy way to prioritize the most urgent cases. And when separate city departments operate in silos, holding data in unshared spreadsheets (or paper records!), the early indicators that portend vacancy and blight can remain under the radar.

The Innovation Field Lab at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation wants to fix this.

Led by Jorrit de Jong, a lecturer in public policy and expert on public sector innovation, and Somerville, Massachusetts, Mayor Michael Curtatone, the Field Lab’s graduate student teams are working with five Massachusetts cities to implement new systems that foster data-sharing and collaboration and help prioritize each city’s greatest areas of risk.

“We’re helping the left hand understand what the right is doing,” says de Jong. His team’s data analytics tool, dubbed CityNexus, creates a shared platform by which department data sets can be cross-referenced and visualized to score and map problem properties.

Curtatone, who is also an Innovations in American Government Fellow at the Ash Center, is no stranger to using data analytics to improve services and collaboration in his own city. With the Field Lab, he relishes the chance to introduce technology solutions to other municipalities.

“Enabling collaboration and creativity forges a team approach,” he says. “We put data and analytics in everyone’s hands and that empowers everyone to ask why, and to question assumptions.”

Liz Murphy, director of housing and development for the city of Fitchburg, says her city of 40,000 residents has been struggling with problem properties for many years, particularly since the recession and foreclosure crisis.

Before partnering with Field Lab in 2015, Fitchburg department heads had formed a problem property task force. A city ordinance defined problem properties as those experiencing in a single year four or more instances of certain types of code violations and police or fire calls.

But even with these efforts, data remained decentralized.

“We were not very well organized,” Murphy says. “Our information was not aggregated. Police data was with the police department, fire calls with the fire department, code information in the health and building departments.” When data was shared, it was in “manual ways” such as emails.

“When the task force met,” she adds, “we would go through a list, but there was no prioritizing. It was complaint-driven. We reviewed them all. There was no systematization.”

Field Lab graduate students worked with Murphy to create a shared Google Docs system first, which then evolved into the more sophisticated CityNexus, introduced by a second cohort of students in summer 2016.

While the CityNexus concept was developed by de Jong and his students, the software tool was built by Sean Alaback, an Ash Center Summer Fellow and course coach. He says part of the tool’s strength is that it can clean up data set variations so they can be merged across departments. Properties can be tagged with keywords, and users can specify priorities such as sanitary violation tickets, 911 calls, tax assessment data, or unusually low or high water bills that may flag an unoccupied or overcrowded property. While not as robust as the ArcGIS mapping platform some city planners may use, CityNexus is easier for non-techies to adopt quickly.

“The long-term thinking is CityNexus collects this data, and you could export it to GIS if you wanted to analyze it more deeply,” Alaback says.

Alaback also says that while the pilot cities haven’t added others layers of data such as health and social services yet, the tool is built to be adaptable, so those options are possible.

De Jong envisions the tool helping not only to deal with visible blight, but to prevent buildings — and the households occupying them — from falling off the radar and through the system’s cracks.

“We’re not determining how a city should respond,” de Jong says. “It’s up to the city to say what they care about most.” For example, cities with a lot of families living in poverty might start tracking frequent moves, homelessness and unsafe or unhealthy living conditions, all of which could help schools and social service systems intervene earlier.

“[A property] is not just the bricks and mortar. People live there, or used to live there,” says de Jong. “Abandonment is a result of a process. Someone was laid off, couldn’t pay the mortgage anymore, or a bad landlord used the property for less than good purposes. It’s not just a physical risk — it’s a social risk to not intervene. Rather than reacting to a problem property, we think it’s more helpful to intervene early, to act before it becomes a problem.”

This article is one in a 10-part series about reclaiming vacant properties underwritten by the Center for Community Progress. Read more here.


Risk-Taking Architecture for the Playground Set

From the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibition in Boston (Courtesy of BSA Space/Photo by Paige McWhorter)

The Land, an “adventure playground” in Wrexham, North Wales, is freeform, junk-strewn and rife with risk. Lacking designated play structures and anything remotely primary-colored, The Land instead presents children with possibilities in the form of old tires, fishing nets, tools and fire pits, allowing them to explore, build and even destroy in whatever way strikes their fancy.

The unusual site is one of 40 pioneering play spaces highlighted in the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibition in Boston. Curated by Design Museum Foundation, the show opened June 8 at BSA Space, a design exhibition center and home of the Boston Society of Architects/AIA and the BSA Foundation.

Boston is a fitting site for the launch of this traveling exhibition, as the hometown of Joseph Lee, father of the playground movement whose life of play advocacy spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The show, which will move on to Portland, San Francisco and Chicago, highlights some innovative Boston play spaces, including a play sculpture designed for this show and installed temporarily at City Hall Plaza.

For Design Museum Foundation Executive Director Sam Aquillano, the grittiness of The Land recaptures something of the independence, with its risks, that he experienced growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“I grew up playing in the woods, playing with hatchets and lighting fires,” he says. “I know the focus on play and being free in my childhood influenced my creativity and risk-taking.”

Part of the reason to explore playscapes now, Aquillano says, is that a growing body of research links lack of play to problems such as increased mental disorders, low self-esteem, low confidence and risk aversion. At the same time, surveys of top CEOs reveal that the qualities they want to see in their future workers include creativity, risk-taking and overcoming adversity.

“So the more play — and the more challenging play — the better,” he says. “Swing sets are great, but we’re trying to show opportunities for unstructured play, where you build something.”

The featured playgrounds are displayed in large poster format with photographs and a description of each site’s history, unique elements and size. The scale ranges widely, from the compact 650-square-foot indoor “Infinity Climber” at Jersey City, New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center, to downtown Chicago’s “curvilinear, topographically dramatic” Maggie Daley Park, whose 27.7 acres would cover 20 football fields. Most are outdoors, with varying degrees of wildness from rustic nature parks to urban lots with colorful PlayCubes. The ever-evolving set of found objects at the 15-year-old St. Louis City Museum spans the inside and outside of a former shoe factory.

Emerging ideas noted in the exhibition include the use of pop-up play equipment, such as Imagination Playground’s blue foam blocks, and the infusion of whimsy into everyday city structures, as in Vancouver’s “Whoopdeedoo” bike path ramps.

Barriers to free play in recent years include an overabundance of screen time for typical U.S. children, reduced school recess time and safety concerns. The exhibition’s timeline shows how fears of head injuries and liability in the late 20th century sparked the adoption of the ubiquitous post-and-platform manufactured play structures seen across the U.S. today.

On the bright side, improved safety surface technologies are allowing 21st-century playground designers to break free of these guardrail-heavy structures. Curator Amanda Hawkins says that as she and the exhibition’s advisory committee began seeking out innovative and engaging play spaces, she uncovered a surprising wealth of examples internationally and in the U.S.

“And this is just a snapshot,” Hawkins says of the 40 sites featured. “We are seeing communities and designers really coming together, making an effort to design spaces that are more creative and better than what came out of the ’80s and ’90s.”

Hawkins notes as a promising sign that Boston’s nonprofit Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy recently hired a play coordinator charged with concocting engaging experiences for youngsters and grownups along the 1.5-mile string of parkways that emerged after the dismantling of an elevated highway.

“It doesn’t have to start with government,” she says. “The community can activate play, and maybe then the government will catch up.”

A number of the featured playgrounds were funded with a combination of private and government funds. Private funders and citizen advocates can be a factor in inspiring playground planning in the first place, and swaying the design toward something more innovative than a municipal government might think of on its own. In Cincinnati, a public-private partnership was a crucial factor in furthering a highly interactive playscape for Smale Riverfront Park, according to Kate Tooke, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates, the firm that designed the playground.

Sasaki is conducting an evaluation of the Smale playground’s use and maintenance to learn more about what works for playground visitors and what cities need to consider in terms of maintenance planning, Tooke says.

Incorporating vegetation or highly interactive features like sand or like Smale’s “water-play map” will require additional maintenance attention, Tooke says, but if properly planned for, the payoff is rich.

“The water feature is tremendously popular,” she says. “In the post-occupancy evaluation we heard children saying things like, ‘I’m an engineer!’ There are so few opportunities on traditional playgrounds to actually manipulate the environment and shape something new.”

“Extraordinary Playscapes” runs at BSA Space through September 5 and will include a series of related events over the summer. The exhibition then travels to Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Chicago through 2017.


Land Trust Network Launches in Boston

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s acclaimed land trust has created more than 225 units of permanently affordable housing in Boston, as well as gardens, playgrounds, urban farms and a greenhouse. (Photo by Cheryl Senter)

Excitement and optimism were palpable at the public launch April 27 of the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, forged over the past year by a dozen local neighborhood groups looking to build strength in numbers by joining forces. A packed community room buzzed with energy as residents and advocates chatted about various scenarios for community-controlled land use.

“This launch is coming at a critical moment in Boston history,” said Harry Smith, director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s widely acclaimed land trust. “As one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the United States, we’re here to either claim the future of our neighborhoods … or risk losing them to gentrification and displacement.”

In the community land trust (CLT) model, a nonprofit acquires land with the intent of developing it for community benefit — often building affordable housing — rather than for pure profit. A buyer of an affordable home purchases the building, but not the land beneath, helping keep the price low. Resale price is restricted, ensuring affordability for subsequent buyers, while also allowing homeowners to accumulate some equity.

CLTs go beyond housing in Boston. Chinatown CLT aims to preserve cultural spaces. In Mattapan, community leaders are looking to keep and attract small businesses. The Urban Farming Institute hopes to create a community land trust for commercial farming space, where low-income residents could receive agriculture training. “I like to think we are returning to the roots of the land trust movement by exploring how to use it for commercial urban farms,” said UFI’s Barbara Knecht, who notes the first U.S. community land trust was formed to preserve land for African-American farmers in Georgia in 1969.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DNSI) was organized in 1984 by residents ready to reclaim a swath of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood ravaged by disinvestment, arson and illegal dumping. Granted eminent domain authority, DSNI acquired hundreds of vacant land parcels and established a 30-acre CLT. Three decades in, that land trust has created more than 225 units of permanently affordable housing, as well as gardens, playgrounds, urban farms and a greenhouse.

But today’s fledgling CLTs face starkly different land acquisition challenges. In a growing Boston with a red-hot real estate market, any usable property — from a vacant lot to a decrepit rowhouse — might be scooped up quickly by deeper-pocketed private developers.

A new report by Tufts University’s Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department, released the same day as the CLT Network launch, calls land trusts a “proven solution” and makes the case for their implementation in Boston. The report includes recommendations for the city to increase its support by prioritizing city-owned land for CLT stewardship; establishing a CLT loan fund or line of credit; providing technical assistance; and exploring the establishment of a citywide multi-CLT “central server” hub.

“The finding is, here is a model that works — but it’s at a small scale. So how do we scale that up?” said Penn Loh, the Tufts UEP professor who oversaw the report.

Melora Hiller, co-executive director of the national Grounded Solutions Network, an affordable housing advocacy group, said there is a benefit to cities in supporting CLTs, with their capacity to create and steward affordable housing. “It ensures that the city’s investment of public dollars for affordable housing goes further,” she said. She cited a Lincoln Institute of Land Policy analysis that describes options and model practices for beneficial city-CLT partnerships.

Some cities have embraced CLTs fully. But, Hiller said, there are reasons others may be cautious. Prioritizing public land disposition for CLTs is a good way to assist, but cities may be unwilling to favor CLTs above other affordable housing programs.

“Most governments treat the CLT the same way they would treat other nonprofit developers,” Hiller said. “They’re all applying for money.”

But city support is crucial, Loh emphasized. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a successful land trust without some municipal support,” he said. “Land trusts really do require partnership with government.”

At the April 27 launch event, a Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) representative spoke of CLT support largely in generalities. “The city is committed to working with the network,” he told the crowd. “We want to collaborate with the network to make it scalable and sustainable.”

Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration supports expanding Boston’s affordable housing supply. The ambitious housing plan issued in 2014, Walsh’s first year in office, indicated the city would “explore” CLTs as a means of mitigating gentrification effects. And more recently, the city’s Housing Innovation Lab, a Bloomberg-funded partnership between the DND and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, identified CLT technical assistance as one of four key pilot projects to begin this year.

Loh, a former community organizer, expressed measured optimism in light of the new Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network. “I’ve seen many cases where because of community leaders coming together, things work,” he said. “While the odds may be stacked against it, the land trust model is not hypothetical. The fact that people are organizing around it bodes well.”


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