Tuesday, January 15, 2019

We have a new website!

Please come see us on www.greenopensomerville.org - we promise it will be much more exciting.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Somerville Times piece on respecting our urban trees

Somerville’s urban forest is under attack. Take a walk near the commuter rail line, by the High School, along Cedar Street, on lower Beacon Street, or in Union Square. You will find barren, sun-baked streets and sidewalks where most of the trees have been removed to make way for construction. Stop and listen while you walk. Do you hear the unexpected and beautiful sounds of nature, or the silence of a recently flattened habitat? Breathe the air, is it fresh?
It takes a generation for a tree to reach maturity. Saplings must survive 20-to-30 years before they are large enough to provide significant shade and other vital ecosystem services. During that time, they are vulnerable to the harsh urban environment. Walk along Somerville or Highland and you will see the rows of young trees planted just a few years ago, succumbing to lack of water, little to no maintenance, and poor soil conditions.
When we destroy trees, their local ecosystem comes to a crashing halt. The plants and animals that coexisted and relied on those trees for survival must adapt immediately, if they survive at all. Birds are the most obvious animals impacted by the removal of a tree. Butterflies, bees, flowers, bats, fruit trees, and other plants and animals all feel the impact. We already hear anecdotes of increased rat sightings and even groundhogs as a result of deforestation. Is this the environmental change we want?
Our current construction boom is welcome. Somerville needs housing stock, business opportunities, and local economic growth. But all too often, trees are treated merely as an obstacle; they are clear-cut because simple removal is always the lowest-cost option.
This practice of deforestation is not sustainable. We need balance, and soon. Here we describe the problem facing Somerville and propose a series of simple, clear actions to ensure that our home is a beautiful, vibrant, healthy Tree City in more than just name.
A Data Driven Approach
Some of our construction projects replace the trees that they remove. This is good, but a simplistic tree-for-tree swap is inadequate. The website http://treebenefits.com includes a calculator that shows the difference in CO2 sequestration, storm water uptake, cooling, and other tangible benefits between trees of various sizes and species. A 10” diameter red maple (measured at chest height) provides more than double the benefit of five 2” red maples. It takes years for saplings to match the benefits of a single mature tree, assuming that they survive at all.
The Beacon Street clear cut removed over 70 trees, totaling more than 600 inches of diameter. Project plans, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that these will be replaced by 200 2-inch saplings. Every year these mature trees captured thousands of gallons of stormwater runoff in flood-prone Ward 2, sequestered tons of CO2, and lowered heating and cooling costs by thousands of dollars. It will be many years before the saplings can match the trees that were destroyed.The losses on the Cedar Street and Somerville Avenue projects are similar. This is a city-wide phenomenon.
Other current projects simply raze acres of trees without replacement: the Green Line extension, MBTA work along the Red Line tracks, and the new High School. We were unable to find even one project that planned to replace the biomass of trees that it removed.
City efforts in urban forestry have been academic and ineffective. There is no systematic record-keeping of tree removals; we do not know how many trees have been cut down in Somerville, by year or by project, despite multiple orders by the Board of Aldermen. Nearly a year ago Somerville passed an ordinance recreating the Urban Forestry Committee. It remains unstaffed and unadvertised. The last city budget that provided funds for tree planting was in 2013. The Department of Public Works tree-care line item has been underspent by 50% each of the last three years.
We cannot expect to retain and grow a healthy urban ecosystem when we don’t know what we have, or what we have to lose, and when we don’t even bother to spend the money allocated to care for our trees.
A Smart Tree City
For all of this, we are realists. Sometimes a tree is directly atop a hundred-year-old wooden sewer, or in the path of a planned new road. Omelets require broken eggs, and urban growth requires chainsaws. Still, it feels as though many trees are being removed because it’s simpler to clear cut than to design new construction to work around existing trees.
Somerville’s mature trees are pretty miraculous. They have survived in the most urban of areas, with bad air, little-to-no water beyond precipitation, and barely enough soil – which is often contaminated and lacking in nutrients. Instead of honoring these remarkable organisms, we cut them down and tell ourselves it’s okay because we’ll plant new ones in their place.
The city of Somerville is superlative in so many ways – hip, progressive, diverse, welcoming, supportive of local businesses. It’s also the least green city in the Commonwealth, one of the hottest in Greater Boston, and the second most densely populated city of 75,000 or more in the country. We need every tree we can get.
It is remarkable, and questionable, that we are still listed as a “Tree City USA” by the Arbor Day Foundation. We should live up to that designation and treat our trees with the respect they deserve.
Taking Action
We ask the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen to work together to make these changes so that we can preserve and grow Somerville’s Urban Forest.
  • Staff and seat the Urban Forestry Committee without further delay.
  • Do the work of tree care rather than re-allocating funds to other purposes.
  • Allocate funds, every year, for new plantings and maintenance.
  • Keep accurate records of tree removals and plantings.
  • Set a minimum goal of net-neutral biomass for each ward, year over year.
  • Require that construction plans include cost estimates and options to preserve mature trees.
  • Plant native species only.
  • Explore legal options to protect significant trees on private property.
Chris Dwan and Renée Scott
Somerville’s Friends of the Urban Forest (somfuf@gmail.com)
Green & Open Somerville (greenopensomerville@gmail.com)

Link to online article: https://www.thesomervilletimes.com/archives/85808

Thursday, September 14, 2017


Green & Open Somerville and Union Square Neighbors (USN) sent two letters today calling on city leaders and Union Square master developer, US2, to make good on commitments to design, develop, and build new parks in the Union Square area.

The first letter calls upon US2 to more fully engage the community and allow public discourse on the location for a 27,000 square foot (0.6 acre) park which is required to be built under the new Union Square zoning. During US2’s open house on September 5th, only one location was shown to the general public as a serious option for the park, and the location has serious drawbacks that need consideration. The success of this park will be determined by it being used. If the community is not part of the process to decide the location and design, there is a significant chance it will not succeed.

The second letter asks the mayor and Board of Aldermen to develop a plan to acquire, design, and develop a park on Charlestown Street—consistent with recommendations of the Union Square Neighborhood Plan. The site is currently owned by the MBTA and is slated for temporary use as storage yard during construction of the Green Line extension.

Copies of the letters are available below.

September 13, 2017 

Greg Karczewski
 Square Station Associates (“US2”) 31 Union Square
 MA 02143 

Dear Greg, 

As part of the Union Square redevelopment, Somerville’s Zoning Ordinance requires that the master developer, US2, build a “Neighborhood Park” equal to at least 27,000 square feet (0.6 acre) in size. As you know, the community fought hard throughout the Neighborhood Plan and zoning processes to ensure there would be high quality, usable green and open space in the form of a moderately-sized park for all to enjoy. 

The final version of the Union Square Neighborhood Plan, which was adopted by the Planning Board, contemplated that the “Neighborhood Park” be located on a parcel of land (referred to as “D4”) adjacent to Webster Avenue between Newton Street and Concord Avenue—currently the site of multiple auto garages and a community garden. While the community and US2 agrees that the present community garden should remain on that parcel, there has been widespread concern that the rest of the site is not an optimal location for a new park. The location is adjacent to busy Webster Avenue and will be impacted by auto exhaust and noise; it is not centrally located; and, it is only two blocks from a much-improved, and much larger Lincoln Park, which is currently undergoing renovation. 

Due to the limitations of the D4 parcel, two other locations have been under serious consideration for the new Neighborhood Park: Merriam Street/Public Safety Building (D1) Parcel and Citizens Bank (D7) Parcel. 

We took a walking tour of these sites and were dismayed that, during US2’s open house on September 5th at the Public Safety Building, only D1 was shown as a serious option. Based on the open house, most people in the community would not know that D7 is even an option. 

We are writing to express our desire that US2 show both D1 and D7 as legitimate options, with equivalent design descriptions and drawings, and allow for public discourse and engagement on this decision. The success of this park will be determined by it being used. If the community is not part of the process to decide the location and design, there is a significant chance it will not succeed. There are good reasons for both the D1 and D7 locations and the community deserves to weigh in on this. 

During the walkaround last month, members of Union Square Neighbors and Green & Open Somerville visited both the D1 and D7 locations, looked at shadow studies, and discussed the pros and cons of each site. We believe D7 is a better location for the following reasons: 

1. Centrally located to neighborhood business and uses: This area is the heart of Union Square, the place where people walk through to go to cafes and small shops. The portion of the park that fronts onto Union Square is contemplated as an expanded plaza space in future streetscape designs, providing additional buffer from traffic and noise. 

2. Provides pedestrian connectivity: The location could connect some of the existing public spaces in the square, from the Union Square Plaza (home to the farmers’ market and festivals throughout the year) and Stone Place Park to the Walnut Street playground, for both pedestrians and bikes. 

3. Adjacent to low-income seniors and people with disabilities: Properzi Manor, an 11-story public housing tower, abuts this location and has 110 units of low-income housing for seniors and people with disabilities, many of whom have mobility impairments and cannot make the climb to Prospect Hill Park or other green spaces several blocks away. The design of a park on Citizens Bank/D7 could be integrated into the landscaping and/or parking area of Properzi Manor to optimize park access for residents. The side of Properzi Manor itself could be the site of a large vertical mural that faces the new park and bookends the commercial district. 

4. Adjacent to planned family housing: A large mixed-use building that is geared toward families is contemplated for the lot across Warren Ave where Goodyear is currently located. Up to 50 percent of the units on the Goodyear site may be affordable units according to the “off-site” rules in the new zoning. As a result, the Citizens Bank site would provide for a variety of mixed-income, intergenerational uses in a central location. 

5. South-facing Exposure: The site has wide southern exposure, ensuring a sunny park throughout the year. 

Locating the Neighborhood Park on the D1 site, as displayed in US2’s Open House, has drawbacks: 

1. Entrance to park between two busy streets: This location is between two of Union Square’s busiest streets, putting park users at close proximity to car exhaust and noise upon entry and exit. 

2. Shadow: The park would be located behind a 5-story parking garage and a taller commercial building—having the effect of putting the park in shadow for much of the late afternoon and evening, particularly during winter months. The shadows may not affect day-time users, such as office employees eating their lunch, but it would affect the quality of the space for local residents, particularly in the afternoons and evenings, when families and children return from work and school. This issue is addressed extensively in the zoning ordinance. Civic spaces must be sited and oriented to maximize their inherent exposure to the sun.[1] In its discretion to approve or deny a Special Permit authorizing a civic space without an ideal exposure to the sun, the Planning Board must find that is the “only available option” to provide the Neighborhood Park and that neighboring buildings of the directly abutting lots do not cast shadows that adversely limit ground level access to sunlight. 

3. Location: This area is somewhat “off the beaten path,” so the biggest risk of all is that we place our precious green space that we fought so hard for on a spot that does not get used, or is only used by commercial office employees. While pedestrian desire lines may change over time, it is not necessarily a “sure bet.” Previous iterations of planning documents showed this location as an opportunity for residential townhomes, which could be good housing stock to create homeownership opportunities in a neighborhood that is approximately 80% rental apartments. We also note that the Neighborhood Plan calls for the creation of a large park with playing fields on nearby Charlestown Street near the future MBTA Green Line Station and many residences on Allen, Linden, and Merriam Streets. 

Citizen’s Bank (D7) will offer residents, workers, and passersby a place to meet, take a break, eat lunch, and play. It will be a compliment to the busy Union Square Plaza —offering an alternative civic space to relax that is quieter and more green—yet only steps away from the hustle and bustle than we also enjoy. We think this oasis in the vibrant heart of our square cannot help but succeed. 

However, our desire for the park to be located on D7 is not as strong as our belief that this must be a well-publicized community discussion. If you seek out the residents and engage them in this process, you will also get community buy-in. That is something we can all get behind, no matter the location. 


 Buchanan, Chairperson 
On behalf of Union Square Neighbors 

Renée Scott, Co-Founder 
On behalf of Green and Open Somerville 

 Joseph Curtatone Somerville Board of Aldermen Somerville Planning Board 
[1] See page §6.7.9.B.2 Union Square Overlay District, Somerville Zoning Ordinance, available at: http://www.somervillema.gov/sites/default/files/2017-07%20Zoning-Union%20Sq%20FINAL%20 6.9.17.pdf 

September​ ​13,​ ​2017

Mayor​ ​Curtatone
City​ ​of​ ​Somerville
93​ ​Highland​ ​Ave. Somerville,​ ​MA​ ​02143

Dear​ ​Mayor​ ​Curtatone​ ​and​ ​Board​ ​of​ ​Aldermen,

In​ ​the​ ​Union​ ​Square​ ​Neighborhood​ ​Plan,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​recommended​ ​that​ ​the​ ​site​ ​at​ ​35​ ​Charlestown​ ​Street​ ​be​ ​acquired to​ ​“create​ ​a​ ​community​ ​park.​ ​.​ ​.​ ​large​ ​enough​ ​for​ ​a​ ​variety​ ​of​ ​playing​ ​fields.”​ ​While​ ​the​ ​site​ ​is​ ​currently​ ​owned by​ ​the​ ​MBTA​ ​for​ ​use​ ​as​ ​a​ ​storage​ ​yard​ ​during​ ​Green​ ​Line​ ​extension​ ​construction,​ ​the​ ​Neighborhood​ ​Plan​ ​sets out​ ​a​ ​plan​ ​to​ ​purchase​ ​this​ ​site​ ​from​ ​the​ ​MBTA.​ ​​We​ ​are​ ​writing​ ​to​ ​request​ ​that​ ​the​ ​City​ ​of​ ​Somerville develop​ ​a​ ​plan​ ​for​ ​the​ ​acquisition,​ ​design,​ ​and​ ​construction​ ​of​ ​a​ ​park​ ​on​ ​the​ ​Charlestown​ ​Street.

Union​ ​Square​ ​needs​ ​the​ ​Charlestown​ ​Street​ ​park​ ​space,​ ​and​ ​now​ ​is​ ​the​ ​time​ ​to​ ​make​ ​it​ ​a​ ​reality.​ ​This​ ​park would:
● Provide​ ​much​ ​needed​ ​playing​ ​fields​ ​for​ ​use​ ​by​ ​Somerville​ ​residents​ ​and​ ​youth​ ​sports
● Provide​ ​public​ ​green​ ​space​ ​to​ ​an​ ​area​ ​of​ ​Somerville​ ​that​ ​is​ ​desperately​ ​short​ ​on​ ​parks
● Bring​ ​over​ ​an​ ​acre​ ​of​ ​land​ ​back​ ​into​ ​public​ ​ownership
● Make​ ​for​ ​a​ ​welcoming​ ​entry​ ​point​ ​to​ ​Union​ ​Square​ ​as​ ​one​ ​arrives​ ​via​ ​the​ ​Green​ ​Line
● Further​ ​SomerVision’s​ ​goal​ ​of​ ​adding​ ​125​ ​acres​ ​of​ ​open​ ​space​ ​to​ ​Somerville.

In​ ​the​ ​Neighborhood​ ​Plan,​ ​the​ ​acquisition​ ​of​ ​35​ ​Charlestown​ ​Street​ ​is​ ​planned​ ​for​ ​with​ ​funds​ ​from​ ​the​ ​City, Community​ ​Preservation​ ​Act​ ​fund,​ ​municipal​ ​bonds,​ ​and​ ​grants.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​scheduled​ ​to​ ​happen​ ​between​ ​2016​ ​and 2021.

We​ ​request​ ​that​ ​the​ ​City​ ​begin​ ​aggressively​ ​planning​ ​for​ ​this​ ​park.​ ​Whether​ ​this​ ​means​ ​talking​ ​to​ ​US2, negotiating​ ​for​ ​a​ ​fair​ ​price​ ​from​ ​the​ ​MBTA,​ ​applying​ ​for​ ​grants,​ ​etc.,​ ​it​ ​needs​ ​to​ ​start​ ​now.​ ​We​ ​cannot​ ​let​ ​this great​ ​idea​ ​remain​ ​a​ ​distant​ ​future​ ​possibility​ ​that​ ​moves​ ​further​ ​from​ ​our​ ​grasp.​ ​Great​ ​parks​ ​come​ ​from​ ​great planning.


Renée​ ​Scott,​ ​Co-founder
On​ ​behalf​ ​of​ ​Green​ ​&​ ​Open​ ​Somerville 

Rob​ ​Buchanan,​ ​Chairperson
On​ ​behalf​ ​of​ ​Union​ ​Square​ ​Neighbors

Somerville​ ​Planning​ ​Board
Greg​ ​Karczewski,​ ​Union​ ​Square​ ​Station​ ​Associates

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why Artificial Turf Does Not Make Sense in Somerville

Somerville needs more green space. We have the least amount of open space of any city in New England. We do not even measure what percentage of that open space is green, natural space, but considering what we count as open space and how little of that is covered in plant life, and from looking at aerial maps and seeing mostly pavement, it’s not hard to conclude that we have desperately little green space.

Problem 1: We need to define green space and open space independently so we can have separate requirements for each. Civilizations define what is important to them; Somerville has yet to delineate green space separately from open space. Both green and open space are important parts of a healthy community, but they fill different needs. Based on an extensive body of peer-reviewed studies, city dwellers need proximity to “natural” or “green” settings to maintain their mental and physical well-being; students learn better when they have access to natural outdoor space; air quality and environmental health is improved. Designating paved alleyways, artificial turf fields, grass fields, foam-rubber covered playgrounds, paved plazas, grassy parks, and thickly wooded areas all in the same category is confusing and harmful.

Problem 2:  The National Recreation and Park Association recommends a minimum of 6.25 acres of open space per 1,000 people in an urban area; Somerville has 2.1 acres per 1,000 people, which includes paved school yards and cemeteries. We have one third of the minimum recommendation for an urban area, and little to no extra space which to transition into additional open or green space. Somerville is overhauling its zoning code; as the most densely packed community in New England, we need to go above and beyond common practices on open space requirements, yet, if Union Square’s Zoning Plan is any indication, we will have less than half of the amount we need to meet Somervision’s goal for Union Square (34% open space) and will include sidewalks as part of the 15% open space. We will regret this decision for generations.

Problem 3: Despite the acknowledgment by City officials that Somerville does not have enough green space, and despite Somervision’s goal to increase our open space by 125 acres, the current version of the Fields Master Plan adds six new artificial turf playing fields in Somerville. Four are planned to go onto currently grass fields (Conway Park, Draw 7, and Dilboy Auxiliary A and B) and two to go onto currently paved schoolyards (Healey and Winter Hill). This does not include the artificial turf field in the designs for the rebuilt High School. These six are in addition to the three artificial turf fields we already have at Dilboy, East Somerville Community School, and Capuano.

If this decision was just about usage then artificial turf would make sense, but it’s not. There are environmental and financial concerns to factor in, as well. The field plan only mentions usage data though, and this skews the conversation. We need to have all information so we can seriously weigh the options. How much will these six (or more) fields cost to install, maintain, and replace when they wear out? How does that compare to grass? What is the environmental implication of laying plastic on our fields? What does it do to water run-off, air quality, and ambient temperature? How does it affect human health? How does it impact habitats for birds, bees, and other pollinators? Where does the old artificial turf go when we replace it? What chemicals are used to clean the plastic? What chemicals are used in conventional grass maintenance? How does organic grass maintenance compare to conventional in terms of cost, durability, and environmental and human health? These should not just be the questions of a few concerned residents; these are vitally important to everyone and we must demand answers to these questions from our City officials.

Problem 4: Artificial turf is not green space, despite its color. It is plastic carpet made to resemble grass blades. To soften the surface for safer play, an infill is put in between the blades. Crumb rubber, which is crumbled tires, is the most common infill because it is cheap. According to FieldTurf, a leading artificial turf company, approximately 20,000 tires go into one field. It was even touted as an environmentally-friendly option because it keeps tires out of landfills! If these tires were on your car and you wanted to get rid of them, they would be treated as hazardous waste. The EPA is now studying whether crumb rubber is too dangerous to human health to use as infill. There are other infills, with varying costs, health concerns, and replacement times, but no matter the material, this is not a natural space once artificial turf has been laid down. Therefore, putting environmental and health concerns aside for a moment, it doesn’t make sense for the City with the least amount of open space in New England, and by extension incredibly little of that green, to cover four of our grass fields with plastic. And, think of the lost opportunity to add real green space at the Healey and Winter Hill schoolyards and at the High School.

Problem 5: We are blaming the poor quality of our fields on the fact that they are grass, rather than focusing on the real reason they are a mess: lack of proper maintenance. Any grass expert you talk to agrees that there is a basic level of care to keep a grass field alive, including watering, aeration, and reseeding. Our fields do not have the luxury of any of this on a regular basis. Yet, when the grass wears away and holes are worn into the field, instead of looking to improve the care the fields receive, we are told instead that the only answer is artificial turf. We are missing a critical step: before saying grass won’t work, let’s actually try it in a serious way. Professional grass experts from far and near believe that the usage we are asking of our fields is doable on grass with the proper maintenance. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to try this healthier, less expensive option that untold professional athletes have publicly expressed a preference for? There is a company in Marblehead, MA that maintains Marblehead city grass fields with similar usage requirements to Somerville by implementing organic maintenance. They feel strongly that organically-maintained grass is actually more durable than conventionally-maintained, is less expensive, and is significantly healthier for humans and the environment. Why jump directly to the most expensive and most harmful option? This does not make fiscal or environmental sense.

Problem 6: We are thinking only in the short term. We are trying to maximize organized sports’ playing time for now, at the expense of environmental health and the diversity of use on our fields for the long term. If we keep taking away green space at the rate we are planning to, our grandchildren won’t know what a grass field looks like. Organized youth sports, including high school athletics, get priority use of the fields. The more plastic fields, the more they can be scheduled for organized sports, the less time remains for community use. The general public, who also has a right to these fields, would have more use for grass. No one wants to sunbathe or picnic or play catch on 150F degree plastic carpet (actually, food and drinks other than water are banned on artificial turf anyway so forget the picnics). So, even if it’s available, it’s less likely to be used for non-organized sports uses if it is artificial turf. Because we live in an urban area where backyards are small, if they exist at all, and many that do exist are paved over, our public parks and fields need to do double duty: in addition to providing organized athletic space, they must also serve as surrogate backyards, places where people can congregate, relax, and recreate. There are too many restrictions on artificial turf fields to make them functional as anything other than organized athletic space.

Problem 7: We like things bright and shiny. Foam rubber playgrounds and community path borders and artificial turf playing fields may look like fun Dr. Seuss landscapes, but they are adding petroleum-based materials onto our fragile environment and they are not necessary. Colorful? Yes. The only option? No. Just because this is the trend in playgrounds and playing fields does not mean it’s right. Since when does Somerville follow just because it’s popular?

For a city that prides itself on taking the lead in so many areas - the plastic bag ban, incentivizing solar electricity and rainwater collection, being a sanctuary city, proudly displaying the Black Lives Matter banner, encouraging exercise through Shape Up Somerville, strongly supporting our local businesses, striving to be carbon neutral by 2050 - we are failing our natural environment, and by extension, failing ourselves. Plastic carpet on our playing fields will increase use, but it also increases our carbon footprint and the heat island effect, decreases habitat and places for our residents to experience nature in our highly-impermeable and paved city, and is a permanent step in the wrong direction for a City that strives to be a great place to live, work, play, and raise a family.

The planet is resilient and we are used to it recovering, bouncing back, surviving the clear-cutting, poisoning, burning, and otherwise destructive activities human beings have blindly thrown at it. But Earth’s reserves are drying up. We see this in more severe storms, hotter weather, extreme droughts in some places and unprecedented flooding in others. On a local level, we deal with a decrepit sewer system that cannot handle the excess water from a rainstorm. We need more permeable surfaces that can absorb the stormwater into the ground, not fewer. We need to increase cool surfaces, not remove them. Our current debate over grass vs. artificial turf and natural playground vs. foam rubber or even native trees vs. non-natives may seem like just a drop in the bucket: how can one field or one tree really make a difference in the grand scheme of things when there is so much wrong with the world? But can you imagine if everyone felt and acted this way? We are holding onto a fragile thread, to keep our planet livable for generations to come. We must do everything in our power to improve the health of our environment. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and grandchildren, to the other animals and plants we share space with, and to the rock we call home, hurtling through space, that has sustained life for millennia. We don’t want to be the ones who made the final, critical error.