As local officials and advocates pursue the goal of restoring the Malden River for greater public use, a new initiative seeks to ensure that nearby residents can take part.
The Tri-City Community Action Program recently hired an environmental justice organizer to lead an outreach effort aimed at engaging low-income, immigrant, and minority populations from neighborhoods close to the river in the effort to make it a more positive presence in their lives.
Jonathon Feinberg, who started on the job last month, has begun meeting with organizations that work with the targeted populations in the three river communities: Everett, Malden, and Medford. His hiring was funded with a $25,000 grant from The Boston Foundation, and a $5,000 grant from Constellation Energy.
“The point is to see what the community wants its relationship with the river to be and to ensure they have a voice in the decision-making process,” said Feinberg, who in May earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts University.
Feinberg will work closely with the Friends of the Malden River, a coalition that includes Tri-CAP, a Malden-based antipoverty agency; the Mystic River Watershed Association; the Cambridge Health Alliance; and students and faculty from Tufts University, according to Barry Ingber, Tri-CAP’s director of energy and environmental programs.
Tri-CAP previously employed Nick Cohen as an environmental justice coordinator focused on the Malden River for about two years until the grant that funded the job expired in 2012. But Ingber said Cohen’s work was mostly aimed at raising public awareness about the river and its potential value as a recreational asset.
“What we are trying to do now is build a self-sustaining community group around the social justice aspects of cleaning up the Malden River to make sure it becomes a benefit to the community and not a liability,” Ingber said.
“Low-income people often get stuck with all sorts of pollution and environmental hazards, and especially low-income minority people,” Ingber said. The hope is to have the future group “design a plan of how they would like their neighborhood to look, how they would like the resources near their home to be used.”
The arrival of the Boston and Maine Railroad in the mid-1800s led to heavy industries settling along the banks of the 2.3-mile Malden River, which flows into the Mystic. The factories included makers of rubber boots and bullets, tanneries, chemical manufacturers, metal refineries, and textile makers. The legacy of those years is the poor water quality of the river and the contamination that remains in its sediment, said Patrick Herron, water quality monitoring director for the Mystic River Watershed Association.
“The Malden River is a damaged and neglected river,” Herron said. “It’s lost a lot of its natural value and certainly there is a disconnection with the local population. These rivers have an opportunity to be a resource to use. So these efforts to reconnect people to the river can only benefit the decision-making process and make the river more of an amenity for local residents.”
The three cities — Everett, Malden, and Medford — began the revitalization of the area when construction of River’s Edge — a 200-acre mixed-use development — began in 2008.
To date, an office building and a 222-unit apartment building — where 15 percent of the units are affordable — have been constructed, along with a waterfront park that includes a Tufts University boathouse. Another residential building with about 280 units, plus 15,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, is planned, according to Deborah Burke, executive director of the Malden Redevelopment Authority.
Also newly constructed is the Wellington Greenway, a 1.3-mile bike and walking path along the Malden and Mystic rivers that was built and partially funded by Preotle, Lane & Associates, the master developer of River’s Edge.
Feinberg said he is excited at the chance to broaden public involvement in the revitalization effort.
“I’ve been wanting to work more directly around environmental justice issues,” said Feinberg, who also is working as a part-time researcher for the New Lynn Coalition, a group that seeks a greater role for unions and community groups in economic development.
For the Malden River initiative, Feinberg said he hopes to have a diverse core group in place by this fall, and to then convene a visioning session to “find out how people relate to the river as it is, how they would like to relate to the river, and what their concerns are.” From that session, an action plan will be developed.
“Environmental justice is not just about the cleanliness of the river, it’s about what happens once the river is clean,” Feinberg said.John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.