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Newton examines maintenance needs of the city’s parks and recreation areas

The update process for the 2020-2027 Newton Open Space and Recreation Plan kicked off on Feb. 6 with a community information-gathering meeting held at City Hall.

Newton’s current Open Space and Recreation Plan spans from 2014 to 2020, and the Conservation Commission is working with a team of three consultants from the Conway School Graduate Program in Sustainable Landscape Design to create the new version, with the final plan expected by May 31.

The plan covers all areas of recreational use and open space in Newton, and sets goals and priorities for improvements, new municipal acquisitions, and areas of focus.

“We are going to be looking very broadly at all of the green open spaces, recreational open spaces, active recreation, passive recreation and pure natural habitat, and putting those things all together with the interest of recreation, transportation, connectivity, quality of life and quality of ecology,” said Jennifer Steel, the senior environmental planner for the city of Newton, at the meeting. “It's a big task to weave all of these things together.”

The Conway team asked attendees to identify individually and in groups what areas of Newton’s open space work well for them already, and which areas could use improvement.

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“When we go into a project, we have set goals already. So now we’re working to really hone in on those goals but make them more specific to what the city really needs right now,” said Samantha Peikes, one of the three members of the Conway team. “We’re not from here, so getting to know Newton and its history, for us, is really important,”

After gathering perspectives from attendees, the Conway consultants narrowed priorities down into six categories: connectivity, accessibility, biodiversity, maintenance of athletic fields, trail maintenance, and green space expansion. They then asked attendees to bring up ideas for solutions.

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“We’re really hoping that with this update, it’s a document the residents can use as an inventory of open space when they want to find a new place to go,” said Claire Rundelli, assistant environmental planner for the City of Newton. “We also want it to be usable for the city as the keystone in between the Conservation Office and the Parks and Rec department, that really provides a comprehensive list of priorities for open space in general.”

Representatives from various environmental and recreation advocate groups in Newton attended the meeting. In the group discussions, they brought up problems they saw in the individual green spaces they frequent.

“One of my concerns is that we really aren’t invested in sports in general as a city,” said Justin Traxler, president of Newton Girls’ Soccer. He and other residents invested in youth sports expressed frustration that some athletic areas, such as Albemarle Field, are not kept up and can provide safety risks.

Other attendees were concerned about the resilience of existing green space in the city. Chris Hepburn, president of the Friends of Nahanton Park organization and vice president of the Newton Conservators, pushed for conservation protections to be put on parks with the goal of preventing them from being used for parking lots or buildings in the future.

“All of these groups are concerned about not being heard, or at least not being paid attention to,” said Hepburn. “We moved here because there was nice open space, and it’s changing too fast. I think as Newton becomes increasingly urbanized, the parks are going to become even more important.”

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Steel said she felt the meeting was successful in offering a look into the issues Newton residents wanted to see addressed in the new OSRP.

“I thought we got a really broad perspective,” Steel said. “I thought the diversity of interests were very well aired, and that people were really respectful of one another’s interests and accommodating of a very demanding schedule.”

Cedar Pruitt, a Newtonville resident who attended the meeting, said she was concerned some of the issues meeting attendees brought up were not addressed as fully as they should have been.

“I thought there were some clear themes emerging, but I didn’t see those themes on their list of six finals,” Pruitt said, in reference to the list of six major concerns generated by the Conway team. “That was a very confusing experience.”

The list of six major concerns was created by aggregating from a list of 23 problems residents at the meeting said they would like to see addressed. Pruitt said she was concerned specific issues were lost by combining the 23 problems into six themes. A way to address this, she said, would be to create “working groups that are made up entirely of residents,” such as an athletic field advisory group or a trails advisory group.

For the city, available funding will play a large part in what gets done.

“[The biggest challenge] is the money, it’s the budget,” Steel said. “These needs and interests all come with a price tag, and the budget is not expanding to the degree that is reflected in all these very legitimate requests.”

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The next step in the process is a second public meeting, expected on March 4. Between now and then, residents have the opportunity to share their perspective through an online Google form listed on the Open Space heading of the Conservation Commission webpage, which asks them to explain how they use open space in Newton.

Pruitt said it is important to get public opinion on matters like the creation of a new OSRP because of how important open and recreational spaces are to Newton residents.

“I think the parks are our daily lives, whether we realize it or not,” Pruitt said. “We all benefit from our parks.”

Julia Maruca and Kaitlyn Riggio can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.