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OPINION

An opportunity to reimagine Boston’s open spaces

This moment of tabula rasa in parks and the city as a whole has suddenly and dramatically clarified something critical for moving forward.

The Boston Harborwalk on Fan Pier has been nearly empty amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Boston Harborwalk on Fan Pier has been nearly empty amid the coronavirus pandemic.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Today, Boston’s typically bustling streets and plazas are nearly deserted. But from the Harborwalk to the Back Bay, it’s clear individuals and families cherish parks and open spaces as escapes during a time of physical distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At a moment when our lives have been stripped to their barest essentials, we have seen what Boston collectively values most for its community. Health and safety are clearly the highest priorities, along with economic security. Our parks and open spaces are right behind. Familiar parks, paths, and plazas are a refuge, providing emotional, mental, and physical release. This moment of tabula rasa in parks and the city as a whole has suddenly and dramatically clarified something critical for moving forward: We have to stop thinking about parks as one-off, leftover spaces amid development.

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Given that, status quo practices for land-use planning need to be shifted. Instead of inserting small, isolated green spaces into new development as required by regulation while continuing to rely on some of the city’s most historic and heavily used parks to meet community needs, leaders need to prioritize creating the next new system of world-class contiguous paths, parks, and public spaces.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace and Charles Eliot’s Metropolitan Park System are examples of this bigger thinking that responded to public health and other critical issues in their day. Parkways are “parks with roads through them” as defined by the Historic Parkways Preservation Initiative under former secretary of environmental affairs Bob Durand. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s recent road closures are wonderful examples of how these public spaces can serve multiple functions. The green and blue spaces along Boston Harbor, such as Christopher Columbus Park, Constitution Beach, and Spectacle Island, offer some of the most contiguous and best options for running, walking, and biking, and with many of these spaces contained in the city’s Resilient Boston Harbor vision, they also offer some of the best opportunities for reimagining in the near term.

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While development processes are currently suspended, once they restart, the city should approach projects with fresh eyes, asking questions like:

▪ What if the many “pocket parks” created as the Seaport exploded with new development were instead a singular large open space or a series of connected, adequately sized parks?

▪ What if leaders advanced emerging concepts for Harborwalk 2.0, doubling — or more — the width of this hard-won community asset while raising it up and sometimes out, creating more usable open spaces along the waterfront and incorporating cutting-edge resilient design?

▪ Can the investment that has happened in booming neighborhoods be expanded to Moakley Park in South Boston, transforming playing fields that are active only at game time into multi-purpose spaces that can be used for a mix of passive and active recreational purposes, as well as protecting the residential neighborhoods and businesses from sea-level rise and storm surge?

Prioritizing, rethinking, and climate-proofing public open spaces are no longer just nice ideas. This need is as great a threat to our public health and economy as the current pandemic. It should be clear to all by now that these spaces make our city thrive and support our public health. Some steps we can take to make sure we don’t squander our newfound appreciation for our parks, plazas, and waterfront:

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▪ Inventory all options for creating and connecting meaningful open spaces, particularly in the densest parts of the city or those with limited parkland. Assure that planning and development reviews protect and improve these parcels.

▪ Evaluate the accessibility of public spaces with an equity lens, assuring that there are no real or perceived barriers to use.

▪ Identify new sources of public and private funding to invest in improving parks and public spaces.

▪ Explore opportunities for world-class resiliency planning and marry those efforts with creative thinking on how to create more opportunities for Bostonians to experience the outdoors and their harbor and to manage climate change.

We hope the extreme physical distancing measures we are taking today may not be necessary again in our lifetime. But we have proved without a doubt that we need to prepare with public open spaces that connect us all.

When we finally reopen for business after COVID-19, it will be a shame if it’s for business as usual. As we rethink pandemic preparedness, health care delivery, ‎workplace safety, and much more, we owe it to Boston’s millions of park visitors to make sure that we’re maximizing this unprecedented opportunity to reimagine the future of the parks, paths, and open spaces they cherish — and are aching to return to post-coronavirus.

Kathy Abbott is CEO of Boston Harbor Now.