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OPINION

Bringing Boston into the wild

Cities are restoring overdeveloped, human-engineered land to a more natural state.

The Muddy River Flood Risk Management and Environmental Restoration project getting ready for work near Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in the vicinity of Brookline Avenue and Riverway on Feb. 12.
The Muddy River Flood Risk Management and Environmental Restoration project getting ready for work near Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in the vicinity of Brookline Avenue and Riverway on Feb. 12.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Among the myriad lessons of the coronavirus pandemic is that connecting to nature is crucial for maintaining both physical and mental health. Having access to fresh air, open skies, and greenery can mean the difference between riding out the pandemic in relative safety or suffering from depression, anxiety, and worsening conditions such as obesity and diabetes — not to mention greater exposure to the virus itself. But how can nature be brought to the billions of people who live in cities?

The pandemic — combined with heightened concern for social equity and the climate crisis — has given new impetus to the idea of urban rewilding: restoring overdeveloped, human-engineered land to a more natural state. Definitions are not precise, and can cover everything from rain gardens on office rooftops to transforming former industrial sites into parks. Some cities are working to reintroduce bats, river otters, and foxes to an urban habitat. In Nottingham, England, plans are afoot to plow under an entire blighted shopping mall to make way for an untamed meadow, reconnecting the city to Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame.

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Closer to home, architects and engineers are working with state agencies and several conservation groups to restore the Muddy River, especially where it meets the Charles River at Charlesgate, near Kenmore Square. Originally part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system, much of the Muddy was paved over or forced into underground culverts in the 1960s to make way for roads, including Storrow Drive and the nearby Bowker Overpass. This human folly created a largely stagnant river, with trash, flood-control problems, toxic algae, and E. coli bacteria in the water. Last year’s report card from the Environmental Protection Agency gave the Muddy River a grade of D-.

The Muddy River, between Charlesgate East and West and between Beacon Street and Storrow Drive, got a needed cleanup, on November 19, 2018. Two weeks later, it was dirty again.
The Muddy River, between Charlesgate East and West and between Beacon Street and Storrow Drive, got a needed cleanup, on November 19, 2018. Two weeks later, it was dirty again.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Rewilding the Muddy involves “daylighting” or tearing out paved-over sections, exposing the river once more to light and air. This already has happened further upstream, and daylighting is being evaluated for the Charlesgate section as well. Plants and soils will be introduced to filter the polluted stormwater that runs off the roads, cleaning it of toxins and helping to prevent flooding. “Engineered systems fail more often than natural systems,” MIT professor and architect Marie Law Adams said in an interview. “We’re looking to soften the edges.” Her firm, Landing Studio, is a project consultant and specializes in creatively rethinking urban industrial sites.

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Restoring the Muddy River should offer social benefits, too: a proposed playground or dog park on reclaimed land would activate the site, connecting it to the Charles River Esplanade and improving safety, especially at night. And something else: Releasing the river from its cement prison will make the city’s water system more legible to the public. Part of why the environmental hazard of stormwater runoff isn’t better understood is that the evidence is literally buried.

The Muddy River project is also notable for crossing all sorts of municipal and public agency boundaries. These governance collisions can be a barrier to urban rewilding projects, especially when it comes to watersheds that flow through several towns. Coordinating the layers of bureaucracy can be a challenge, but the water, or course, cares little for the artificial borders imposed by people.

“Natural systems support healthier lives,” said Kaki Martin, president of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. The benefits of urban rewilding, she said in an interview, are symbiotic: “People need places to go that are green and calming, and the earth needs repair.”

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But Martin notes that the concept is not exactly new: In 1999 her firm at the time, Hargreaves Associates, created the 4.5-acre Condor Street Urban Wild in East Boston on a contaminated industrial site fronting the Chelsea Creek. It is part of the network of urban wilds maintained by the city, but instead of simply protecting an already wild pocket from encroaching development, the project un-did decades of neglect, capping a toxic brownfield and replacing it with a herbaceous meadow of wildflowers, seagrass, and songbirds.

A humpback whale was spotted feeding in Boston Harbor in 2018.
A humpback whale was spotted feeding in Boston Harbor in 2018. Boston Harbor Cruises

Rewilding cities is not some fantastic, futuristic project. We’ve already rewilded Boston Harbor — reducing environmental insults and allowing it to return to a more natural state. And then the harbor seals and striped bass returned. And it need not be on a grand scale: Individual citizens can replace chemically maintained lawns with native wildflowers that attract butterflies, or plant the sidewalk berms in front of their triple-deckers with hardy perennials. Every small act is a step closer to nature. So rip up your lawn. Heck, tear up your driveway. The health you save may be your own.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.