The city has laid out an ambitious vision for Roxbury’s Malcolm X Park as part of a $9 million renovation currently underway: building an outdoor amphitheater, carving pathways that are more accessible to wheelchairs, and creating a new athletic turf field.
But some of the construction details have many neighbors seething. The plan involves chopping down 29 mature trees, which angry neighbors say is an insult to a neighborhood that badly needs tree cover, especially as climate change intensifies urban heat islands. And they say Mayor Michelle Wu, who has made climate resilience and environmental justice a top priority, should know better.
“The community didn’t ask for this,” said local historian Derrick Evans, 55, of Roxbury. “The community thought they were going to improve this, [not] lose what we already have.”
The Wu administration is defending the project. The Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, said the planned developments are a result of weighing all the community’s needs, despite what some opponents have alleged.
“The city’s not ramming this [project] down your throat,” White-Hammond said. “What we’re trying to do is balance the use of a lot of different people.”
White-Hammond said that the improvements, including the removal of trees, are part of the city’s continuous efforts to make sure all Boston parks have a maximum slope level between 5 and 8 percent — the legal requirement for ADA compliance. She also noted that while removing trees, the department will plant more trees than it removes, including about a dozen different species.
Environmentalists, however, note it will take a long time, perhaps decades, for new trees to absorb the same amount of carbon and provide the same amount of shade as mature trees.
“The Parks Department and the City of Boston are committed to universal accessibility, period,” White-Hammond said. “And that’s not going to change.”
Malcolm X Park is a busy 15.3-acre park that hosts family gatherings, community events, and countless softball, soccer, and basketball tournaments.
In 2020, talks began to even out the hilly area to comply with ADA guidelines, as well as renovate the existing basketball and tennis courts. The project, originally more modest in scale, is now a $9 million project, including a $2 million donation from Robert Kraft that will help pay for the new turf field. A city spokesperson said city officials reached out to Kraft after residents expressed interest in having a “state-of-the-art” field in their own neighborhood. Spokespeople for the New England Patriots did not respond to requests for comment on the donation.
The plan announced earlier this year called for the removal of 54 legacy trees that either were diseased or that impeded planned improvements. After considerable pushback, the city changed its plan, saying it would remove just 29 trees and plant scores of new ones; then it paused developments for three months to further weigh community concerns.
During a May 2022 hearing, the Committee on Environmental Justice, Resiliency & Parks heard from residents and committed to convening a group of six to eight residents with varying interests to continue discussions about the project, but pressed the need to not stall improvements any longer.
Earlier this month, some watched with dismay as stripping of the park’s trees continued. Those residents say the trees are vital to the neighborhood, which is covered with asphalt and concrete and swelters in the warmer months. Many parts of Roxbury are considered heat islands, where dense urban development absorbs and radiates heat significantly more than green spaces.
In a city report last year, local officials noted that temperatures in leafier neighborhoods were often significantly lower than in more densely populated areas. For example, on one summer day in 2019, city officials found afternoon temperatures in Chinatown and Lower Roxbury exceeded 105 degrees, about 10 degrees more than in Franklin Park and West Roxbury. There was a similar disparity at night.
Critics of the project say the city can and should make the steep park accessible to everyone. But, increasing accessibility, they say, doesn’t have to encroach on the neighborhood’s limited tree cover and ecological diversity.
“They’re cutting through the trees, not [planning] around them,” said Mela Bush-Miles, a Roxbury resident and environmental justice activist. “They don’t even have respect for our natural elements.”
This isn’t the first time residents in Roxbury have protested plans to remove trees from their neighborhood. In 2020, local residents protested a city road project that would have felled a quarter of the mature oaks, lindens, and maples that line Melnea Cass Boulevard. After residents accused city officials of environmental racism, the city nixed its plan.
Nina LaNegra, a longtime Roxbury resident and organizer who opposes the project, pointed to a variety of factors that plagued the community feedback process. Three mayors have overseen the plan over its lifespan, and the district had no representation on the city council during the eight months that then-Councilor Kim Janey served as acting mayor, she said.
The pandemic exacerbated health, economic, and internet access inequities that made it difficult for some residents to participate in community discussions over the past two years, she said. And she said community members weren’t properly informed of the tree removal process until workers marked certain trees with orange spray paint this spring.
“Their [community engagement] process was so awful, so heinous,” LaNegra said. “They openly admitted how bad it was.”
The turf field has been another bone of contention.
At first, the project did not call for an athletic turf field. But White-Hammond said some users of the current grass field believe “it’s disrespectful to not give Roxbury the same resources that Charlestown, Dorchester, and West Roxbury already have.” And some advocates say local athletes would benefit from an athletic turf field, which dries faster than regular grass fields after heavy downpours.
Developers have now torn up the grass field, including two softball diamonds, to make way for a multi-use field with one softball diamond in one corner.
But some residents are worried about the potential ill health effects of artificial turf, which has caused concern across the country. Although artificial turf has replaced grass on many playing fields because it’s easier to maintain, it can contain benzene, cadmium, and other known carcinogens, including toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
Bush-Miles, who lives across from the park, said she’s worried the turf could aggravate her son’s chronic asthma and create health problems for her young grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“This is why I care,” Bush-Miles said.
Turf can also intensify summer heat; the evaporation of water vapor from grass is cooling, but synthetic turf radiates heat. One study by researchers at Brigham Young University found that the surface temperature of artificial synthetic turf could be as much as 80 degrees hotter than natural grass.
White-Hammond said the residents have not shared studies or information showing that the specific artificial turf used for the upcoming field is harmful.
By pausing the project, White-Hammond said the city has lost nearly $500,000 in fees to contractors. She said she’s focused on saving the project’s remaining funding and ensuring that recreational activities can resume as soon as possible so everyone can benefit from the space.
“I cannot pause this any longer,” White-Hammond said. “I’m doing my best to make sure that basketball season next year can still happen.”
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon. David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.